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Theatres and galleries are not classrooms, so why do we treat them as if they were?

Should arts organizations try to fit into educational practices or embrace their own worth asks Anna Cutler of Tate.

By Anna Cutler (Director of learning at Tate)

11 November 2014 at 2.58pm | 5 Comments

What is actually being questioned when cultural institutions ponder whether they should or shouldn’t be aligning their educational practices to the national curriculum? Is this really a passionate debate concerning the benefits for every child? Or is it about organizations supplying what they think formal education is demanding of them?

But does the curriculum question muddy the more fundamental one: 'What is the purpose and responsibility that any cultural institution might hold in relation to arts learning and education more broadly?' It's a bigger question that I think the cultural sector doesn't ask enough or perhaps isn’t confident enough to answer without deferring to others.

I believe that arts learning explores how abstract ideas are made manifest through aesthetic qualities, it deliberately engages with emotions and generates meaning through complex human intellectual and social interactions. I can’t think of any other subject that does these three or four things in this way.

I do not think it is the role or the responsibility of cultural learning or institutions to replace or mimic schools’ curricular aspirations, since that is, after all, the specialism of schools and the expertise of teachers. Even if they wanted to, cultural organizations are just not set up to achieve this. Indeed the cultural sector has spent many years lobbying for the arts to be maintained in schools to give an inclusive education for all. A better question might be, 'What can learning in a cultural site with real "stuff" actually afford and why does it matter?'

I have repeatedly asked schools this question and I have yet to meet a teacher who has said that they come to any cultural institution or event to create the same conditions as their classroom. In fact, they are in search of different and more expansive experiences for their students. I suggest that it is the responsibility of cultural institutions to offer ‘more than’ and ‘different from’ what can be achieved in school, to provide experiences and learning opportunities that can only happen outside the classroom and that support what the teachers do by taking a journey beyond the letter of the curriculum.

I am consistently impressed at teachers’ commitment to their students’ learning; to extending their horizons, widening their experiences and encouraging new perspectives in the face of risk assessments, relentless testing and all the rest of it. I have many conversations with teachers about an education that supports children rather than sifting them. Learning with art is particularly powerful and purposeful because it actively navigates the uncertain, it relies on the subjective, and it demands the interpretive and invites imagination, flexibility of thinking and the capacity to assess and evaluate, make decisions and judgements as well as communicate in the social realm. Learning with art offers a ‘not only–but also’ scenario. It's the kind of complex learning that meets the needs of our complex and changing world.

Cultural institutions have the capacity to open up a wider landscape for learning; they can invite different ways of looking and thinking. Much art asks us to consider ‘what if?’ So, ‘what if’ we work a little harder to think beyond ‘what is’ in education? If we want to inspire students to learn in schools and cultural institutions then we need to keep asking the better question.

Anna Cutler is the director of learning at Tate.

This article forms part of a series asking why access to the arts and cultural learning are so important

By Anna Cutler (Director of learning at Tate)

11 November 2014 at 2.58pm

This article has been categorised Learning and tagged children, cultural learning, curriculum, engagement, learning and participation, ROH Bridge, Tate, young people

This article has 5 comments

  1. Emma Daintrey responded on 13 November 2014 at 11:19am Reply

    Wholeheartedly agree with the sentiments in this intelligent, articulate article. Should be read by educators and government.

  2. Thank you for writing this! Whether to align to curriculum is an ongoing discussion in our Museum, and we as a field need to better communicate the value of the unique work we do.

  3. Catherine Hughes responded on 1 December 2014 at 5:18pm Reply

    I agree with the sentiment that museums and other cultural institutions must avoid becoming formal learning experiences, which completely misses the point of how great they are as alternatives, but aligning with curriculum benchmarks doesn't mean museums are becoming schools. It's just showing how we can illuminate, in unique ways, key points teachers are trying to hit.

  4. Education is a very broad term. Most students whatever their age don't embrace what they are told to like (or what the curriculum feeds them). The curriculum should be the base (or standard) for all, however the love of music or performing arts can only occur by exposure to it...

    I'm still learning. Others would call me an adult. In my heart I know I'm not...

  5. Peter Martindale responded on 21 February 2015 at 6:02am Reply

    Current educational practice is dominated by a framework dedicated to achieving predictive outcomes. This is more useful in some areas than others. The joy of art is that seeks to achieve unpredictable outcomes. It offers the opportunity to explore the world through someone else's eyes and to see your own world differently. Young people should come to art unfettered by any adult expectations, except perhaps that one day this may be a part of your life too.

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