Julia Wharton is a theatre director and an educator with 20 years under her belt working in theatre, dance and education. She’s also a drama teacher at Arundel School. Over the years, working in Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, South Africa, Guatamala, and here in Harare, she has been faced with many worried parents concerned that allowing their children to take theatre and other classes in the arts will take their attention away from the main game, which is getting a job after school. Julia says she has a ‘3D’ perspective on this issue. As a teen she feels her involvement in the arts empowered her in vital ways and she has never regretted doing a theatre degree in college, as she has always been able to find work that she loves. As a parent of a child who majored in theatre at university, she understands how tricky it is to balance concern for a child’s ability to be independent with the desire to see a child happy and motivated. And, as a teacher, she has seen countless young people transformed through arts education. Harare News chats to Julia to get to the bottom of why she feels that arts have a place in education as important as any of the more ‘serious’ subjects, if not more…
What do you mean by arts in education?
I believe that all students should have practical visual art, music and theatre classes in school. I also think that teachers of other subjects (language and literature, maths, history, science) should be encouraged to incorporate arts activities in their teaching strategies.
Isn’t arts in school a bit of a waste of time? Doesn’t it take attention away from the more serious ‘academic’ subjects?
You know it’s funny, if you look up the word ‘academic’ in the dictionary, two of the five definitions identify ‘academic’ as impractical or not directly useful. The arts in general, and theatre specifically, give students challenging, practical experiences that exercise and develop higher order thinking skills, like creative problem solving. These are in huge demand in the 21st century work place. ‘Ready to Innovate’, a US report on an extensive survey conducted among business leaders, found that 72% of these business leaders see creativity as of high importance when hiring. Furthermore, studies have shown that students who are engaged in the arts in school generally outperform non-arts students in other subjects, on standardised tests like the SAT, and have a more positive outlook on school. There is very strong evidence that arts education provides a boost to, not a distraction from, learning!!!
Aren’t arts classes for students who aren’t particularly smart? How will it prepare students for real life?
Students involved in my theatre classes have to read, research, analyze, interpret, envision, experiment, improvise, design, create, memorise, compare, remember (details AND big concepts), accept and apply criticism, observe, synthesize, devise, rework, integrate language and physicality, effectively understand and use different sensory symbols, collaborate…and more. What’s not smart about all that? Pushing my theatre students to pursue theatre activities after school is NOT my goal. My goal (and I can say with confidence that most theatre, art and music teachers share this perspective) is for my students to become balanced, disciplined people who have a strong sense of self. I lead my students towards being confident, effective oral communicators, creative problem solvers, positive and cooperative group members, highly focused and analytical participants, flexible workers who can lead AND follow, who can give attention to detail but also see the bigger picture, who are wise risk takers, empathetic citizens. All of these qualities have applications across the career spectrum.
The education system that we know has been in place for years, why are you trying to fix something that’s not broken?
Well, I think the question of whether or not it’s broken is up for debate. Are we actually preparing students for work in the 21st century? We have benefited from profound innovation and transformation in other areas of our lives. Think about how communication and transportation and health care and science have all changed over the last 100+ years. Education hasn’t kept up. Education has some new gadgets and new vocabulary and the research that’s been done about how human beings learn is very instructive. But fundamentally, we aren’t allowing education to evolve. We keep adding concepts and expectations on teachers without taking away the old worn out ones. We are so afraid of letting go of what’s been done in the past that there isn’t honest to goodness transformation.
Caption: An effective, balanced education ought to exercise right as well as left brain functions. Why handicap developing minds by challenging some thinking skills more thoroughly than others?