An arts-rich education

From the Dean of Co-Curriculum

In her recent article ‘What do the Arts bring to Education’, Dr Jane Gooding-Brown, Visual Arts Coordinator at the Sydney Conservatorium High School, cites international research demonstrating that arts programmes teach a specific set of thinking skills that are rarely addressed elsewhere in the curriculum. These skills include visual-spatial abilities, reflection, self-criticism, and the willingness to experiment and learn from mistakes, all of which are vital to a wide range of career paths, but are largely ignored in standardised testing such as the Australian NAPLAN tests.

In a similar vein, a recent article published in The Age by Richard Gill, notable Australian Music Educator, Director of Victorian Opera, and composer of the music for our own school song Nil Sine Labore, warns us to “wake up, Australia, or we’ll have a nation of unimaginative robots”. Gill believes that schools across the country are cutting back on arts education to devote more time to literacy and numeracy. He states, “parents need to know that it is through participation in arts subjects that the mind, imagination, spirit and soul of a child are stimulated. Through this stimulation comes a bonus in all other areas of learning”. Carolyn Phillips, author of The 12 Benefits of Music Education, lends weight to this argument by writing “children of the arts learn to think creatively and to solve problems by imagining various solutions, rejecting outdated rules and assumptions. Questions about the arts do not have only one right answer”.

Gooding-Brown also agrees that too much emphasis on standardised testing such as NAPLAN does not stimulate students to explore clear connections between school and the world outside the classroom in the same way as participation in the arts. Sustained perseverance over a period of time is needed to creatively solve problems and work beyond frustration, and it is this ‘habit of mind’ that is a benefit of participating in arts activities. Gill supports this notion, arguing “music, when properly taught, requires an extraordinarily high level of listening and concentration from the student”. Phillips’ article also espouses the development of sustained focus with the view that music students learn the value of sustained effort in order to achieve excellence and the concrete rewards of hard work. In addition she cites studies clearly indicating that musical training physically develops the part of the brain that is involved with processing language. Further evidence suggests a link between music and spatial intelligence, that is, the ability to perceive the world accurately and to form mental pictures of things.

At Brisbane Girls Grammar School, we are fortunate to have not only a rich and diverse arts curriculum on offer, but a great depth in the additional arts offerings of our co-curricular programme. Participation in the instrumental and vocal music programme, or in drama and dance productions, enhances teamwork skills and discipline. In order for an ensemble to sound good, or for a play to be successful, all performers must work together towards a single goal – the performance. They must commit to attending rehearsals, learning their music or script, and practicing. In the process, these students learn craftsmanship as they study how these details are painstakingly put together. They learn, in a meaningful way, what constitutes good work as opposed to mediocre. When these standards are applied to their everyday production, students stretch their inner resources and demand a new level of excellence from their work.

Students who immerse themselves in visual arts activities have opportunities to discover their personal inner voice and take risks through the exploration of ideas, experimentation, and reflective self-evaluation. Elliot Eisner, Stanford University’s noted art education specialist, considers that for artists to succeed, they need to experience the qualitative relationships that emerge in their work and then make judgements about them. Eisner, cited in Gooding-Brown (2010), also believes that judgements such as the evaluation of one’s own work and that of peers ‘in the absence of rule’ are highly sophisticated intellectual endeavours.

Participation in the arts teaches students to conquer fear and to take risks. It promotes creativity and imaginative thinking, develops self-expression and self-esteem, and encourages individuality amongst students. With an increased focus in this country on standardised testing and a perceived possible limitation of arts access in the new Australian Curriculum, students at Girls Grammar are encouraged to embrace additional arts opportunities in the co-curricular programme. These activities range from participating in music offerings through the Instrumental and Choral Programme or the new Composer’s Club, or, for the keen actors, joining the Felgate Drama Club or auditioning for the Senior or Junior Drama Productions, or partaking in one of the many visual arts endeavours, including Art Walks, Art Workshops and Art Cafés.

Experimentation, risk-taking and development of self-expression have already been mentioned as some of the benefits of participation in arts activities. In an article about student engagement in the latest edition of the Independent Schools Queensland Briefings publication, Eyers, Cormack and Barratt (1992) support these concepts by writing that “academically, young people need to be able to think in ways that become progressively more abstract, critical and reflective as they work their way through school. They need to gain experience in decision-making and in accepting responsibility for these decisions; and to develop self-confidence through achieving success in significant events. They need skills that enable them to view the world critically, whilst having the confidence to experiment and make mistakes”. This view is also shared by Sydney University academic Robyn Ewing in a paper released by the Australia Council for Educational Research (2011). This paper highlights international research that shows students who are exposed to the arts achieve better academic results, enjoy school more, and have better self-esteem than students who do not have access to the arts.

Brisbane Girls Grammar School is committed to providing excellent learning opportunities in the arts, be it in the curriculum or the co-curriculum. Eisner (2002) states “the kinds of minds we develop are profoundly influenced by the opportunities to learn that the school provides” and goes on to say “artistry can be fostered by how we design the environments we inhabit”. We are fortunate to have outstanding facilities in the Creative Learning Centre to support our arts programmes and I am confident that through participation in arts activities, our students are developing the necessary thinking skills to equip them to respond creatively and imaginatively to the fast pace of change that we have become accustomed to in recent years. In the words of Professor Ewing (2011), “if we don’t empower kids to think creatively and to be imaginative and also to be seeing things from a range of different perspectives, which is what the arts do, we’re selling them short in a world in which actual knowledge is changing so rapidly”.

Mrs J Tudball


Call to embed Arts in all curriculum areas, (2011, January 12), Australian Council for Educational Research Media Release, retrieved 27 February from

Eisner, Elliot W. (2002) ‘What can education learn from the arts about the practice of education?’, The encyclopedia of informal education, retrieved 13 February 2011 from

Gill, R. (2011, February 9) Focus on national tests robs children of true learning, The Age, retrieved 11 February 2011 from

Gooding-Brown, J. (2010) What do the arts bring to education?, retrieved 11 February 2011 from

Harrison, D. (2011, January 13) ‘Call to boost teaching of arts’, The Age, retrieved 13 January from

Phillips, C. Twelve Benefits of Music Education, retrieved 11 February 2011 from

Student Engagement: What’s the answer for students who hate school?. (2011) Independent Schools Queensland Briefings, Volume 15, Issue 1.


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