Improving education through wordplay

Dr Paulette Luff and Dr Geraldine Davis

People express themselves in all kinds of ways – through talk, laughter, scribbling, painting, drumming, singing… But our education system puts the greatest emphasis on the written word.

ARU academics are experimenting with giving young children the chance to express themselves in multiple ways to see how this may enhance their education.

A very British conundrum

Here is a very strange British conundrum: arts subjects have been in decline in our schools since the 2014 curriculum, yet creative subjects are so effective in developing our self reliance, wellbeing and many other things. And even if your viewpoint is purely financial this does not make sense, as the creative industries are by far the fastest growing sector of our economy. How will those industries flourish if we are not educating all our children in creative subjects, unless the arts are to become the preserve of only those who can afford extra-curricula activities?

Academics at our university have been actively using their imaginations to enhance the chances of music, drama, dance and visual arts being taught in a classroom near you. Dr Geraldine Davis and Dr Paulette Luff from our Department of Education are leading a five-year piece of research to champion these subjects.

Their viewpoint is original: they not only want to demonstrate the intrinsic value of arts subjects in their own right, but are also making the case that creative activities can significantly improve children’s writing. Given that high literacy rates are one of the two holy grails of our education system (along with numeracy) they may be onto a winner. “If we can show the arts improve writing we are hoping the arts will get more curriculum time”. “Headteachers want to join the project due to both their commitment to the arts, and pressures to show improvements in children’s writing,” says Paulette.

So what does this mean in practice?

What they have been doing is working in partnership with Royal Opera House Bridge (an arts education organisation funded by Arts Council England) to provide professional development for primary school teachers. Creative practitioners are supporting teachers to devise classroom activities that combine drama, art and music with literacy, and then measuring whether the children’s writing improves.

In a Year 4 classroom in Billericay a teacher encourages his class to create draw a visual landscape with a door in the middle of the landscape. The teacher asks the children to imagine what lies behind the door. The children first shift quietly in their seats, but soon there is a sea of hands as children call out “there’s a monster”,  “there’s a penguin”. They then avidly discuss and write down their own story about what is behind the door, completely drawn in by the visual image they have created ¬– the enthusiasm is palpable. “Teachers report that even the most reluctant learners became desperate to express their ideas,” explains Paulette.

Another primary classroom in another part of Essex, and a group of eight-year-olds stand in two lines facing each other, the length of the classroom, known as a ‘conscience alley’. The children on one side of the alley express a certain set of views, while those facing them express opposite opinions. The topic is evacuation of children in World War II: “Should children be sent to the countryside, or not?” One child walks down the alley hearing views from each side; by the time he or she reaches the end they have to have decided which side they agree with. Other lessons might involve children making music with their bodies to evoke a rainforest, or expressing themselves through dance.

“This exercise encourages debate and thinking in children who are stimulated by the spoken word to support writing on paper, while the door exercise taps into the visual orientation of some children to foster imaginative writing. Expressing themselves only through writing is limiting. Multi-modal experiences give children ideas for writing in quite different ways,” says Paulette.

Combining forms like this can allow “creativity to explode”, using art, music and drama as catalysts to boost children’s powers of expression. Geraldine explains another, unintended, benefit: “What we often find is that these sessions subvert teachers’ views about which children are the most able in the class, as the process gives different kinds of talents room to flourish.”

“Classrooms are gardens, not farms for mass monoculture. We need a variety of teaching approaches to nurture children’s learning,” says Paulette.

In its pilot year the project supported 18 primary school teachers in the Billericay Teaching Schools Alliance. Teachers received special training sessions and soon started to share experiences with each other, as well as resources such as images and recordings. The project won the 2015 BERA/BCF/Routledge Taylor-Francis Curriculum Journal Award for collaborative research which enabled the pilot project to continue for a further year. And now, thanks to a six-figure award from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation won by Royal Opera House Bridge, a larger three-year project is underway: it will reach 45 schools and use more art forms, including dance and film.

Everyone working on the project is convinced the activities increase two things, firstly the quality and technique of children’s writing, and secondly their confidence and pleasure in writing.

But there is a snag: how to provide concrete evidence of this. “You can’t really isolate the impact of the arts activities, as children should make progress anyway over the year without these activities,” explains Geraldine. “What’s more there are so many elements to the child’s educational experience it’s hard to separate out the impact of the creative activities.

The other problem is that you cannot have a control group as this is unethical. “If an initiative is expected to have benefits we can’t deny it to some children,” says Geraldine.

What they can do is to explore the nature and size of improvement in writing. “A specialist evaluator is analysing baseline pieces of writing from 250 children across abilities at the start of the year.  A close comparison of this with writing by these children as the year progresses will enable us to identify the nature and size of improvement in writing, as well as trends in writing development.”

One of the major, and unexpected, benefits of the project has been its positive impact on the teachers themselves. “There has not been much robust research into the value of the arts in education,” says Gerry. But what we are finding is that the arts are a really effective morale booster for teachers. One of the headteachers on the project has been particularly anxious about the numbers of teachers leaving the profession, and felt bringing back more arts might help stem this.

“There is no doubt that our project has helped some teachers fall in love with their profession again,” says Paulette. “You see the smiles on their faces when they talk about the project, and that has been a really lovely thing.”

Watch this space for the full evaluation in 2019.

Find out more

Learn more about research carried out by the Faculty of Health, Education, Medicine and Social Care