Monday, July 27, 2009

Fostering Creative Minds

With literacy and numeracy given top priority in schools, and the Government's push for new national academic standards, are our kids having their creativity educated out of them? MICHELLE DUFF of the Manawatu Standard reports.

Little kids will draw anywhere they can.
A scrawl on the wallpaper, a dash on the table. A swirl of something in their mashed potato and gravy at dinner.
Forget pencils and crayons they will make something out of anything. Egg cartons, uncooked macaroni, leaves, shells, wool, iceblock sticks, playdough.
Give a kid materials and some spare time, and he or she will make you their version of a masterpiece.
"Children are born with a huge amount of creativity," says Geoff Lovegrove, principal of Feilding's Lytton Street primary school.
"A little kid can create anything out of anything.
"They are hugely creative when they are young, and somehow they lose that when they are about 16 as a process of their schooling, it's drilled out of them."
These concerns are being discussed by teachers throughout the country, as the Ministry of Education narrows its focus on literacy and numeracy in schools.
In May, the Government announced a new set of national standards, due to be finalised at the end of 2010.
These standards will measure academic achievement in reading, writing and mathematics, in every pupil aged 5 to 12.
Though the Government says these standards will be used to provide clearer indications of children's progress, teachers are less convinced. They fear data collected on pupils could be used to create "league tables", ranking schools on their performances.
And some, like Mr Lovegrove, say a New Zealand curriculum that already focuses almost "single-mindedly" on literacy and numeracy, is cheating kids out of a holistic education.
"That is the difficulty, that's what worries us," Mr Lovegrove says.
"For some years, primary schools have been told we must focus on literacy and numeracy which is quite right, the reading, writing and maths side of the curriculum is critical.
"But we know how important art is, especially for children.
"There are so many children whose achievement comes out through the arts if they are excelling at visual arts, drama or music, we can hit on that as something to celebrate and draw them out with, and then they will excel at other things as well."
At the International Conference of Principals in Singapore last week, Mr Lovegrove was concerned by speeches given by top primary school educators.
Principals from the United States and Britain spoke of their frustration at the pressure placed on their schools to achieve high results in standardised maths, reading and writing tests, he says.
"We don't want to go down a path that overseas schools have gone down, and realise there are so many kids who could be excelling in the arts, but they don't get the chance because of the fear of the national testing.
"Their whole school arts programmes are being shot to pieces or not funded because they're focusing single-mindedly on their test results, and that's sad."
And kids love art.
The New Zealand National Education Monitoring Project (NEMP), run by Otago University since 1995, shows visual art is ranked by Year 4 children as their second most popular subject.
At the same time, the survey recorded declining levels of art ability in both Year 4 and Year 8 students.
In the 2007 survey, art-making efforts of students at Year 4 received global ratings of fair, poor and very poor 75 per cent to 90 per cent of the time, rarely receiving marks of very good or excellent. Year 8 results were only slightly better.
It doesn't stack up, College Street Normal School principal Ross Kennedy says, and it's time that something was done.
"We need to be fostering the creativity of the kids far, far more than we have been in the past 20 or 30 years.
"We need kids who can think creatively and outside the square, especially to deal with issues coming up in the future, like sustainability and conservation.
"Unless we give kids the opportunity to really get involved in the areas they are passionate about, this isn't going to happen."
Most primary school teachers are "generalists" who do a good job at teaching everything, but might not actively encourage artistic talents, he says.
A recent Sunday Star Times report says trainee primary school teachers are receiving a decreasing amount of art training.
As a result, children might be missing out on creative and critical thinking skills, it says.
Massey University College of Education senior art lecturer Paul Hansen says the total hours spent teaching the arts including visual art, drama, music and dance has reduced over the years.
This is partly to do with the curriculum focus on literacy and numeracy, he says.
But it is also because, with the introduction of a new four-year degree, the course is moving from the traditional single-subject focus to a more interdisciplinary approach.
Today, teachers should be thinking of ways they can incorporate art into everything they do whether it be a science, maths, or writing topic, he says.
And art lessons should be worked into other units, to make connections with other subjects.
With so much media around kids in their everyday lives, schools have to be more innovative, Mr Hansen says.
"We've got to find ways of engaging them. It's not surprising kids can get turned off if they're not in an environment that doesn't stimulate them.
" `No sames,' that's my motto - colouring in photocopies is not art education.
"You need to do something the children can respond to and connect with in an individual way," Mr Hansen says.

Reprinted with permission from Michael Cummings Editor Manawatu Standard

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