The Arts Are Basic

What do you think is meant by ‘doing the basics’?  

A debate rages around what constitutes essential knowledge and skills at every level of schooling – from early years to higher education. I want to propose that the arts sector has the ability to shift the debate by showing how there is no knowledge, skill or process more fundamentally basic to teaching & learning than the elements that form the performing and visual arts. They are the building blocks of making meaning: they transform ‘sensory input’ into language through gestures & movement, visuals, sounds and texts to express our experiences, feelings, values and beliefs. 

Beginning with the 3Rs

Kay Wood’s Education: The Basics (2011)  considers the contexts of  education as ‘schooling’, ‘acquisition of knowledge and skills’, ‘the process of learning’ and education’s ‘moral dimension’.   Wood’s target audience is the student teacher at university, preparing to enter the profession. She points out to them that unlike other subjects that may require work and effort to understand

…people tend to think they know what education is. It is a familiar topic: a word in daily use. It’s all around us… Politicians of all persuasions continually tell us how important education is for the economy. We are bombarded with messages from the media… Schools are failing, budgets have been slashed, children are not learning… On the bus, in the pub and at the hairdresser’s people are expressing opinions. We may not know much about nuclear physics, but we are all experts on education.

A similar certainty exists around what constitutes essential knowledge in the curriculum.

Most people, remembering their own schooldays would say that schools are teaching essential knowledge which represents a clear and objective way of looking at the world.  Knowledge is divided into subjects … subjects are said to represent the best selection of knowledge available. It is knowledge worth having, and is selected by experts for the benefit of students, even if the benefit is not obvious to students themselves. Some subjects are thought to be essential, even if there is disagreement about the relative importance of others. For example everyone needs to read, write and add up, therefore English and maths must be central to the primary school curriculum.

Arguably, then, it’s not hard to see how this kind of mindset repeatedly comes to chose literacy and numeracy as ‘the basics’ in education.

Contesting the basics

In reality, the history  of education shows that there have been frequent calls for a broader and more holistic approach to education. For instance, Montessori, Steiner and inquiry-based methods based on constructivist theories of learning, to name just a few ‘alternative’ educational models.

Indeed, the drawing up of  ’21st Century Skills’ as ‘the new basics’ by organisations as the National Foundation of Educational Research’s  FutureLab and Cambridge Assessment  show that the meaning of what constitute the basics are constantly  being revamped because it’s only longer

… enough to focus on basic literacy and numeracy … The new economy needs people who are innovative, flexible, creative and who have high levels of emotional and social intelligence. This requires a curriculum that allows these skills and abilities to develop… Employers consistently identify the kind of people they want in their workplaces. They want people who are literate and numerate and have information technology skills. They look for people who can build and maintain relationships, work productively in teams and communicate effectively. They look for problem-solvers, people who take responsibility and make decisions and are flexible, adaptable and willing to learn new skills.”

The new basics: changing curriculum for 21st century skills” (2007)

Since for many people, life in the 21st Century has become international, multicultural and inter-connected, new skills are needed to succeed in education and in the workplace. In this paper, conceptualisations of so-called 21st Century skills are collated and explored. The question of how the development of such skills in young people can best be supported is considered in depth.

Dr Irenka Suto, Principal Research Officer of Cambridge Assessment

However,  when assistant editor of the Telegraph, Tom Chivers,  argued for a more rational approach towards the 3Rs in Back to basics? It’s time to start basing education policy on evidence, not fads and dogma”  in June 2012, he faced a barrage of 300+ derogatory comments. Most interesting of all, what emerges from the comments  is NOT a coherent argument for the 3Rs but a list of disparaging complaints on how ‘the more things change, the more things stay the same’.

Rather than bring a sense of certainty,  then, debate around the 3Rs and ‘doing the basics’  acts a catch phrase in education for a variety of anxious disputes over its purpose and form.

The Arts Elements

As a writer of ‘curriculum frameworks’ for the arts since 1996, I’ve worked with other performing and visual arts specialists on naming the essential knowledge, skills and processes for an ‘arts learning area statement’. The term that became most valuable to describing arts content was ‘element’. In other words, the knowledge of art forms came from the aesthetic quality which it enhanced and developed. This is the original list of elements that I worked with between 1998 and 2006.


This list enabled us to view what the artist does in making work. But it also allowed us to analyse how making the arts might be similar or different to processes and skills  in other subjects, the obvious one being the relationship drama has with English and Literature.


And so a dialogue began for me in which I still find myself, attempting to understand the artistic elements and practices in relation to education and visa versa. DramaLearning arises, in fact, out of that dialogue which over the years I believe has only become more urgent.