Volume 1 Issue 2
June 2012

Arts as Education Pedagogy?

At the table - Nazreen Osman, Senior Teacher of Drama in Tampines Primary School. Kenneth Kwok, Deputy Director of Arts Education in National Arts Council (NAC). T.Sasitharan, Director of Intercultural Theatre Institute (ITI; formerly known as Theatre Training and Research Programme, TTRP)

Time and Date
22 April 2012 (Sunday) 14:00-15:30

Drama Box Level 4 Rehearsal Space

Photography by Pantheon
Written by Teo Eng Hao


In 1993, the National Arts Council (NAC) launched the Arts Education Programme (AEP). Having been in place for 20 years, the cultural and educational landscape of Singapore has since come a long way. NAC has since launched other initiatives along with the AEP, working closely with the Ministry of Education (MOE), National Institute of Education (NIE), and other independent arts groups and artists, to deepen the integration of arts education into the mainstream education system. It is definitely a far cry from the days when arts was taught only as a stand-alone subject. However, Singapore's education system has often been criticised to be too narrow in scope, rigid, and puts little emphasis on creative thinking. Does this still hold true today? How has the implementation of Arts Education altered the landscape? Has Arts Education fulfilled what it set out to do?

In this issue, we made three key players of Arts Education – Nazreen, Kenneth and Sasi, sit down for a candid discussion, about their complementing and contrasting roles, and the challenges they face.

Dialogue (an excerpt)

(to Kenneth)

What does a "successful" Arts Education Programme look like to you?


When I think about Arts Education, I always think about two things – fostering engagement and enjoyment. We want students to get up on their feet, get their hands dirty - literally in some cases - and really live in the experience, learning through that, not just sit there as a passive member, absorbing. But the part that we must never forget is also the enjoyment. We want students to enjoy themselves in schools. We all agree that, if you want them to learn, they have to want to learn. We also want them to develop a life-long love for the arts, and that's not going to happen if they don't have a positive experience. I saw a drama programme at Lighthouse School, which is a school for children with visual and hearing impairment. You see the engagement as they are up on their feet; you see the enjoyment in the smiles on their faces. It's fantastic, especially when you also see them come together as a community – I'm helping you because you can't really see, you are helping me because I can't really hear. I thought this is the power of the arts: all these things that can't be measured in a test. There are also other aspects, for instance the cultural aspect that ITI focuses on, the arts as an opportunity to learn about different cultures, experiences and perspectives. That's important at any age.

(to Kenneth)

What are the challenges of implementing a suitable arts programme for the schools in general?


There are quite a few things. Sometimes it can be as simple as a very basic logistical issue. Schools may not realise that if you want to have a very active arts programme, you can't have it in a classroom because the space just isn't right for it. The students can't move around because of the tables and chairs. You have to move the tables and chairs, and that's time-consuming. If you talk about bigger things, the reality is that we are still at the phase where not all schools, school leaders, teachers believe in the transformative power of the arts. It's improving a lot, but there are still those who haven't quite come onboard yet, or they have other priorities. One of the struggles for schools is that they think everything is important. I sincerely believe that teachers want the best for their students and so they want their students to be physically healthy, to be strong in science and maths and languages, to do well in their studies and to have arts experiences. And that's a tall order for any teacher and school. How do you pack everything into that time? How do we find the time and space when everything is important?



Do you see this as one of the areas we can improve on – the collaborative aspect of teachers and artists out there when we are creating an arts education programme catering to schools? That's a question and an afterthought. Another comment that I have is about the time and duration. It's linked to the process of the arts. Teachers find it a challenge, and really a constraint to integrate the arts education programme with the current syllabus, and also at the same time to come up with a 'perfect' arts education programme which cater to the needs of the school. To me this is a struggle for teachers, and I'm just wondering if you share the same struggle?


I definitely think artist-school partnerships are important. NAC has the Artist-In-School Scheme and other initiatives where artists, arts groups go in and don't just run a one-off workshop or do an assembly show, -which is wonderful as exposure - but also conduct lessons as part of curriculum time. One way to grow conviction in the arts is for schools to have positive experiences partnering artists in a sustained way, and seeing how the programmes they are able to develop can cater to the needs of the specific school and student profile in interesting ways.


We need to get away from the idea that the experience of the arts is something extraordinary, and could only be delivered by experts. I say that with all due respect to artists. Artists are somehow separate from the teachers, principals in school, but they are also ordinary people. It's important to build a bridge of trust where we can bring an artist into the curriculum. In other words, it's not about forcing the teachers or the schools to find time for the artists, but getting schools to make space for the arts in curriculum time. We've had arts education for the longest time. When I was in school, we had arts education. We had periods set aside for visual arts, even for theatre, and for music. But you need to find the engagement in the arts today, which is much deeper and much more inclusive. For that there needs to be meetings between educators and artists to find the space.



It is important that we don't see the arts as something exclusive – music period, we do music, art period, we do art. We are now trying to work with a few schools on a pilot project, for example at Yishun Town Secondary School, an artist uses drama strategies to help teach Science concepts. That's something we are trying out and the response has been positive. It's interesting how the artists are working with the Science and Maths teachers. When you talk about the arts, it's not just the art form skills and practices, it's also the whole imaginative and questioning process and that can inform the way you teach, and think about teaching. Hopefully we can have more of such collaborations, and so it is not just arts education, but also the arts in education, or education as an art form, whichever way you want to look at it.


I think schools are becoming more open to these ideas. Basically the main objective of these projects is to bring the presence of an artist into the school. How does having an artist's presence in the school, working with the class affect the way people learn? How does it affect pedagogy? A few things we insisted on are sufficient amount of time; let's say three and a half hours, twice a week, with a full class of 40 students, and up to 3 artists working with them. That's the kind of ratio we are looking at. We don't specify what we are going to teach, the point is not to teach them how to be an actor, or teach them speech and drama, or teach them how to do a play. That has already been done in other parts of the curriculum. What we are trying to do is to give them the experience they need to know of performing arts. So in some schools, like in Raffles Girls' Primary School, the teacher is interested in exploring the different ways of reading a text. So we look at Charlotte's Web. It's not a matter of teaching them how to read Charlotte's Web; they knew how to read Charlotte's Web. So as artists, what do we do? We try to take them beyond that. We get them to imagine what Charlotte's baby spiders would do after their mother died. This was a collaborative process with the teacher and the girls. Through the process they began to explore things like motherhood, relationship between children and mother, and that is quite expansive. At the end of the process, they put up a small performance and all the parents of the class were invited. The school told me that they had a better turn up of parents to this project than they would have for the parents-teachers meeting!


If I put it straightforwardly, it's to teach the students how to think and feel. In my opinion, it is the objective, the big picture that end in mind, whether you are an artist in a classroom, or an arts teacher, that has to be aligned. We have to have an end in mind. Personally, I don't believe in stating the learning outcome at the beginning of the lesson all the time, but as a teacher, or I rather call myself as a facilitator in a classroom, to guide the students into the thought process, rather than telling them all the answers. It is important though to tell the children about the objective of the lesson at the start of the lesson. For instance. giving them a key question to investigate. So I feel that it's important for us to probe the students' mind, to ask a big question, so that it becomes investigative. It's not about the end product of a play if you are talking about theatre, but it's really about drama as a thinking tool, as a pedagogical tool for thinking. It's really about how the arts can bring about the creativity and confidence of the child, where the students can put themselves into people's shoes, really feel and have empathy for people in different circumstances.

From a primary school arts teacher's point of view, it's really fundamental that drama as pedagogy, we look into not just the art forms, per se, but also into the social aspect of the classroom. There's a lot of collaborative work in the classroom, a lot of exchanges, but what's most important is the listening aspect, because the students are a new generation now, and they do have a difficulty in listening to each other's answers. So from that aspect, drama is unique as compared to the visual arts and music, because the response itself, verbal or non-verbal, in a drama classroom is something that cannot be compared to in a music and art classroom. Although we now have a category called "Appreciating Music" and "Appreciating Arts", which you have to critique an art piece or a music piece, the creation process is really embedded in the thinking itself. Because of the exchange of ideas, the presentation which they have to engage each other, with their opinions, in order to create a piece together.


What is important for me is that act of creation - and that actually happens across art forms. It's a cliché, but it's the process not the product. My interest is really the commonality across the art forms, because when you look at things like improvisation, playwriting, choreography and composing it all goes back to the artistic processes – the thinking process, the feeling process, the reflecting process. This idea of creating something, that's very powerful.


I do agree with you that across art forms, we do see this trend and commonality, but my perspective is really from the current syllabus, with regard to the music and the arts in a primary school. Because I feel that more can be done in terms of the integration of the thinking skills. I must say that it has improved greatly, as they do have different segments to capture the thought process. It really has come very far from the time when I was in school.



When a project is successful, it is successful because of 'enlightened' teachers in schools. That's very important. People who are in the education system, who are already converted to arts or drama as pedagogy, and these people are willing to welcome the input from the outside of education community. I don't think enough of this kind of thinking is going to NIE level where teachers are trained – trainees don't see the significance of arts pedagogy, of arts education. At the level where education policy is decided, I think there's again a grey area, which is lacking far behind. So whatever positive changes we have seen are due to the changes in educators themselves and due to NAC's intervention. Because NAC has the AEP, the Artist in School Scheme, and various other arts initiatives. These things are slowly seeping into the education environment. But it is not yet understood by people who are doing education training. That's a barrier we need to cross.

In Elias Park Primary School, we worked with a supposedly low ability class. In the first few weeks, it was very difficult to work with the students. But at the end of the eight weeks' process, these children could sit down together, they could discuss an issue; they could agree and disagree, put forward ideas, form a consensus and then agree on a part that is going to be performed. That is a very complex process. Even adults sometimes don't do that. And these were students in the beginning of the year, they didn't know each other and were young, so there were problems like boys didn't like to work with girls. But they overcame those things. They began with rude remarks but slowly they began to understand that they needed to build a process. They are Primary Four children, and are supposedly low ability. The teachers were saying that they are not speaking and acting so well, but look at what they have done! I think we need to start thinking about what we are going to value in what the children are doing.


It goes back to what you talked about earlier – building confidence. I think that's an important part of all this.


And with enjoyment, there will be confidence.


The dialogue does not end here (literally and metaphorically). As with the challenges faced in integrating arts into the curriculum, time and space are two major constraints, and these translate to word limit for this article.

How can arts education and dialogue be sustainable? I believe there will be follow-ups, and this dialogue will continue in another form, on another day. After all, arts as education pedagogy, is always "time-consuming" and never results-obsessed. It may be cliché, but it holds some truth – process is indeed more important than product.

So, are you converted?

For more information on NAC-AEP, please visit http://aep.nac.gov.sg/.

20% off "Casual Days" Magazine

Click here to buy a copy. Quote "Drama Box" to enjoy a 20% discount.

Terms & Conditions:
  • The discount is only valid till 30th June 2012

Want to know who won a pair of Bus Stop tickets last issue? Check out our Facebook photo here.