Process over Product – why the arts?

Coeducation is education for life. Naturally

Process over Product

Stephen Roberts – Director of Arts

In 2003, I was attending my first Year 10 Subject Selection Evening at a comprehensive school in Cambridge when I was asked by a parent, ‘Why should my son take drama when he has no ambition to become an actor?’

It was my first year of teaching and I’m afraid my response couldn’t have been too impressive as Tom did not continue to take the subject beyond the year.

I have continued to receive the same question over the years in all manner of institutions over multiple continents. It is a question I fear that has been synonymous with the arts in education as a whole.


For many years the arts had been painted as being an elitist luxury, in a rich curriculum that suffered in favour of traditionally more academically rigorous subjects that led to university entry, a profession and ultimately a successful, fulfilling life.

Other labels that were commonly associated with the arts had been:

  • Fun subjects;
  • A dumping ground for the unengaged; or
  • The last bastion of hope for students that were failing elsewhere in the curriculum.

As a result of common perceptions, the arts educators were constantly challenged to champion their subject.

I am sure we have all known many incredible arts teachers and they all had one thing in common – a feverish, almost paranoid instinct to defend their subject (even when it wasn’t needed to be defended). Defence was woven into the very fabric of the arts teachers DNA, and their rhetoric was both emotional and emphatic. All teachers who taught in the arts had experienced what I had experienced in 2003 and they all had their response in the barrel ready to fire.

Fast-forward to 2018, and we find ourselves on the precipice of an evolving educational landscape.

Teachers are being introduced to pedagogy that has been designed to inspire or lead our students to think creatively and to question provocatively that which is put before them. Introspection of current practices is in full swing to ensure that what we are providing our students with – the tools to unlock the 21st century – and in the arts is simply…business as usual.

In the arts, thinking curiously about our surroundings and investigating the who, what, where, when, how is second nature. Process will always champion the product in the arts as there is never really a definitive end, rather further interpretation, or new discoveries.

Arts education has never just been a means to acquiring knowledge and wisdom pertaining to the subject itself but rather, it has always served to give insight into humanity and teaches through experience the ability to understand and express emotionally and intelligently.

Arts education provokes curiosity and, as teachers, we seek to provide our students with a genuine love for learning. This is not exclusive to arts teaching obviously, but it is an essential component of success in the arts as opposed to a welcome by-product.

I see students who are beginning to let go of creating traditional, time-honoured, carefully defined paths in favour of curating a program of study that allows for more than just a means to an end. Students are far more in-tune with what makes them tick individually and are capable of identifying subjects that inspire curiosity and provide robust, practical and mental engagement. Students place emphasis on wellbeing and are able to curate a personal curriculum that suits their needs…above all students are searching for balance.

They are also recognising that they no longer have to compartmentalise themselves by labelling themselves a type. Once upon a not-so-long-ago, we would define ourselves and our children as being ‘academic’, ‘sporty’ or ‘arty’. We created well defined silos that we forced our students into and forced them to focus on a pre-determined path that unfortunately offered unpredictable futures.

The future of our students is an exciting one. Never before has information been so readily available through such a myriad of platforms. If you want objective solutions or answers, they are merely a press of a button away. Finding creative solutions, however, is not so easy. Emotional intelligence, empathy and understanding of social interactions cannot be learnt or acquired from a quick Google search.

The arts therefore has a crucial role to play in the development of our students, especially if the goal is to develop fully rounded, emotionally and socially intuitive people who have the capacity to provoke change and development.

At school, the arts hasn’t just been a means to acquiring knowledge and wisdom pertaining to the subject itself but rather give insight into humanity and be able to understand and express emotionally and intelligently. The arts provoke curiosity and as teachers we seek to provide our students with a genuine love for learning.

To answer that parent I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I would say that choosing to study the arts to become an artist is as futile as studying maths to become an astronaut. The two are not mutually exclusive. The study of maths does not provide a one way ticket to the moon, in the same way as the arts does not provide a ticket to the stars. However, such lofty ambition is not what or should motivate students to learn but rather to allow their experiences to influence or contribute to their future lives in a positive way.


Next week – The future of the arts