In one of TED’s most-watched videos titled Do Schools Kill Creativity, the late British educator and author Sir Ken Robinson recounted a conversation he had with renowned choreographer, Gillian Lynne.
Gillian, who passed away in 2018, was also a dancer, actress, and theatre-television director. She is widely celebrated for best known for her work on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musicals Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, and Aspects of Love.
“Gillian and I had lunch one day and I said, “Gillian, how’d you get to be a dancer?” Ken asked the dancer.
Gillian revealed that her journey to become a dancer was an unexpected one as she had difficulties concentrating at school.
“The school, in the ’30s, wrote to her parents and said, “We think Gillian has a learning disorder.” She couldn’t concentrate; she was fidgeting. I think now they’d say she had ADHD. Wouldn’t you? But this was the 1930s, and ADHD hadn’t been invented at this point. It wasn’t an available condition. People weren’t aware they could have that.”
Worried, Gillian’s mother took her to a specialist and explained her condition.
“In the end, the doctor went and sat next to Gillian and said, “Gillian, I’ve listened to all these things that your mother’s told me, and I need to speak to her privately.” He said, “Wait here. We’ll be back; we won’t be very long,” and they went and left her,” Ken said.
Before leaving, the doctor turned on the radio and then proceeded to walk out.
“And when they got out the room, he said to her mother, “Just stand and watch her.” And the minute they left the room, she said, she was on her feet, moving to the music. And they watched for a few minutes and he turned to her mother and said, “Mrs. Lynne, Gillian isn’t sick; she’s a dancer. Take her to a dance school.”
The point that Ken was trying to make was that human creativity is unfortunately suppressed by education systems and societal expectations. Yet, creativity and arts education is crucial in this day and age.
Arts education, while broad in its meaning and application, is essentially a tool that helps inspire people to understand, reflect, and creatively solve global problems.
For Lim Soon Heng, the co-founder and chief producer of KL Shakespeare Players (KLSP), arts education is about the self and humanity.
“Arts education invites us to step on the path toward self-awareness,” says Soon Heng. The theatremaker, who is also an actor and radio host has been actively staging Shakespeare’s famous works for kids together with his talented team.
“Arts education allows for open-ended questions whose answers cannot always be memorised for application, and whose answers sometimes engender more questions.”
“Imagine a science class learning about light and then incorporating an exploration of how painters capture light, how light is expressed through photography. The balance is required for a holistic engagement.”
Soon Heng and his team are now staging online performances. From Shakespeare, they’ve also included Malaysian folktales into their repertoire of stories performed to little ones.
Dr. Pouline Koh, who heads the Design School at Taylor’s University, believes that arts education – specifically design – plays a big part in influencing change.
“I see design as a reflection of intention for change, it is rarely accidental or unplanned. If a design is intentional, design education then involves teaching students the skills to interact with the world and preparing them to become great problem solvers with the intention to create change,” she tells Eksentrika.
Taylor University’s School of Media and Communication Head Prema Ponnudurai views art as covering a wide spectrum of areas from drawing, dancing, and acting to visual arts such as film and digital art forms.
“Education is the sharing and creation of new knowledge in a specific field of study, so arts education to me is the marrying of both whereby teaching and learning of the existing knowledge regarding the arts discipline through research and exploration, new knowledge is created surrounding arts leading to enhancements and innovations in this discipline area.”
Chen Yoke Pin, the Senior Manager of Arts-ED Penang, a non-profit organisation (NPO) based in Penang, has seen firsthand how arts education played a huge role in not only upskilling people creatively but also as a tool to express oneself and document cultures.
“People often have this misconception that arts education is all about drawing. The truth is, it’s more than that because it’s about the journey and the method.
Arts-ED Penang began with the intention to upskill creatives through their training. Yoke Pin shares that over the years her team realised that this was not enough.
“Today, we’ve expanded our programmes to engage creatively with communities, conduct research on various topics pertaining to culture and heritage education through cultural mapping.”
The organisation does this by getting communities, creatives, and even policymakers involved to mobilise people and bring about a positive social change.
“For example, we recently had a showcase where children created a contemporary puppet show. The plot of their performance centered on their feelings about the place they’re living in and the ways their environment can be improved. All of these are done through imagination and creativity.”
The children, Yoke Pin adds, are empowered to take lead in telling their stories and their ideas and aspirations for the future.
Today, more than ever, arts education has become important to the world to express and heal, according to Soon Heng.
“Arts education can provide ways of thinking about our own individual stories,” he tells Eksentrika. Arts education, Soon Heng adds, helps society think more critically as well.
“Throughout my professional career – in education, in the corporate world, in the theatre – I don’t recall seeing anyone losing their jobs because they are technically incompetent. They get the boot because they or someone else lacked some pertinent soft skills.”
Similar to Soon Heng, Prema sees arts education as vital not only now but in the future too. The proof, she says, lies in the pudding.
“The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in the past years has also focused on arts education recognising it as a central component of holistic and comprehensive education. Additionally, if you look at any of the future job skills required for employability by the World Economic Forum, the top four skills required are attributes of arts education such as imagination, creativity, innovation, flexibility, ideation, etc.”
Due to this, Prema says it’s evident that arts education is equally important for the balance of a nation, socio-economically.
“Universities are also aligned to ensuring the future of arts education with the emergence of the Creative Industry area of study to equip students with a balance between Humanities and Arts to develop a range of skills and knowledge ranging from communication, cinema, music, design, media to marketing.”
Speaking of design, Dr. Pouline believes that a changing world demands creative responses.
“When design skills are increasingly used in the improvement of anything from government policy to organisational strategy, apps, garments, kettles, spatial and experiences, it is vital to acknowledge that design education is bound to continuously play an integral role in many future developments of all the industries.”
“As such, the future of design education will remain a strong influence on a variety of issues, ranging widely from technological advancements to business and the nature of humans, seeing as these processes use design to model their patterns and create new trends. One thing is for sure, design education needs to continue taking up its progressively convoluted role caused by the changes and stay closely connected to support the idea of authenticity in the creations of design students.”
Yoke Pin has personally seen the positive benefits of arts education. For instance, many of her students who’ve been part of the programmes organised by Arts-ED, have over the years expressed their gratitude because they were able to problem-solve better in their life and career compared to their peers who’ve never experienced arts education.
“Many of them have now gone on to do amazing work in their life, career, and have even returned to do social work for their communities. Art is a powerful tool that highlights activism. It helps people see the world from diverse perspectives, angles, and emotions,” she says, adding that she hopes to see more arts education designed for public schools.
Cover image supplied by Arts-ED Penang.