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"From where I am to where I want to be." The Arts and Adult Learning.

For the Adult Community Education Conference. July 2003

by Andrew McNicol Director -Arts Excentrix Inc

I would like to present an argument for the Arts as an excellent re-entry point for adults into formal learning. I use the word formal as it is important to recognise that all of us are learning all of the time.

Everyday of our lives we are presented with issues to deal with and problems to solve. It is a different thing however to make a choice to "join a class" or to look to someone outside of the normal run of your life to share a skill with you or teach you something. The thought of making such a choice, to extend the parameters of your life, can bring up all kind of issues and the act of making such a choice may seem impossible to many of us. An example from my own life may serve to illustrate.

Accepting the invitation to speak at this conference was definitely not automatic. Each time I am presented with a choice a complex process begins. The anxieties and conflicts that emerge at such times are all connected to one thing, my sense of self-worth and my place in the community that I see myself belonging to. If making choices is a difficult process for me, an articulate product of middle Australia, then how must it be for those who find themselves on the fringe and beyond? People like Rebecca and David, two of my students, who are part aboriginal and from a one-income family. Their opportunities in life are limited and both could be classed as having a learning disability. In their daily lives they are faced with the same choice as me. Make choices and risk failure, humiliation and ultimately self-loathing or let life do whatever it will to you.

For kids born with profound disadvantage the latter option, to let life choose, will lead to an inevitable crash and burn of one kind or another. Yet to Rebecca and David the option of making choices seems to be an unclimbable mountain.

Fortunately these two young people now have regular access to music and dance sessions and progress is evident. Though it was a wild ride at times David has collaborated in the creation of a dance piece and performed it for his peers. The level of social co-operation, focus, anger management and personal discipline needed for him to achieve this success was enormous.

This one experience will not turn around his relationship with learning but his next attempt will be just a fraction easier because of this success and because of his changed view of himself. With Rebecca, building a relationship of trust, a relatively easy thing to do using music and dance, is the first step to forming a learning partnership with her.

I have worked with and known many people like Rebecca and David, children and adults, in the past 30 odd years and have learned that the strategies that work for me also work for them.

They need to set their own goal posts, only they know what is possible for them. They need to work in a medium that feels safe for them. They need, with a great deal of loving support and assistance, to build a small platform of self-esteem to stand on. If successful in this they will continue to engage in learning and self-fulfilment, as human beings are profoundly inquisitive creatures when they feel safe and included.

We, as providers in education, must trust that those that we work with would love to be literate and numerate and many other things as well. However, no educational program will reach them unless it has at its core a respect for the participants and for their judgement about where they are and what is safe for them.

Enter the Arts. The Arts are about Self, about self-expression and communication. From creative writing to drawing, from dance to drumming the arts give us the chance to be heard, to be seen. The Arts are the perfect vehicle for building that small platform of self-esteem that I mentioned. However, the way we introduce and structure arts activities is extremely important.

At a recent camp for young people, held on the Murray by the Murray Mallee Community Health Services, I had a delightful insight into the power of the learner. The morning had been spent attending workshops where people whose lives had been profoundly affected by drug use talked of their experiences and answered questions.

The afternoon and evening was to be devoted to arts activities and was very structured. Participants had been asked to commit to a block of three 1-hr workshops in one area of the Arts and to a 1hr workshop in another. They did this before the artists involved arrived and in many cases they had no idea of what the workshops involved.

Within minutes of the start of the afternoon sessions the structure broke down. The organisers and the artists had the insight and the adaptability to "go with the flow" and what developed was fascinating. The young people were interested in the offered activities but wanted to graze, to taste a little of this and a little of that. By the end of the day we had collectively achieved an enormous amount of quality arts product and shared our work in an exhibition/concert.

The point of this story is that these young people, through their behaviour, had let us know how it needed to be for them and we accommodated that need. I am sure that either collectively or individually they would not have been able to articulate this need. At times it felt chaotic and certainly the day was stressful for tutors, with people coming and going, but the outcomes, both personal and practical, were very rewarding. Importantly the young participants were proud of the songs, poems, banners and tagged T-shirts that they had made.

The participants view of themselves was enhanced. We, as tutors, were aware that these achievements included real outcomes in literacy and enterprise skills but the focus of the activity was not on the developing those skills as far as the participants were concerned.

We are delighted, of course, when we hear participants say, "Hey we could make and sell these", as happened at a workshop for homeless youth that was part of a youth arts project, but we don't call the workshop an enterprise workshop.

Lack of self-esteem and fear of rejection by our peers are not the only things that stop us engaging with learning. In discussing the lives of Rebecca and David I referred to the notion of a learning disability. The past 20 years has seen a revolution in the way we view both intelligence and learning.

The work of Howard Gardner provides a very different picture of the range of ways human intelligence expresses itself. The model that he provides begs us to move away from a standard one test fits all view to one that recognises and values diversity and individuality. He also acknowledges by the way that the Arts, of all the learning disciplines, cater to this diversity better than any other discipline does.

More recently work of Eric Jensen and others provides us with an insight into the physical and physiological workings of the brain, the mechanics and the chemistry of intelligence and learning.

We live in a time when our understanding around issues to do with learning is at the forefront of our own learning as educators but how does this help us to help Rebecca and David.

Jensen in his book "Different Brains, Different Learners. How to Reach the Hard to Reach" gives us a possible insight. Two of the disorders that he describes are particularly relevant to the issues that I am addressing here. The first he refers to as the 'Demotivated Learner' and the second is the concept of 'Learned Helplessness'. To quote Jensen " The most common form of academic demotivation is chronic exposure to distress and/or threat." Of course the term academic demotivation speaks for itself.

Learned helplessness is defined by Jensen as, " …a behavioural phenomenon that is characterised by apathy, lack of motivation, and helplessness in the face of normal everyday problems and challenges. Learned Helplessness is the result of feeling chronically powerless over a situation or believing that a negative outcome will occur independent of one's response".

In our work as tutors in Community Arts Education programs my colleagues and I see these "conditions" and many others daily in many of the people we meet. If completely honest we would have to admit to having a personal relationship with these conditions ourselves, at least in our past.

Almost all of the people that we work with have been through learning institutions, at least to early or middle secondary level. If they have issues with learning, if they are illiterate or innumerate it is not because they have not been exposed to learning. It is surely because they have a reason for their lack of ability or confidence. In understanding this we have the key to success in working with adult learners.

We have found that the Arts provide a wonderful medium for dealing with these learning issues. The arts provide a way of circumventing these "conditions". We do not attempt to meet these demons head on. The arts can be delivered in a very user-friendly manner with the focus on fun and play. This does not lessen the very real achievements that participants can experience.

In our experience many adult learners need a safe learning environment, and of course I mean emotionally safe and supportive. We let our learners set the markers for their own learning and, where possible, declare their desired field of learning. When learning agendas for people with a learning disability are set externally, even by well meaning people who have the learner’s best interest at heart, a sophisticated network of protective behaviours is triggered in the participant.

These behaviours may have their roots in childhood, where externally set markers for success deeply undermined the child's sense of safety. As children they were perhaps not articulate enough to communicate to others exactly why they felt unsafe and for many of them the adults responsible for their welfare didn't want to know. So, they developed protective behaviours.

As educators and carers working with anyone we have a responsibility to notice such behaviour, to acknowledge its presence where appropriate and to modify our behaviour until we see these protective mechanisms abate, a signal that our learning partner feels safe again. Many of our adult learners have carried through from childhood these protective behaviours and in a supportive environment they will dismantle their own defences, as they feel ready to do so. Forming good relationships is a prerequisite to forming a learning partnership. Developing relationships and social interaction form the basis of most activities in the performing arts.

The arts provide the opportunity for working in a supportive communal environment. Often the focus is on emotional expression. Many of the people that we work with need a means of releasing their feelings in a safe way. Drumming, dance and drama, the three d's, to rival the three r's perhaps, can be really liberating. Wild action painting can be pretty good as well.

We provide the equipment, the opportunity, the expertise but not the agenda. The main focus is on helping participants move past the next obstacle, whether that obstacle is a skill that they need to move forward on their idea or an arm around them because they have hit an emotional wall.

We have found that people with learning issues such as the ones that I have described find arts activities a great deal less threatening than other areas of learning. This may be because the Arts are open ended; there are no right outcomes just a great variety of possibilities. It also may be because our Arts activities are often experiential and not product based.

At the heart of Arts activity is creativity and this is a focal point in all of our work with adult learners. If self-esteem is the key to people engaging in learning then a sense of their own creative power, the power to manipulate or rearrange ideas, concepts, colours or even the ingredients of their lives, is the motor that will drive their learning.

There are powerful learning tools that can be developed through engaging in creative activity such as fluent and flexible thinking, increased powers of observation, problem solving ability, sensitivity to the subtleties inherent in a particular learning situation and the ability to see a range of solutions or possible outcomes to any problem to name a few.

Our organisation, Arts Excentrix, has found that there are large numbers of people who want to engage in learning in the Arts. People, even people with issues around learning, want to engage in activities that make them feel worthy, clever or successful, and that make them feel that they belong. In the process they engage with learning.

As their confidence grows that small platform becomes a launching pad for further adventures in learning. Learning directed from within the growing self, to suit its needs rather than the needs of the society or of the learner as perceived by politicians and planners of whatever persuasion. We do achieve literacy, numeracy and other secondary outcomes in our Arts work but there is also another great benefit.

I mentioned the work of Howard Gardner and Eric Jensen earlier. Both are strong advocates for the arts. Gardner for the ability of the Arts to cater to the diversity of learning styles and manifestations of intelligence mentioned earlier and Jensen for the Arts as brain builders. In his book "Arts with the Brain in Mind" Jensen details research that demonstrates significantly improved outcomes in mathematics and other traditionally valued areas of learning for those engaged in Arts learning. He goes on to detail how Arts learning builds structures and pathways in the brain. Pathways that are not specific to Arts use only.

These modern insights mean that the days of the three R's are gone for good. Learning is a much more elegant process than the old thinking would have us believe and the "wonder pill" or "magic bullet" style solutions to complex learning needs are also way past their use by date.

We need creative solutions to complex problems and, as I have said, the core experience of the Arts experience is creativity. As both a practicing Artist and as an Educator I am an unashamed advocate for Arts Education, not because I am pushing my own barrow but because I know that the Arts can and does deliver. Not only to produce artists, but to restore learning confidence and self-esteem, to prepare the learner for other adventures in learning and to build community and help restore social cohesion.


Eric Jensen,:Different Brains, Different Learners. How to Reach the Hard to Reach. Published by the Brain Store, Inc. San Deigo California, CA, USA. 2000.

Eric Jensen: Arts with the Brain in Mind. Published by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Alexandria, Virginia, USA. 2001.

Victor Lowenfeld, W. L Brittain, Creative and Mental Growth.

Published by The MacMillan Company, 1964.

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