LANGUAGE education and the arts have for a long time been seen as closely linked but little has happened in the Malaysian language classrooms in terms of incorporating other aspects of the arts besides literature. And in the broader school curriculum, art and craft is still taught but now called visual arts education.
In the language classroom, the most obvious link with the arts has been the incorporation of the language arts.
This basically has meant the inclusion of literary texts into the language syllabus. This too has not been an easy task for both the teachers and the students.
There have been challenges in relation to teachers' knowledge of literature and the skills required to teaching it. Students too have been challenged by language proficiency and the lack of motivation to read in the English language.
At present, the arts in schools have been largely centred mainly on the verbal. This is not unusual as much of the learning in schools is related to cognitive activities that require verbal responses. Even aesthetic responses are often centred on the verbal. Rarely are students asked to respond to literary texts by drawing what they see in the text or create a sound track for reading of a poem. Or rework a poem into a song.
The visual dimension is certainly lacking in our schools. The visual arts are art forms such as ceramics, drawing, painting, sculpture, printmaking, design, crafts, photography, video, filmmaking and architecture.
One of the key elements of the visual arts is creation. In Malaysian schools, visual arts have generally meant art classes involving mainly drawing and painting.
These arts and crafts classes, though now renamed visual arts education, are still taught in the traditional manner in primary and secondary schools, throughout the country. Often the focus is on the product and not on the process of creation. The thought that has been put into the work, the drafting and re-drafting are rarely discussed.
The process of creation is not linear and students should be taught to appreciate the whole process which will develop them as critical thinkers and problem solvers.
A longitudinal study was conducted by University Malaya Professor Dr Chua Yan Piaw, from 1998 to 2007, on how visual arts teachers assess their students. In 1998, it was found that the six major assessment criteria used by the visual art education teachers to assess students' paintings were drawing skills, neatness, aesthetics value, creativity, logic of the content and appropriateness of title. And a second study completed in 2008 showed that the teachers were now more concerned about artistic awareness and personal engagement of the students.
A significant finding from the second study indicated that the assessments the visual art education teachers used still did not emphasise student's creativity. There seems to be little progress in that direction.
Creativity is certainly an important aspect of learning that needs to be focused on by our teachers. In 2011, Stephen Downing articulated (in Forbes Leadership) that an educated individual in the 21st century demonstrates the "ability to listen carefully, to think critically, to evaluate facts rigorously, to reason analytically, to imagine creatively, to articulate interesting questions, to explore alternative viewpoints, to maintain intellectual curiosity and to speak and write".
We do not need to add more subjects in schools to develop creativity. More aspects of visual arts also need to be incorporated in the school curriculum. The whole approach to the visual arts requires a re-thinking of methodology, training of teachers and the facilities in schools. A student-engaging and student-centred learning process will certainly be fruitful.
The Education Ministry has set up three Arts Schools with the aim of developing talented young Malaysians in the arts who will become future leaders in the arts, at least in the country.
Two of these schools provide education in music, dance, theatre and visual arts while one school focuses only on music. Arts education should not be seen as elite. And it is not just for a select few. We want as many students as possible to be able to think creatively and have novel ways of addressing issues and problems.
All schools ought to provide learning environments through their visual arts programmes to develop the creativity of their students.
This issue will be raised and discussed at the 25th Malaysian English Language Teaching Association International Conference in Ipoh, to be held from May 30 to July 1, during a panel session comprising experts in the field of arts who will present their views on the Role of the Arts in 21st Century Education and engage with teachers and other educationists. The panellists include Malaysian poet Wong Phui Nam; Hassan Abdul Muthalib, who is an artist, designer, animator, film director, screenwriter and actor; and Bernice Chauly, writer, poet and educator.
The writer is a professor at the School of English, Nottingham University Malaysia campus