How can quality creative education be a catalyst for individuals and communities?

Art makes children powerful
— Bob & Roberta Smith

In my talk today I want to answer the question – as briefly as I can - how can quality creative education be a catalyst for individuals and communities?

This presentation will discuss creative learning as a vehicle for community regeneration, and suggest that in addition to providing skills such as designing, making, and critical and creative thinking, it fosters engagement, supports aspiration, and is an important arena for the discussion of issues central to our communities, and our collective future.

So I want to talk about creative education as a way of generating three things: young people who are skilled in relation to the future of work; young people who are aware in relation to the idea of a sustainable future; and young people with the confidence to develop connections, with peers, their families and communities; and with contributions to make to society and culture through those connections.

While I have specialized in art & design, I hold this true for all creative practices, including music, drama, dance and all forms of writing; and indeed that there are transferable skills from creative learning that benefit whatever career path young people take – art learning does not only produce artists & designers, but individuals who are capable of: independent & creative thinking, problem solving, research, creative visualization, interpersonal communication, the list goes on. A skill set that the Foundation for Young Australians defines as crucial to the changing face of the future workplace. In their report The New Basics this skill set includes: problem solving, communication skills, digital literacy, teamwork, presentation skills, critical thinking and creativity. The report states that “critically around 1/3 of Australian 15 year olds are not proficient in problem solving or digital literacy”; and that this percentage increases markedly for young people from low socio-economic backgrounds and for Indigenous students. It describes the change in the way we work as the “most significant disruption of the world of work since the industrial revolution”.

But I don't want to only prioritise work skills – I think so many young people today are experiencing pressures and responsibilities and traumas that they need support with – and that creative learning opportunities are also opportunities for personal growth and the development of qualities like resilience, empathy and maturity. We need to be giving young people opportunities to develop their sense of themselves as individuals, and as empowered in their own lives.

So the how I want to try to identify as the catalyst for change and, crucially, for connection, is based in my experiences teaching art and design in many contexts here and in the UK; and in the long-term experience of dLux as an arts organization working with regional and remote communities for many years.

The how I want to outline includes a handful of ingredients that when combined bring about such a change of trajectory in the educational, creative and professional path of any young person, that we can and must harness and maximise these learning experiences for ALL young people and for the longer term benefit of communities, & society as a whole.

I will outline a few of these components of quality creative learning experiences, and propose some ways we can create access to these ideas & processes, outside and alongside mainstream education, to support community regeneration.


In this age of austerity, and of a rapidly changing education environment, profoundly affected by the evolution of digital interfaces, there are a range of political & social concerns that can be addressed through creative education to improve engagement, participation & achievement for young people.

Currently, we are working in the context of concerted attacks on the arts and on creative education, with the defunding of both the small to medium arts sector and TAFE, and the threats to close two of the three major art schools in Sydney, representative of the commercialisation and privitisation of (art) education internationally. At the same time, in schools teachers are under duress to adapt to new curriculum and integrate teaching the skills needed for the cultural change of the future workplace: all the while ensuring that all of our young people have access and opportunity in education generally, and in creative learning in particular.

By way of comparison, Bob & Roberta Smith is a British artist who has been outspoken in the face of increasing pressure for schools in the UK to drop arts teaching from core curriculum, making work that directly addresses education policy, and even running for election on an arts platform in his home constituency. While here in Australia – in NSW at least – visual art is core in mainstream education, I fear that we will adopt, as we have so often in the past, this UK shift away from creative learning.

So we as arts workers and educators are fighting for representative time and resources, and our place in the debate about what to prioritise in learning – the shift from STEM to STEAM if you like. We are negotiating the big picture of arts and creative education culture here in light of global economic and cultural trends that are not friendly to the culture we want to champion and we have to adapt, and we have to be effective.

So in terms of how we engage young people in creative learning, I want to mention three characteristics of how to be effective: we must ask ourselves about our approach, our content, and the outcomes we want.


First we must ask: what do WE bring to the creative learning experience?

This is not just about knowledge and expertise though of course those things are important. More than this, one of the biggest factors in student achievement is absolutely the expectations of the teacher or facilitator. Nothing annoys me more than the consistent underestimation of young people, especially young people with disabilities. Or, still, the expectation that young women can’t work with technology – we are still having to explain that so much of the development of technology was undertaken by women, and that young women can and do engage with and excel at developing and working with technology. I would add of course, that tech is just a tool, and that the ideas and visual language of what we make with the technology is paramount: this is what gives young people a voice through creative learning. Put simply, when we expect students to be high achievers they will live up to our expectations, and when we expect the opposite they will live down to them; and this needs to inform out approach.


Second, we can ask: how do we RESPOND to individuals/groups/communities?

We must always find out who our students or workshop participants are, and what they are interested in personally: we need to know what ideas they want to work with and what they want to communicate, and integrate that into the learning experience. Genuine interest in individuals and their concerns will always produce interesting creative work. Which is not to say we don't have a plan, and particular content – like thematic ideas about identity, or globalization, or sustainability, but that alongside the formal content there needs to be flexibility, adaptability and interpersonal conversations. In this way we forge connections between content and young people’s concerns.


And third, we ask: what is the aim or outcome of the learning process over time?

While we might aim for improved participation in school, or the development of new aspirations, and a new skill set, all of which are worthwhile, I think in the long term we are aiming to foster in young people a sense of themselves and their place in the world, and to give them the idea that they have choices in their lives, and can make an impact on the world. And that developing their creative vision is the doorway to these long-term goals. What this requires is in part developing long term relationships over time; returning to communities to build a program over months and years. This is where we practice and model connection.

We at dLux have spent many years working with regional & remote communities, young people, professional artists, women and girls from CALD backgrounds and indigenous communities, to support and encourage creative learning & access to digital artforms, and to the ongoing creative skills development of those communities.

In NSW it is clear that there are many things we must engage with – sustainability, desertification, cultural diversity & autonomy in particular - and we believe digital artforms can provide an empowering vehicle for this engagement.

We need to plant the idea that the future holds possibilities, and that young people can actively engage in shaping those possibilities; for themselves, for their families and communities.

Having taught in the UK, and personally worked with a broad range of young people – many of whom had had difficult education experiences before ending up in an arts studio – I want to emphasise this potential of creative education to change lives. Whether you have 3 hours, or 12 hours a week for a year, it is a great way to reach those who have not been served by mainstream or conventional education, and engage them with the idea of their future, a future with possibilities.

While we strive to put these processes in place here in Australia, and given the impact of US & UK education fashions on our policies, it is worth noting that the current Labour leadership challenge in the UK has made several bold statements about arts policy and their political platform, including proposing the reversal of University fees, the restoration of arts sector funding, and the introduction of a pupil premium for creative education from primary school onwards.

From what I have said I think it is clear that I believe that creative education changes young lives. We here already know why the arts and creative education are important – how they make children powerful and empowered - and based on the fantastic discourse coming out of the rallying against arts and education cuts, I am hopeful that this galvanizing of our creative communities will yield rich processes and practices that we can weave into our education programs, for the benefit of the young people in our care, and our culture in the future.

Presented by Liz Bradshaw at Artlands in Dubbo, October 2016