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10 Minutes with Brian & Tanya: authors of Transforming Education through the Arts

Professor Brian Caldwell and Dr Tanya Vaughan conducted the landmark 3 year study of The Song Room programs which inspired them to co-write this year’s educational best seller. Both are leaders in the field of education research and have helped shaped developments in educational reform in several countries. We talk to Brian and Tanya about the research and the transformations in education that inspired their book.

Professor Brian Caldwell is Managing Director and Principal Consultant at Melbourne-based Educational Transformations and a former Dean of Education at the University of Melbourne and the University of Tasmania. Dr Tanya Vaughan is Senior Consulting Researcher at Educational Transformations and Honorary Fellow in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Melbourne. Their work has helped shape developments in educational reform. We talk to Brian and Tanya about the research and the transformations in education that inspired their book.

What were your initial thoughts when asked to undertake this piece of research? Did you have any expectations about what you would find?

We were not sure that we would see a positive impact of the programs based on the fact that The Song Room program generally involves a one hour arts session that students participate in weekly.

What do you feel is the most striking result from researching The Song Room programs?

The findings were stunning. I have been engaged in educational research for nearly four decades and I have not seen anything like it. Students engaged in The Song Room’s program gained a year in NAPLAN scores on reading.

There is 65 percent less absenteeism on days when the long-term Song Room program is offered compared to absenteeism in schools that do not offer the program. Students engaged in The Song Room program had higher measures on every dimension of the ACER social-emotional wellbeing scale.

These findings are consistent with existing international research but this is one of the few Australian studies that have had such a rigorous research design.

What do you think is the biggest policy implication from this research?

There are powerful implications for policy makers and practitioners, which I’d summarise as follows:

  1. Every child should have the right to participate in the arts. In the book we make the case that Australia may well be in breach of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child
  2. Public schools are being placed at a disadvantage compared to private schools
  3. The goals of education in the 21st century refer to building a capacity for innovation, creativity, teamwork and communication yet we are short-changing hundreds of thousands of students who do not receive specialist teaching in the arts where these capacities are nurtured. It is striking, as we report in the book, that Nobel Prize winners in the sciences invariably are also actively engaged in the arts.
  4. The Song Room is supported with funds from the public sector but also from the private, not-for-profit and philanthropic sector. The findings are powerful endorsement of these investments.
  5. The Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) is to be commended for its work thus far in including The Arts in the Australian Curriculum.
  6. The Foreword to the book was written by Professor Yong Zhao, one of the world’s great educators, who has delivered a passionate warning about lack of balance and unhealthy pre-occupation with narrow high stakes testing.

There are benefits in participating in the arts for its own sake, but the power of the study is increased immeasurably when we realise that hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent on enhancing literacy and numeracy and dealing with disengaged students, with results across the country that are flat-lining or declining, when a better balance with guaranteed participation in the arts would likely have seen dramatic improvement.

What do you hope will be achieved from publishing your book, Transforming Education through the Arts? Who do you hope reads it?

We hope that policy makers, leaders in education and educators will realise the benefit of participation in the arts. We hope that all levels of educators from teachers who work so hard in their classrooms every day, principals, arts educators and policy makers read this book to understand the impact of the arts as evidenced through our study and the international evidence presented.

What is your personal favourite art form to enjoy, and why?

Tanya: My personal favourite art forms that I enjoy are music and visual arts – they tie for first place. Music has a way of capturing ones emotions and making them visible and can transport you to another realm. My husband (Richard Vaughan) is a musician and composer so I am fortunate to have access to beautiful music which is supplemented through going to music concerts. Visual arts are also are a very important part of my life, some of my fondest memories are of spending time in various art galleries around the world looking for art that inspires me. My sister (Irene Grishin-Selzer) is an artist so I am lucky to have access to watch the creative process and seeing exceptional art.

Brian: I am a consumer of the arts. I thank members of my family who inspire me through their active engagement in the arts: Marian Caldwell and Jacqui Halstead, who are passionate performers in music and song, and Yvonne Virsik, Artistic Director of Monash University Student Theatre, and her colleagues who joined us at the book launch.

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