Arts and minds

Leadership consultant and former Musica Viva head Mary Jo Capps AM explains why arts education is vital and calls for greater support for teachers in this rich arena. Even Einstein, she says, played the violin.

In the last days of August 2020, two significant and coincidentally related events occurred regarding the role of arts in nurturing young minds.

On 21 August, we lost one of the most influential thinkers on this topic with the death of the Sir Ken Robinson, British author, speaker and adviser on creative and cultural education. Sir Ken delivered TED’s most popular talk to date; provocatively titled Do Schools Kill Creativity? it’s had more than 67 million views since 2006.

The other impactful event was on 26 August when the Australia Council for the Arts released the results of a major research project, Creating the Future, which tracks attitudes to the arts and their role in our lives.

The two are connected through their messages about the urgent need to shift our thinking about how and why we value the arts. Sir Ken sought to upend what he saw as an antiquated education system, based on industrialisation’s need for academic and vocational skills, but which ignores humanity’s need for creative, brilliant people to be encouraged and valued.

The Australia Council reported that nearly every Australian – 98 per cent – engages with the arts in some way, whether through listening to music, reading, engaging online, attending events or engaging with the arts of their cultural background. The Australia Council concludes that the arts are embedded in the very fabric of Australian lives – they’re not some add-on for the fortunate few.

Again and again, it has been shown that active engagement in the arts improves academic and often social outcomes for students in both primary and secondary education.

Now let’s think about our education system. Can we, hand on heart, say that 98 per cent of our students are encouraged to engage with the arts during their education? Are we able to honour Sir Ken’s legacy with the knowledge that creativity is at the core of our education system? And if not, why not?

Better cognition in all areas

First, let’s consider what is gained from an arts-rich education. The list of skills enhanced by arts education is extensive, validated by research commencing in the 1950s and reworked from every angle around the world ever since. Again and again, it has been shown that active engagement in the arts improves academic and often social outcomes for students in both primary and secondary education.

The underlying question in more recent research is reasonable: Were these students always going to get ahead thanks to privileged backgrounds? Which brings us to causation versus correlation. Two large American studies undertook to answer this.

One was the Dana Arts and Cognition Consortium, which brought together cognitive neuroscientists from seven US universities. Were smart, rich people better able to access the arts, so their results across all areas were likely to be better?

They found that, regardless of socio-economic background, an interest in the performing arts leads to higher states of motivation that produce the sustained attention necessary to improve performance. And the training of attention leads to improvement in other areas of cognition.

Zeroing in on my particular interest, the study demonstrated specific links between high levels of music training and the ability to manipulate information in both working and long-term memory; substantial improvement in numeracy and geometric skills; and more highly developed skills in reading and sequence learning.

An even bigger US study, Champions of Change (2000), followed 20,000 young people for 10 years to see if engagement in the arts made any difference. Again, regardless of background, young people who engaged in the arts: had better academic results; were less involved in substance abuse; had higher levels of civic engagement; and music students exhibited advanced maths proficiency and higher overall academic superiority over non-music students.

From my own experience over decades mentoring in the arts, it has always struck me that the arts offer an alternative entry point into academic study for students who are otherwise disengaged. Time and again I heard teachers talk about “that student” who was troubled or otherwise unresponsive who suddenly blossomed when they found a “way in” through the arts.

So much upside

If these reasons are not sufficient, there is also considerable community support for the arts in our lives. The Australia Council research notes that the largest increases since the last such survey (in 2016) have been in the proportion of Australians agreeing on the impact of arts and creativity on child development (63 per cent); on our sense of wellbeing and happiness (56 per cent); on helping us deal with stress, anxiety or depression (56 per cent); and on stimulating our minds (64 per cent). What’s not to like?

The report went on to note that at least six in 10 Australians agree arts and creativity impact our ability to express ourselves (64 per cent); our ability to think creatively and develop new ideas (62 per cent); on our understanding of other people and cultures (60 per cent).

One in two Australians agrees that arts and creativity are important in shaping and expressing Australian identity and in building creative skills that will be necessary for the workforce. Surely these are critical factors enabling us to recover and regenerate in post-pandemic Australia?

A resounding majority of the 9000 respondents in the Australia Council study believe the arts should be an important part of education (73 per cent), with similar percentages agreeing that the arts in Australia reflect the diversity of cultures present in Australia (71 per cent) and the arts help you to understand perspectives that are different to your own (71 per cent). Surely these are the building blocks of education.

Indeed, the arts help a child achieve all manner of good outcomes beyond the arts. But the arts are important because they are good in themselves, because they are inspiring, because they make us feel and think differently about ourselves and about the world around us. That is their greatest and unique value.

Persistent impediments

With decades of convincing literature, one would think that mandating an arts-rich education is a no-brainer. Yet, there are persistent impediments to embedding the arts in education in Australia, whether at primary or secondary levels.

Overcrowded curriculum

My area of greater familiarity is primary school, but this problem does not seem to decrease as one shifts gaze to secondary school. Schools are expected to play ever-increasing roles in loco parentis, whether it be in issues of safety, health, wellbeing or social skills. The intensifying focus on standardised testing, and the impact these test results have on a school’s marketability and therefore funding, is another factor that has robbed students of time they might have spent developing creative arts skills and knowledge. The reasons for these tectonic shifts are far too wide-ranging for this article, but with each additional layer of external pressure, the squeeze on the arts becomes greater. Changing this will take a ground-swell of dissatisfaction with the current balance.

Support for teachers

With music in primary schools a focus of my professional work over the last 20 years, I was aghast to learn how unsupportive pre-service training for generalists is. Small wonder it has led to an overall lack of confidence in teachers to throw themselves into arts teaching, either intensively or as a platform for other subjects. In a seminal study for Music Australia in 2009, Dr Rachel Hocking revealed that only about 1.5 per cent of pre-service training for primary generalist teachers in Australian universities was allocated to compulsory music training. That is rather like going in to teach German having only studied it for two days. Ludicrous? Of course. But that is what we are expecting from our generalist teachers in primary schools. No wonder it doesn’t rise to the top of the “must do” pile, among all the other pressures on teachers.

One encouraging sign to emerge from this COVID-19 time is the acceleration of online learning, which may help address some of this problem through well-targeted, in-service training, offering less confident teachers a new national network of mentors or “buddies”.

Parental pressure over “employability”

Even pre-COVID, educators have had to respond to community pressure for augmenting “marketable” skills in students. The emphasis on STEM subjects is understandable, but ignores the fact that even Einstein found playing his violin a necessary adjunct to his research. Dr Ian Frazer, the remarkable Scottish-Australian scientist who, with the late Dr Jian Zhou, developed the cervical cancer vaccine, insists that listening to classical music gives him the “headspace [he] needs to do his work”. This binary approach of STEM rather than STEAM is everyone’s loss. Our politicians have underscored this approach most recently with the proposal to double the cost of humanities degrees, implying they produce “less employable” graduates – despite the fact that more than 60 per cent of federal politicians have a humanities degree.

It has always struck me that the arts offer an alternative entry point into academic study for students who are otherwise disengaged.

The greatest gift we might gain from COVID-19 is a re-evaluation of our priorities in every area of our endeavours. While one fear is that widespread threats to employment will lead to an ever-intensifying focus on specific vocational skills, there is a balancing reality that people will value the solace, cohesion and wellbeing they have drawn from the arts during this time. We can only hope that Sir Ken’s message will finally sink in, we will reassess the role of the arts in our lives and, importantly, in our education system.

Political philosophy professor Michael Sandel, famous worldwide for his online Harvard Justice course, would surely urge us to “reclaim our collective moral compass” in the arts.

The future of Australia will be shaped by the creativity and imagination of its people. One of the top 10 search words in Linkedin for employment is “creative”. Never has the need been greater for people of resilience, for people capable of creative problem-solving, and for people skilled at dealing in abstract concepts – in other words: for artists.

Mary Jo Capps AM GAICD Bachelor of Music and MA Musicology (Toronto), Doctor Visual and Performing Arts (Melbourne – hc)

Mary Jo Capps has held senior management and mentoring roles in the Australian cultural industry for 40 years. She recently stepped down after nearly 20 years as CEO of Musica Viva Australia and is now managing a portfolio of roles as executive mentor in arts and education, chair/director of several boards, government contracts, and advocacy leadership.
In 2010, she became the first female president of the Sydney Business Chamber since its inception in 1825 and served as Director of the NSW Business Chamber. She was awarded the inaugural Creative Partnerships Australia Arts Leadership Award in 2016, an honorary Doctor of Visual and Performing Arts from the University of Melbourne in 2017, and Member of the Order of Australia in 2019 in recognition of her services to the arts and to business.
Her work is focused on her passion for enabling the next generation of leaders, with a particular interest in emerging female leadership in both arts and education.
Robinson, Sir Ken, “Do schools kill creativity?”, TED talk, 2006,, IE, issue 1, Vol 49, 2019, Musica Viva CEO Mary Jo Capps talks to journalist Bronwyn Ridgway about her teachers and mentors, Consortium on Arts and Cognition Report, Learning, Arts and the Brain, 2008 (PDF):
Fiske, Edward B (ed), Champions of Change, The impact of the arts on learning, 1999 (PDF):
Hocking, Dr Rachel, National Audit of Music Discipline and Music Education Mandatory Content within Pre-Service Generalist Primary Teacher Education Courses: a report for the Music Council of Australia, 2009 (PDF):
Sandel, Professor Michael, Harvard University, Justice (online course):