I have spent an awful lot of my life looking at exam papers, guiding students towards success in exams, yet I am still uncomfortable with the way the arts in secondary and higher education, are assessed or examined, as they are now.
I’m not against exams, far from it. I think they are ‘character building,’ so they contribute to students’ individual, academic, and personal development. They challenge students in the same way that life surely will, so they offer a genuine life skill. Furthermore, they place students under pressure, not unlike the way both work and life will pressure them in the future, without the intensity of those later in life decisions that will have much deeper implications. Defined as ‘tests of one’s knowledge or proficiency,’ exams are very much an evaluation of where a student is at a particular point on their academic journey.
That’s why, whilst having sympathy for educational authorities around the world, I can’t help but feel that there is too much regimentation throughout the education and examination processes as applied to the arts, governed by the somewhat restricted content streams in place globally for teaching and learning, the restraint of so many exam formats, and worst of all, the marks schemes which are circulated with the exams, identifying what responses earn what, or which, marks. After all, as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Every artist I know started out as an amateur.”
There is simply too much prescription, and too little genuine quest for inspiration and imagination. But the Arts are ‘the dance, where you have what no other has,’ and that may or may not be the dance, it means something so individual and beautiful that one hand may have presented it, but millions have played their part in its evolution. “Art needs the security,” wrote Mary Cassat, “of knowing that no genuine spark of originality will be extinguished.” So, we must trust the artist, trust in their art, and focus more on their processes than their results.
What we are in danger of ending up with from restricted processes, is a teach-to-test teaching and learning process, that owes success as much to memorization as any other of the cerebral skills, which does nothing to develop talent, the pinnacle of imagination, whatsoever. In fact, what can conceivably happen is that given a relevant marking scheme, students could relatively easily create their own templates, and basically fill-in-the-blanks to achieve premium marks, and while this must necessarily be the objective of the sciences, such as maths, physics, biology and the likes, it seems to me that these are very much rota strong disciplines, they either know their sciences, or they don’t!
But the arts are ‘the dance, where you have what no other has,’ and that may, or may not be, the dance. In fact, it means something so individual and beautiful that one hand may have presented it, but millions have played their part in its evolution. The ageless Picasso painted remarkably, and he commented that “every child is an artist, but that the problem is staying childish as you grow up.” I think what he feared was that, not literally but artistically, we need to keep offering the best of ourselves, but that we should not feel that all of our art must be masterpieces, and that one artistic revelation is meaningless without knowing its artistic journey.
I saw one of my students this week, clearly struggling with a writing assignment, and supporting him, I found that he had difficulty composing ‘exactly what he wanted to write.’ “Don’t worry,” I said, “If you are looking for the perfect sentence to just emerge, you’ll be here for a long time. Just write... because if you write, your first word will inspire your next... and so on.
We live in the age of the word processor, inspired perhaps by the ability to renew humanity, as with Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula,’ imagination is as valuable as knowledge, and art as essential as science.