Creativity, Criticality and Curriculum Reform in Australia

I was recently at the biannual conference for the Australian teachers of media (ATOM) in Brisbane, Queensland. The teachers, university lecturers, educators and media producers who were at the event were all excited because the new arrangements for the national curriculum in Australia named ‘Media Arts’ as one of the five arts subjects that were now mandatory across the education system. Like all stories of curriculum reform there is a level of detail that does not travel well to other countries: however, if we set aside some of the details that concerned the locals and if we set aside some of the larger political considerations about the role of a national curriculum in a country where state government traditionally has had responsibility for educational policy, redefining media education as media arts and exploring what that means in practice is a question that should interest everybody who is concerned about the impact of digital technology within, across and outside of contemporary schooling. For me, locating the study of digital culture in the subject called media arts is an intriguing throw of the dice in the lottery of curriculum reform and I want to use this particular example as a way of reflecting on some of the larger questions raised by this vision of the future.

Australia is one of the few countries in the world that has a long established tradition of media education in schools. The existence of a professional Association bringing together specialist teachers is testament to this. Part of this is how the teachers and scholars working in this field draw on an established academic tradition, which has tended to emphasise ‘being critical’ as a primary purpose and value of the subject. Most study of the media has been made available to older students aged 16 and 17 – frequently those taking final examinations – which have a bearing on entry to university and into employment. In these courses, students may study a range of media, although, anecdotally, it would seem as if studies of film, film language, media institutions and debates about representation are most common. Whilst the content of new media seems to be a widespread topic for study – social networking, changing forms of distribution, privacy, secrecy and the Internet – and is common in many schools, it isn’t always quite as easy to use new media within such institutions. In practice many students are likely to be involved in forms of filmmaking using non-linear editing but restrictions on access to technology within schools – a theme that seems more challenging in the highly regulated media environment of Australia – seemed to mean that in practice there was a classic disjuncture about what can happen in school and in the home.

Whilst many of the older educators may have been schooled in the classic critical tradition, which is interested in supporting students to analyse forms of media power and which frequently takes the shape of extended discussion and essay writing around such themes, Australia was ahead of the curve in exploring the shift to creative and cultural industries. Educators from this latter tradition are particularly interested in supporting young people to enter the creative workforce and thus develop units of work around the changing nature of cultural and creative production across many media forms as well as examining the changing nature of the media marketplace. Here, the traditional subject-based disciplines of the arts – drama, film, visual arts and music – act as the basis for training and learning in the creative economy so that the production skills, aesthetic understanding and performance conventions that have grown up within these subjects provide the baseline for developing a creative workforce.

It would seem then as if this second tradition, of focusing on the creative elements of media production now fully expanded in the digital age, has been the trigger for defining the place of media education as media arts. Indeed, describing media practices as media arts suggests that this communicative and expressive dimension is what gives the subject its appeal and its legitimacy as part of this new curriculum imaginary. The curriculum overview deliberately uses a language emphasising the power and agency of the student to make, express and describe. Yet embedded in this new framework is the older critical tradition that seeks to pay attention to the equal distribution of media power and the impact of the media and technologies on people as citizens and consumers:

In media arts, students develop knowledge and understanding of five key concepts: the media languages used to tell stories; the technologies which are essential for producing, accessing and distributing media; the various institutions that enable and constrain media production and use; the audiences for whom media arts products are made and who respond as consumers, citizens and creative individuals; and the constructed representations of the world, which rely on shared social values and beliefs. (p15).

Problematically, this curriculum will be rolled out to younger children first – and this exposes a common global deficit in media education, which typically arrives in the student’s lifetime too late. Given the experience and positioning of most of the teachers at this conference it will clearly be a matter of concern whether there are enough trained staff to teach this vision of media arts across the country but this is the extraordinarily common practical problem in school systems across the developed world.

Secondly – and this too is not an uncommon pattern in curriculum reform – there is reduplication and contradiction. Digital media is also present in the additional subject of technology, in this instance called ‘digital technologies’ written into another part of the curriculum edifice. In ‘digital technologies’ students explore:

the relationship between digital technologies, themselves, their communities (local and global), the factors that shape the development of these technologies and the consequence of use and the impact of these technologies on individuals, families, communities and the environment. (p13).

Here we might say we can see some of the social and political dimensions of the critical tradition being explicitly described within a part of the curriculum that is mainly concerned with computers and their processes.

For me this moment of transitioning from media education to media arts and of redistributing some of the direct critical concepts around other elements of the curriculum in favour of focus on the creative and economically useful stands as a mark in the sand as curriculum around the world tries to tie down and pay due attention to the place of digital culture and digital technology within what it means to talk about education. In some ways the presence of the digital in both the ‘media arts’ and the ‘digital technologies’ elements of the curriculum are curiously marginal anyway (given the centrality of English/Literacy) and the preference for the creative over the critical reveals much about the way that curriculum around the world tries to explain itself to the wider public. Colleagues at the conference were hopeful that their expertise to teach about some of these issues would be utilized in professional development and teacher training although it did seem as if curriculum reform was more interested in rebranding than this kind of investment. Above all as more and more countries around the world seek to define core curriculum and thus imagine what the purpose of learning is for the future, this example shows both the limits and the possibilities in the language of reform that policymakers offer to their citizens.

Banner image credit: City College Norwich http://www.flickr.com/photos/citycollegenorwich/4586677702/