Advocating for Artists

Lecturer in Contemporary Performance Practice/ Lecturer in Research at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland

Dr Laura Bissell is a Lecturer in Contemporary Performance Practice BA (Hons.) and Lecturer in Research at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. She has a Postgraduate Certificate in Learning and Teaching in Higher Arts Education and is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.

The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s (RCS) sixth curriculum principle is to: “Enable students to make a contribution in the world as artists, educators, advocates and citizens” (RCS, 2017). This resonates with Professor Stephanie Marshall’s conclusion to her report on “Rising to the Challenges of Tomorrow”:

"There was unanimous recognition amongst respondents that students are our future, and a failure to educate the next generation of leaders, problem-solvers, critical thinkers and global citizens will be to our (and the world’s) detriment. An educational experience which results from a connected and engaged curriculum, and pedagogic approaches which harness technology, is seen, therefore, as a key priority (2017:8)."

This appeal to approach contemporary challenges in Higher Education in a “constructive and positive way” in order that universities can really provide “impactful societal benefit” provoked me to reflect on my own specific arts educational context. Having read Marshall’s report, Andreas Schleicher’s blog and Dr Nikki Spalding’s evaluation of the GTEA I offer reflections on the challenges, opportunities and possibilities that the current educational climate offers from my experience of learning and teaching at the RCS.

Schleicher emphasises key ideas of imagination and collaboration in order to create an excellent “ecosystem for learning”. This is imagined on a large, global scale, conceiving the possibility for learners around the world to tap into institutional sharing and collaboration. However, I would argue that these principles need to be established and embedded at a local level before they can be applied to transform a global context. Like Phil Race’s “ripples on a pond” (2008) model where feedback is key to processes of learning, perhaps by embedding and embodying “creative, social and emotional skills, attitudes and values of human beings” on a local, focussed institutional level (in individual classrooms within institutions), the impact of this will spread and encourage wider change within the structures of HEIs in the wider context.

I have worked in Higher Education for the past ten years, initially at the University of Glasgow in the Theatre Studies department, then at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (RCS) as a Lecturer in Contemporary Performance Practice BA (Hons) since 2011. During this time I have also worked as a visiting lecturer and supervisor at the Transart Institute in Berlin and at Glasgow School of Art where I have taught and supervised on the MRes in Creative Practices since 2012. In 2016 I was appointed External Examiner for the European Theatre Arts BA (Hons) and over the past five years I have been involved in curriculum design and delivery through the RCS curriculum reform (2011-12) and curriculum review (2017-18) processes. I am a Fellow of the HEA and was keen to join in this debate and offer a perspective to the questions posed from a small specialist institution (SSI) and advocate for the specific role that arts education and performing arts HEIs can add to the discussion.

With 1,100 students from 52 countries around the world making up the community of learners at the RCS, some of the challenges that the authors highlight are nuanced differently in a conservatoire context. For example, the “rebalance” between teaching and research that Marshall highlights is not the key issue at the RCS where excellent teaching is key to our success (2017: 3). The 2017 QS World Ranking placed the RCS as third in the world for performing arts institutions (based largely on perception of research). However, the balance of research and teaching varies from a university in terms of the RCS’s focus on training artists and excellent industry professionals.

One of the RCS’s recent priorities in terms of the student experience has been to develop collaborative elements within the individual degree programmes and this aligns with Marshall’s encouragement to “foster a culture of quality and enhancement, through dialogue and collaboration” (2017: 7). The concepts of collaboration and interdisciplinarity are key to the approach to learning and teaching, particularly on the Contemporary Performance Practice programme led by Deborah Richardson-Webb. One of the main influences on the curriculum reform process (2011-12) was the introduction of the labyrinth curriculum model which embeds “communities of practice” and encourages students to be responsive to their social, environmental and political context. One of the key aims of this was to frame developing an arts practice as being “a responsible, sustainable and engaged human being” who engages with the world beyond the conservatoire (Contemporary Performance Practice Review 2011). The time we spend as a staff team (of six core members) models this idea of community for the students and our collective pedagogical approach and the wider RCS environment allows for collaboration and conversation as part of our teaching and learning process. Marshall continues:

To deliver such an experience requires, of course, a culture of excellence which is only achieved through committed and passionate higher education staff working to a clear, shared vision and a common set of goals (2017: 8).

What are the common goals that we share as educators? What do we value in our learning and teaching? How do we encourage active, enquiring, compassionate learners who will be able to creatively collaborate to tackle future “wicked problems” (Marshall: 4)? Many respondents suggest that technology and “data science” will be vital for future global markets. I would not dispute this, but instead advocate for the role of artists and creative practitioners in contributing to addressing key issues societies face.

A recurring theme through the author’s contributions is the role in which technology has to play in developing learning and teaching strategies. Schleicher states: “perhaps the most distinguishing feature of technology is not only that it serves individual learners and educators, but that it can create an ecosystem around learning” (2017). I agree with Schleicher and in this context, I would also advocate starting small; perhaps through experimenting with how technology can enhance your own pedagogical approach within the classroom. For example, earlier this year I published “Screen-casting as a Technology-enhanced Feedback Mode” Journal of Perspectives on Applied Academic Practice (Vol 5 No 1., 2017) reflecting on piloting video feedback for assessed written work. This falls into Marshall’s definition of “individualised, flexible technological enhancements”, to keep up with the “vast diversity of learner approaches” (2017: 3) and I received excellent feedback from students who are visual/aural learners, as well as students with dyslexia (Bissell, 2017: 8).

For this development I applied bell hook’s approach in her book Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope (2003) asking students “what do you need to learn?” and was encouraged by the way in which I could (in a small way) adapt my own classroom eco-system for more effective learning. These small, local, and student-centred shifts could perhaps be the small pebble that starts the larger ripples out into the wider context of teaching and learning. Perhaps Hook’s question “what do you need to learn?” can also help us in our response to the final question posed: “What works?” in terms of student success and achieving teaching excellence. I would argue that Arts/Performing Arts Higher Educational contexts are uniquely positioned to develop the active, collaborative, critical and creative global citizens of the future, so it is vital that we listen to our students (and respond) in terms of how to facilitate their learning to ensure they are equipped for this challenge. 

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