Are the other school subjects disciplines?

The final piece in this series looking at disciplines, and their associated disciplinary and substantive knowledge.

What about drama? Music?  Art?  Dance?   P.E.?

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Could dance ever be a discipline?

Drama, music and art have cropped up frequently in public debate since the Ebacc – it is believed by some that it has undermined the arts in schools, and that many schools are dropping them from their curricula.

What I find most interesting when thinking about these three in the context of a disciplinary model is that they rarely seem to be taught in that way.  All three are taught more often, I think, as ‘performing arts.’  Pupils are taught something about reading music and playing instruments (often badly, unless they are part of a serious music programme which dedicates substantial time to practice…)  They spend time role playing activities in drama.  They spend time drawing with pencil, water colours, crayon or creating montages from textured items.  This is fine as an approach… but I just realise that these three also have disciplinary components that are never even considered in mainstream debate.

Drama has an extensive and rich disciplinary history stretching back to antiquity; the same is true of art and music.  These narratives are explorations of the human condition that evolve with time and social context.  When we consider ‘art’ in school, though, do we really think that ‘art appreciation’ or ‘history of art’ is what is being taught?  So naive was I to the relevance of art history to modern life that when I heard of Prince William choosing it in 2001 that, in my head, it rang out as a complete ‘non-degree’ – what on Earth could there possibly be that was worthy of study?

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Should drama be about role play in school, or the academic study of theatre… or both?

What I’m noting here isn’t that art and drama and music arr in some way ‘unworthy’ or ‘less subjects’ – performing arts are very important in my opinion.  I’m just observing a total blind spot in our appreciation of what can or should be offered in schools, one which wasn’t entirely apparent to me until I started to consider the distinction between disciplines and non-disciplines.

Dance and P.E. I suspect would be more difficult to treat as academic disciplines.  While perhaps not impossible for dance… I can’t see how it would work for sport.  Though maybe I’m missing something – after all professional sport is ever more research informed, and could the history of sport tactics be studied in the same way as military history?  Even if so, what’s great about this framework is that it allows to ask clearly whether or not this is what we want.

Is it?  Is P.E. about training up professional athletes, off the back of only two hours a week, or is it more about ensuring an ever increasingly sedentary population have some opportunity for physical exercise?  Is dance also about physical exercise, or is it about putting people in touch with their bodies, as Ken Robinson has said, or is it about giving people a useful social skill, or is it about appreciation of the art form?  Do we teach music so that everyone can play an instrument later in life, or do we do it so that everyone can appreciate music beyond the transient pop culture, and explore the human condition through the art form?

It’s only once we’ve realised the forms that a ‘subject’ can take in schools that we can ask and answer these questions, and set our minds to school education with purpose.

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About Kris Boulton

Teach First 2011 maths teacher, focussed on curriculum design.
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2 Responses to Are the other school subjects disciplines?

  1. suecowley says:

    Students don’t really spend their time doing ‘role play activities’ in drama, or at least not in the drama lessons I taught when I was doing secondary. It is more usually approached via improvisation (different to role play) and the study of theatrical aspects such as mask, set design, lighting, monologue, etc. At GCSE level (depending on the course you do) there would be a substantial element of study of plays, the history of theatre and trips to live performances in addition to students developing pieces of their own. Those students who study dance to GCSE level at school would, I imagine, often be taking classes outside of school to learn the discipline, and may well have done so for a number of years (children will often begin studying ballet age 5 or younger).

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