How is culture education relevant to primary and secondary education? We may now be closer to answering this ever-recurring question. Researchers at the University of Groningen working on the national Culture in the Mirror project have developed a theory about the function and effects of culture education. In their view, subjects like history, social studies, philosophy, religion, languages, music, drama and art are perfect tools for helping children to develop their own view of reality. Culture in the Mirror concludes on Thursday 20 March with a conference in Zwolle, which will be attended by 600 professionals from the education sector.
Prof. Barend van Heusden, Professor of Culture and Cognition in the Faculty of Arts of the University of Groningen, has spent the last four years heading a research project entitled ‘Culture in the Mirror, towards a continuous curriculum for culture education (CIS)’, which is exploring ways of reinforcing the cultural awareness (and self-awareness) of children and adolescents. The project was carried out in collaboration with teachers in primary and secondary education and the National Expertise Centre for Curriculum Development (SLO). It was funded by the VSBfonds, the Ministry of Education, Culture & Science, the SNS Reaal Fund and the Cultural participation Fund FCP.
So why should we invest in good culture education? ‘The way that people see themselves and/or other people ultimately determines their behaviour. If we want children to function effectively in a democratic society, they must be encouraged to develop a self-image and a vision of the world around them’, says Van Heusden. Van Heusden and his team used theoretical and empirical research to show how children develop insight into themselves and others. They found that the best results are achieved when teachers of different cultural subjects work together and devise lessons on themes that suit the cognitive development phase and perceptional world of their pupils. The new theory is substantiated with didactic frameworks and sample lessons that teachers can use to devise good culture education curricula.
Van Heusden goes on to explain that clarifying the distinction between the terms ‘art’ and ‘culture’ was an important aspect of the research. ‘A lot of people wrestle with these terms, including teachers. The primary focus of culture,’ he continues, ‘is to examine the way we relate to the world around us. During lessons in cultural subjects, pupils reflect upon what they think, what they do and what they make. Art, which focuses specifically on illustrating an experience, is part of this process. It’s a skill that we all possess from the age of four, which we can use to get a hold on life.’
Twelve primary and secondary schools in Groningen, Rotterdam, Bourtange and Hoogezand took part in the CIS project. Art teacher Imka Buurke from Praedinius Gymnasium in Groningen was involved in the project from the start. At her school, pupils in years 3 to 6 are given parallel culture lessons devised around themes such as ‘insanity’ and ‘emotion - rationality’, and around certain periods, such as the Middle Ages. ‘Enriching’, is how Buurke describes the new teaching method that will soon be introduced in the lower years too. ‘Traditionally, teachers teach their own subject, and so neither pupils nor teachers can see the interesting cross-connections between movements in literature and visual art, for example. Working together and coordinating our lessons has taken our cultural education to a higher intellectual plane.’
Buurke does not think that cultural subjects have a high social status. ‘I often have to explain the point of my work to people. The CIS theory not only gives me a good story, but also forces to me to make hard decisions about the content of my lessons. I now realize just how important our work is in helping children to develop a sense of self-awareness.’ Buurke has noticed that the quality of essays and projects submitted by pupils has improved since the introduction of the broad-based approach with its strong emphasis on reflection.
This is the first large-scale study of a continuous curriculum for cultural education to be carried out in the Netherlands. The Flemish government adopted the CIS project and intends to introduce the new method into schools in Flanders in the near future. The system in the Netherlands is different. Schools here will be free to choose whether they wish to take advantage of this opportunity or not.
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