Non-examinable subjects such as Physical Education, Art and Music offer some of the best opportunities for students to discover and develop their individual talents and strengths.
Most students think of Physical Education (PE), Art, and Music (also known as PAM) as fun and stress-free. After all, there are no exams to take for them!
But PAM can be much more than a welcome break from academic subjects. Besides keeping our students physically robust and creative, these subjects can help students better understand and develop themselves and their peers as “humanistic” individuals.
Time and Space for Development
Our students are usually preoccupied with doing well for their exams and tests. They are probably cognitively very well developed, as much of each schooling day is focused on the academic development of the mind.
But what about other aspects of their lives, such as their ability to work with and relate to others, or the development of their relational capital? What about the forming of their personal identity and core values?
An advantage of PAM activities is that there are the significant elements of play, self-expression and creativity. Add to that lots of interaction with peers, and you get an outlet for students to exert themselves socially, emotionally, mentally and physically. These are key ingredients in the “cooking pot” of personality and values formation.
As students develop themselves in these various aspects, they are on the road to discovering their core beliefs, personal philosophies and ethical compass – their “humanness”, as Prof Chia puts it.
“Sports, Art, PE, Music – creative arts, particularly – provide time and space for young people to be themselves, and to discover what they can be, for good.”
Seeing Oneself in a Different Light
In the classroom, each student adopts a “classroom” persona, usually and in part determined by the grades they get. Those who do well will be seen as “smart” and tend to be respected more by their peers.
But students who are not strong academically may have other strengths. Someone who may not do so well for his Physics tests may be a gifted basketball player or a good project team player or an effective communicator.
Sports, Art, PE, Music – creative arts particularly – provide time and space for young people to be themselves, and to discover what they can be, for good.
– Prof Michael Chia, Office of Faculty Affairs
“The beauty of these PAM subjects is that they can lend themselves to self-discovery by students. We are also able to view people through different lenses, because people adopt different personalities in different situations,” notes Prof Chia.
He cites an example of students who may usually be very reserved and quiet but become “liberated” when they perform on the stage. This is where school and education acquiesce – schooling activities become discovery and educative activities that are meaningful to the students.
PAM also provides ample opportunities for students to shine and grow. Seen in this light, achievement no longer becomes defined by only academic results. It’s easy to forget that in life, there can be many different routes to success – some shorter, some longer, some common, and some less common.
“You look at people’s varied experiences – the top dancers, the top stage personalities, the top scholars. They may all come from very different backgrounds and have different experiences. But they all get there, right? Ultimately, that’s what we want for our society.”
What is important is that each child is helped and facilitated by the schooling experience to find fulfilment as a person and a valued member of society.
Facilitating Social-emotional Learning
When students are engaged in PAM, they express and experience the “whole spectrum of emotions”. And of course, these activities also encourage interaction among the students.
“There is a great learning of the self and others, provided there is scaffolding provided by the teacher,” Prof Chia says.
For such social-emotional learning, the role of the teachers is no longer to teach but to facilitate. “In the real sense of education, it’s not the child adopting your standards,” he adds. “It’s the child learning to cope with an emerging new world.”
Never underestimate the wisdom that young people have.
– Prof Chia on listening to students’ voices
Sometimes, adults are tempted to “short-circuit” the learning process and just skip to the outcome, or the “moral of the lesson”. But our students need to navigate their way through the challenges, and teachers should come in only when necessary.
Students can become co-creators of their own solutions. For example, when disputes happen between students, teachers are usually called in resolve the situation. Why not give the students the chance to get to sort out the issues themselves first?
When Less is More
While in the past PAM was mostly about teaching the techniques or skills in PE, Art or Music, now they are seen as one of the best opportunities to develop 21st century competencies in our students. What can PAM teachers do to provide a more holistic educational experience?
“Sometimes less is more,” Prof Chia suggests. Teachers can do less teaching, and allow more interaction and peer-sharing among students. Listening to students’ voices is paramount.
“You start with the end in mind, a certain vision of what you want to see in your class, or what you want your class could be, for good,” he stresses.
Of course, it’s easier said than done. There’ll always be some “messiness” when teachers are not taking full control of the situation, and there may be trade-offs, but it’s okay. When experimenting, there are mini-failures and mini-successes in the process; one cannot do without the other. Very often, the learning is deeper and more meaningful in failure than in success.
It is important for others to frame “failure” as a failure to learn from the situation. For example, a school may decide not to focus so much on the results of students’ physical fitness tests, and instead emphasize group sports that encourage team-building.
While their students may not be as fit as before (as judged by the fitness tests), they now know their peers better and know how to work together as a team. These become the building blocks for even greater things to come.
Change Takes Time
Helping students to discover and develop their “humanness” is a worthy goal. But it may take a while before teachers can see the fruits of their labour. Prof Chia advises them to be patient and not to rush for results.
“Don’t be so kan cheong (impatient)! Some things will take time. And human behaviour doesn’t just change overnight.” Desirable and humane behaviour needs to be affirmed within and outside of the classroom.
And as teachers journey with their students in this process of self-discovery, who knows, they may gain some useful insights of their own.
Prof Chia recounts a valedictorian speech where a former NIE student teacher shared her experience of counselling a student from a broken family. She came away feeling that “the counsellor became the counselled”. The teacher was moved by how the student persevered and came to school every day despite the difficulties at home. These are humbling lessons as even adults may not display such resilience and positive traits in the face of adversity.
“Never underestimate the wisdom that young people have,” Prof Chia says, because they are the ones who face the present context and it can be very enlightening to hear their perspectives.
“When we say that the future lies in the hands of the young, do we really mean it?” he asks. “Are you trying to shape them in standards which will be outdated or irrelevant? Because if they did everything that you say would be good, it would not be so because the future context will be different.”
Instead, what we want is for them to become humanistic thinkers and leaders. Contexts may change, but their values will remain. And as he reminds us, these future leaders “are going to make policies for the rest of us!”
So as teachers or significant others in our students’ lives, we need to plant the seed, fertilize, water and radiate warmth for kindness, empathy, resourcefulness and self-leadership to take root and flourish among our youths. “Educators really have to empower them now through guidance,” says Prof Chia.
In so doing, the trees of the future, in the jungles of this globalized world, will provide good shade and bear sweet fruits.