Is measuring essential?
11/03/2015 | from Michael Wimmer
The questionable benefits of data collection in order to compare the field of arts education
Measuring is awesome. Measuring is even essential for survival. Our perception of reality has reduced its focus on the measurable parts of the world. Parts that aren’t measurable do not exist anymore and their non-existence is of no concern.
No wonder that quantifying has become an important issue in the field of arts education as well. It is a consequence of the discussions about PISA which boils down to trying to reduce education to a very small set of data to explain its use for the system. Due to the prevalence of counting and rankings even the sceptics among those working with arts education abandon their principles and have begun to perceive measurability as central to their field.
I dealt with the question of “Is arts education measurable?” for the first time in 2007 in the context of an international meeting. In my input to a meeting which dealt with evaluation I pointed out the value of the unmeasurable parts of arts education. I wanted to reveal the historical background of what we perceive as valuable in the context of arts education today and pointed out that it is impossible to sum up the importance of arts education by reviewing some operating figures.
About the dual nature of work
I obviously struck an infusible objection which deserves to be discussed further – in this case with help of Karl Marx’ labour theory of value. I do know that Marx’ instruments for analysis are not booming at the current state of capitalistic methods of production, nevertheless is his separation of the term work very useful. Marx divided work into value-creating activity that cannot be quantified or transferred into some sort of product and work that can be measured in its quantity (for example in form of working hours) and therefore be purchasable and sold at a specified price.
The current state of economic activity reduces work to its nature as a quantifiable product. Therefore everybody involved in the economic process tries to convert work into products: work is to be quantified, calculated, counted and its effects evaluated. People seeking work use all their energy to convert their manpower into a product and everything aims to optimize the surplus. No wonder that this all-embracing state of mind (and work) also affects education as the pre-stage to and preparation for the working environment.
If we follow this train of thought we might end up in a world like in the classic film “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”. Some of those who mobilize against this tendency in quantifying employment postulate that non-measurable aspects of our personalities should be included and seen as an equal part. They do not want to be reduced quantifiable functions but postulate the importance of emotional and cognitive aspects of their personalities for their work (they tend to forget though that this global understanding opens up new forms of exploitation as well).
Freedom and the unpredictability as a central value of arts education
More and more arts education is expected to prove direct and verifiable effects. Some statistics about financial resources and manpower can be determined for the field of arts education and might even be useful in some contexts. It gets harder though when it comes down to specific and subjective dimensions which cannot be measured easily. As part of culture and therefore following its principle, freedom is essential for the field of arts education and is critic to any form of comparison. Often measuring and comparison are perceived as a restriction of pedagogic and artistic autonomy.
Compared to other fields processes in arts involve a person and his/her personality as a whole not just certain parts. This is also one of the reasons why all work put into trying to define and measure arts education as a whole failed and will probably continue to fail (especially when one takes into account the different perceptions of reality due to different languages).
Difficulties in talking about and measuring arts education
There are quite a few previous efforts to be mentioned, that tried to create a data base that allows cross national comparison. Why do we think that there is a need for this comparison? And, if so, who will use the produced date to what effect? These efforts had – among others – honourable goals like a closer connection of the people engaged in the field of cultural education across national borders or to allow transnational and transparent exchange of information and experience. Nevertheless one has to admit – they have failed so far. There are a few explanations one can take into account for the difficulties in finding comparable data:
Those engaged in national culture and education politics are not very interested in objective collection of data when it comes down to arts education. Instead they will promote successful projects in the media (like the Venezuelan model “El Sistema” or the British project “Creative Partnerships”) and try to implement parts of the idea in different contexts, be it politics, economy, social or cultural contexts.
Another reason can be the different perceptions and traditions of arts education (or in the field of youth and education) and language based difficulties, like different meanings underlying terms in different countries (like the German term kulturelle Bildung which lacks an equivalent in English).
Another reason is the tilt in existing data: There is a lot of data about education in schools, although its importance for cultural education is decreasing compared to the informal sector of education. The informal sector as an agent of socialisation in the context of arts and culture is barely explored. If this does not change there is little hope for a set of data across different contexts of arts education.
Arts Education Research as transfer
Currently I sense the danger of the field of the arts education research, politics and the scene itself diverging. They tend to follow their own logic and do not take the possibilities of teamwork and referring to one another enough into account.
Especially applied science offers a lot when it comes down to connecting the different agents in arts education. It could mediate between the political expectations to calculate and measure input and output of arts education (since the different fields of politics compete for resources and are supposedly only comparable through numbers) and the difficulties of identifying indicators to measure the success/effect in the field of arts education.
And what actually is the problem?
Colleagues from the Netherlands and Germany seem to be convinced to give the international comparison another try – this time with the help of a questionnaire. Therefore I urge again not to see the simple fact that something is comparable as progress but to rethink the reasons for our wish to compare. Before starting to compare, one needs to take a close look at the problem that is hoped to be solved by comparison.
My proposal in Utrecht was to look at the state of the public welfare in different nations to find correlations to the state of arts education. The situation of the youth for example gets more and more difficult, which might lead to an even bigger lack of interest for arts and culture. One can expect that the reality of life of those addressed through arts education differs a lot from the picture that arts educators have of their target group.
But this might be another topic that the scientific community tries to hide through the collection of comparable data instead of addressing it.
picture credits: the title picture of the blog is an interactive graphic with country-specific information about cultural education, which can be viewed on the website of the Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung.