From STEM to STEAM: Bristol’s Cultural Curriculum

Arts and culture are invigorating classrooms in Bristol thanks to a pioneering new curriculum being developed by artists and teachers combining creative arts and STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths).

The Bristol Cultural Curriculum has been developed in response to the declining curriculum time devoted to teaching dance, drama, music and art in schools as they come under increasing pressure from the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) to deliver results in STEM subjects.

Led by Bristol Music Trust, who run the city’s Colston Hall and award-winning music hub Bristol Plays Music, the project has seen the creation of 72 tailored lesson plans covering 300 activities, all developed through collaboration between artists and teachers.

Pupils learning about power dynamics through drama

Working with some of the city’s key arts organisations, Bristol Old Vic (drama), Chango Music (music), Theatre Bristol (dance) and Room 13 (art), and teachers from E-ACT multi-Academy Trust, who run four schools in Bristol, lesson plans have been developed which use four cultural disciplines to teach, inspire and invigorate the core curriculum – turning STEM into STEAM with the addition of Arts as a vital part of a rounded education.

As an example of how the subjects are being combined, power dynamics in engineering is demonstrated through the shift of power between two pupils dancing. The physiological mechanisms of the voice box and diaphragm are explained through performing poetry and song, and mathematical formulas are taught using musical instruments to decode a ‘mysterious alien language’.

Pupils learning about maths through dance

The scheme has partnered with the University of West of England’s Education Department, whose trainee teachers are now using the lesson plans to run sessions on placements in schools across the South West.  And on Wednesday 23 May all four E-ACT schools will give over their classrooms to second-year trainee teachers from UWE for a piloting day using the lesson plans to teach the curriculum.

This partnership with one of the West of England’s most respected universities and the Academy Trust will provide vital feedback as to how the plans are working in practice in the classroom, helping Bristol Music Trust further refine the final lesson plans and evaluate the programme before they are made available this summer for use from September.

In an early vote of confidence for the curriculum, the University has already deemed the plans such a success that course-leaders are planning to embed it as a teaching module in its degree course. That means when students go on to teach anywhere in the country, they will be taking the teaching combination into schools as part of their practice.

Pupils being taught through drama

The Cultural Curriculum comes at a vital time for education, which has seen creative arts subjects substantially reduced in classrooms in recent years. Taking music as one example, according to the Economist (1st March 2018) the UK’s music industry is worth £4.4 billion each year, yet the number of music GCSE students has fallen to its lowest level since 2007 at just 5.5% of the overall pupil population.

Phil Castang, Director of Creative Learning and Engagement at Bristol Music Trust, said:

“We felt it was important to respond in a positive way to the decline in the amount of curriculum time dedicated to creative arts subjects taught in schools by using creative teaching methods to inspire and invigorate the existing curriculum.

“Subjects like drama, music and dance are being increasingly pushed into after-hours sessions, such as paid-for school clubs. The Cultural Curriculum lesson plans give teachers and schools ready-made resources that ensure the arts don’t disappear altogether from the classroom to become the preserve only of those who can afford to pay for it. What’s more, it enables creative and critical thinking, skills which will be vital in the economy of the future.”

Andrew Evans, associate head of UWE Bristol’s Education and Childhood department said:

“It has never been more important for the teachers of tomorrow to engage in training and practice in the teaching of ‘Foundation’ subjects, especially in the arts and creative fields. Our trainee teachers will benefit greatly in engaging with this exciting collaborative project.”

Hilary Dunford, Head Teacher of Ilminster Avenue E-ACT Academy, said:

“Without an incredibly strong cultural curriculum, our academy would not achieve the outcomes it does for all of our pupils. All our staff here know why it is important and heavily invest their preparation and teaching time in it, always going the extra mile to design and create powerful learning experiences. You can see it in almost every aspect of our curriculum. It not only engages our youngster’s brains in their learning through enjoyment, but also provide memorable experiences which they might never have.

“We also teach music discretely as we know the power of learning a musical instrument significantly improves brain power and capacity for learning. Our children learn to read basic music rhythm in Reception and this continues all the way to year 6 where the current cohort are a full orchestra. We are very pleased to be involved in the Cultural Curriculum project as it is what we live and breathe every day”.

The Cultural Curriculum has been supported by funding from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation.

More information on the Cultural Curriculum will be available from the Bristol Plays Music website from July/August.