Unified in Diversity

The UNESCO UNITWIN (University Twinning and Networking) programme, which aims to generate new ideas for existing university courses while respecting cultural diversity, covers new ground at its inaugural Arts Education Research for Cultural Diversity and Sustainable Development network meeting.


Through the public forum on April 26, the UNITWIN and the UNESCO-NIE Centre for Arts Research in Education demonstrated and reinforced their capacity as a burgeoning international arts education research think tank, Dr Lum says.


rts education is important in fostering cultural diversity and sustainable development, and experienced educators have developed strategies to overcome difficulties encountered in the field. These and insights on the connection between art and diversity were among the topics discussed at the inaugural UNESCO UNITWIN (Arts Education Research for Cultural Diversity and Sustainable Development) network meeting, hosted in Singapore from April 26 to 28.

The international network, which shares cross-cultural wisdom on arts education research and cultural diversity, was established last year by Singapore’s National Institute of Education (NIE). Its coordinator, Associate Professor Lum Chee Hoo, Visual and Performing Arts Academic Group, NIE, Singapore, and head, UNESCO-NIE Centre for Arts Research in Education, says its aim is to “further the research agenda on international arts education, specific to cultural diversity and sustainable development goals”.

A one-day forum on April 26, International Perspectives On Cultural Diversity And Arts Education, featured presentations by 134 arts education researchers, practitioners, and organisations from Australia, Canada, Colombia, Germany, Hong Kong, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kenya, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, Singapore and Thailand.

The Singapore International Foundation (SIF) presented its Arts for Good initiative as an example of the network’s mapping in arts education for cultural diversity and sustainable development practices. Dr Lum says that Singapore’s hosting of these events have “paved the way for an exciting research collaborative among international experts in the years to come”.

“The leadership by the Singapore team, with support from the Singapore UNESCO National Commission, the National Arts Council, the SIF and NIE has great potential to push UNITWIN’s research agenda. The forum has already reinforced our capacity as a burgeoning international arts education think tank, and Singapore is an impressive place for global networking,” he says. “This model might be applicable to other countries in the UNITWIN network in the future. Its crossover of cultural diversity and common values, based on economic growth, makes Singapore an extremely interesting place and model for the questions the network raises.”

SINGAPORE catches up with a few of the participants, and gets them to share some insights on their roles and concerns in the field, and how they have surmounted common obstacles.

What is the role of arts education in fostering and promoting cultural diversity?

Dr Lum Chee Hoo (LCH): Arts education creates a safe space for people to encounter cultural diversity, a protected space to focus on, interact with, dialogue about, critique, reflect on, or even fuel activism related to multiple issues. These issues include heritage and tradition, similarities and differences, changing and shifting identities, preservation, fusion, and renewal.


Associate Professor Ralph Buck, Head of Dance Studies, Faculty of Creative Arts and Industries, The University of Auckland, New Zealand (RB): Arts education fosters the provision of conceptual, physical, ideological “spaces” (times and places) where cultures may be articulated, represented, and examined. Cultural values and beliefs are both invited and implicitly present within these spaces and become part of the critical lens that informs how learners/ teachers make, read, and share knowledge. Diversity is not a new 21st century competency. It is a foundational element/constituent of every civilisation and ecosystem. Arts education...requires cultural diversity as a core part of its teaching and learning process. Empathy for and tolerance of diversity is an outcome of arts education, because examining and creating what is different is a core objective within most arts education curricula.

Professor Susan Wright, Director, Melbourne UNESCO Observatory of Arts Education, Australia (SW): The arts honour the significance of symbols and the important role that symbols play in reflecting the ideologies of communities. They highlight the fluidity of time through generations...and reward creative engagement and communicate meaningful truths with an eloquence that no other media can match. Diversity increases the range of choice for people and communities, nurturing creativity and innovation. It also boosts the potential for creative dialogues resulting from interactions of diverse cultures (Mar & Ang, 2015). Arts education opens avenues for such dialogues because it liberates symbolic means of communication that tap into deep layers of meaning.

Dr Ernst Wagner, Friedrich-Alexander- University Erlangen-Nuremburg, Germany, UNESCO-Chair in Arts and Culture in Education (EW): Cultural diversity...can cause problems, if people are not able to understand each other. To learn to understand each other is the task of education. To learn to understand different cultural ways of cultural expression is the task of arts education. The arts offer huge resources to get deeper insights into the narratives of different cultures. To understand these narratives is the basis for mutual understanding. Thus, arts education can play a pivotal role in promoting cultural diversity.

Professor Emeritus Larry O’Farrell, UNESCO Chair in Arts and Learning, Faculty of Education, Queen’s University, Ontario, Canada, with Ms Tiina Kukkonen, a doctoral student at Queen’s University (LF): Sustainable-environmental education through the arts can encourage learners to empathise with and appreciate the needs of their natural surroundings, promoting the lifelong pro-environment behaviours needed to sustain our natural world. Another concern is the eradication of individual cultures and local economies in favour of a larger global socio-economic network...Education and research institutes across the global North focus on the arts as a way to connect people to place, culture, and community; and to envision a future where the needs of individual cultures inform the products, services, and overall economic development in northern regions. The arts have similarly been used in cities to address the rapid transformation of the urban landscape and what it means to live in a community of constant change. In the face of a migration crisis affecting many parts of the world, along with an attendant rise in xenophobia, racism, religious intolerance, and violence against minority communities, the application of pedagogies, such as the arts in education, which have demonstrated a capacity to foster intercultural understanding, is of paramount importance.

What are some of the challenges in incorporating cultural diversity into arts education?

(LCH): Broadening the knowledge bases and opening the minds of arts educators and stakeholders to allow a plethora of possibilities offered through cultural diversity into their arts classrooms and communities. An example of this is the need to keep reminding arts educators to steer away from silo and stereotypical images of cultural representation, and to consider the inclusion of artists and artistsʼ works that reflect fused, glocalised cultural identities speaking to the ambiguous and changing nature of the globalised, technologised space we live in.


(RB): They include studentsʼ inability to see anotherʼs perspective; teachersʼ unwillingness to invite anotherʼs perspective; a curriculum that assumes there is only one way to see, make, critique, teach, learn the arts; and a policy or systemic reluctance to accept diverse cultural perspectives.



(SW): In Australia, the Mar and Ang (2015) report – Promoting Diversity of Cultural Expression in Arts in Australia (Sydney: Australia Council for the Arts) – identifies three key approaches (community-, artist- and industry-based) to dealing with cultural diversity in arts-based education. The challenge is to find ways to apply these approaches within arts education practices.


(LF): Narrow interpretations of what constitutes an arts education activity limit the impact of arts and learning. While educators in many countries appear to understand that artistic activities in schools fall within the general category of arts education, fewer than half view practising as an amateur artist or musician in the same light. This indicates that the significance of informal (out-of-school) arts education is not widely recognised. Similarly, the intercultural/ transcultural/identity component of arts education occupies a relatively low position in the spectrum of recognised arts education practices. Perhaps most troubling is the inequity of access experienced everywhere. Another significant challenge is the gap between the relatively healthy scope of arts offerings in schools in more affluent countries and far fewer opportunities in less affluent parts of the world.

(EW): You can compare this with the experience of travelling to other countries, or even different communities in your own country. We are all shy, more or less. And to get in touch with the “other” can cause fear. Fear is our biggest challenge.



How do we overcome these challenges?

(RB): This is usually done by carefully constructing a teaching and learning forum for diverse views to be expressed and discussed. This requires a type of pedagogy that tolerates discussion, process, participation, rather than excellence, hierarchy, outcomes. It also requires the teacher to openly invite diversity not as “the exotic” but as the norm – everyone is different and therefore everyone needs time to articulate their context, cultural position, and vision.


(LF): The partnership of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO, the Canadian Network for Arts and Learning, and the UNESCO Chair in Arts and Learning at Queenʼs University, has prepared a position paper as a first step to reinvigorating the Seoul Agenda. It proposes an approach to developing strategies that can be adapted within diverse contexts. Project partners will initiate change within their own contexts using the proposed strategies and model examples, and encourage others to commit.


(EW): Patience, endurance, modesty.




(SW): As reported by Mar and Ang (2015), ways to overcome such challenges which may be applied to arts education include: working across cultures (beyond a narrow “multicultural arts” perspective); building cultural capabilities by developing strong cross-cultural partnerships; locating arts practices within “cultural cycles”; dialogical curatorial processes to enhance diversity of cultural expressions; and enhancement of artsʼ ability to resonate and make a difference.


(LCH): By opening up our minds, allowing for, and not being fearful to dialogue about ambiguity and difference, and using the arts as a sounding board to engage deeply with issues relating to cultural diversity.



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