By Pro Ethical Trade Finland and Marek Kakaščík
Art has the potential to raise complex issues even with young audiences. A collaboration between an NGO and a dance company used a contemporary dance performance to talk to primary school kids about the consumption and sustainability of textiles.
Fast fashion is quickly becoming one of the most severe threats to sustainable development. It is a significant contributor to climate change – it produces roughly 10% of the world's carbon emissions, is the second-largest consumer of the world's water supply and pollutes nature's ecosystems with chemicals and microplastics. In Finland, consumers spend less money in fashion than before, but the quantity of clothes sold is on the increase.
Given that vigorous marketing and global consumer trends reach everyone at a very young age, there is an urgent need for innovative methods to discuss the issues related to the production and usage of textiles with children.
In Finland, the current basic education curriculum encourages such topics and methods. However, the feedback from teachers is that many don't have the expertise and resources for them.
Art is a powerful tool to communicate complex issues to children
There is plenty of evidence for the benefits of art education. In addition to the apparent benefits of art education at school, it can, for example, increase the sense of belonging in the classroom and lead to increased interactive skills and empathy in children. Dance, in particular, is currently not accessible to all children – studies have shown that there is a vast discrepancy in accessibility to dance art based on family background. A Finnish contemporary dance group, Willman Dance Company, creates original contemporary dance pieces that focus on the central questions of humanity.
Their children's production "The Empress' New Clothes" marries the method and theme: it concentrates on the sustainability of fashion and how it shapes social interaction in children and youth through social media. The dance production is accompanied by a photo exhibition that visualises the journey of the costumes used in the production – skillfully designed and upcycled from second-hand materials.
Topics related to sustainability are extremely timely in schools. Pro Ethical Trade Finland (PETF) is one of the non-governmental actors in Finland that promote awareness on human rights issues in the production chains of consumer products and sustainable consumption in general, for example, through organising workshops and teaching materials for schools. With the expertise from PETF, a workshop concept was developed for schools: the dance production could be brought into the classroom via video, and the children could dive deep into the theme in a workshop.
Bringing arts and critical thinking into the classroom
The Covid-19 pandemic meant adapting the original plans of running face-to-face workshops into remote learning. Thanks to the lengthy closure of schools, the students were already familiar with different online tools, and the teachers were excited to pilot a new workshop provided by an educator from an expert NGO.
PETF educator and the class teacher embraced the challenge. They co-created teaching material that includes the dance performance in video format, video lessons with the exhibition photos, exercises based on exploratory learning, as well as a teacher's guide for running the workshop. A narrative style suited for young ages is repeated throughout the exhibition as dialogue and questions in speech bubbles.
Extra time spent on planning paid off: the feedback was excellent. A creative, positive take on complex development issues through exploratory learning and personal experiences made the topic more accessible and interesting.
For example, in the exercises, the children were asked to examine the materials of their favourite clothes, mark production countries on an interactive map, and interview their relatives about changes in consumption.
According to the feedback from the children, the combination of professional art (dance and photography) and teaching videos was enjoyable, and the exercises were concrete enough for them to tackle even remotely. The class teacher and the dance company considered the workshop as a great way for children to learn both facts and values needed in "thinking green" and making a positive impact in general.
As recorded lessons are publicly available, the workshop can now be distributed even more widely than initially planned.
The pilot shows that performing arts, such as dance, can and should be used in teaching - both live and in video format.