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Interview with Professor Dietrich

09/09/2016 Prof. Dr. Cornelie Dietrich is professor of General Education Studies at Leuphana, where aesthetics education constitutes one of her main research interests. Since 2014, she has been lead researcher on the project on “Music. Voice. Language” funded by the Federal Ministry of Education. Through the interview, she describes aesthetics education’s fundamental features and how it relates to the project.

Professor Dietrich, aesthetic-cultural education is one of your main research interests. What does this expression mean?
Generally speaking, it essentially addresses those educational processes which are not only rooted in, but also inspired by, sensory perceptions. We are particularly conversant with this in arts, such as music or dance, where we make very specific aesthetic experiences. However, aesthetic-cultural education is handled more comprehensively as a subfield of general education research, that is to say, by and large as an essential dimension of education. It is utterly impossible to learn anything, be it mathematics or languages, or even cooking, manners or successful relationships, without involving one’s senses, one’s body. 

My research is primarily concerned with these dimensions of education in children. Younger children, in particular, learn a lot through their senses. In the course of their formal education, this gateway to the world is often pushed aside, or hacked up into single subjects. From a cultural point of view, I believe that this parcelling out and marginalisation is not to our advantage. And even the world of education policy is beginning to appreciate this reality. Learning through aesthetics implies not only receiving education towards cultural participation and the enjoyment of arts; its specificity, for example, brings people’s commiserations and empathy to the fore, as well as reciprocally felt strengths, weaknesses and imperfections. In the same vain, let us not forget that it was precisely (Bourgeois) artistic education which served as a means of class distinction from what is referred to as the lower order. Aesthetic education is, therefore, not as benevolent as many may believe. This is an aspect which the field of research also covers. 

You also published a monograph called “Introduction to Aesthetics Education”, which was republished in 2013. What question does it address?
Aesthetic education is a very broad field of research. This monograph, therefore, aimed at clarifying concepts which always crop up in connection with aesthetic education. It also intends to provide an overview of traditional aesthetic education. Theories on aesthetic education may have been in existence since Plato’s times, we, however, started with Schiller, that is to say, with German Idealism, as well as with John Dewey, with American Pragmatism. Furthermore, this monograph provides an overview of the most recent challenges to aesthetic education. Growing societal diversity, which is transforming not only our schools, but culture in its totality can be cited as example. I am persuaded that there are many possibilities to develop new cultural forms, which will not only “reflect,” but also contribute to shaping this diversity and necessary transformations. Forms of expression, however, must also be appreciated and established. Funding is a further challenge facing aesthetic education and is related to this issue. There are policies in place to slash the budgets for arts and culture, especially young peoples’. This is the reason why institutions, such as music schools, children’s theatres, which were able to make uninterrupted offers in the past, are now increasingly forced to discontinue their project structures and must make greater use of private funding, thereby bringing about a change in the discourse about what is worthy of funding, or considered as legitimate culture from a sociological point of view.

An example of the promotion of projects in the field of aesthetic education by public funds is the project called” Music. Voice. Language” funded by the BMBF (Federal Ministry of Education and Research), which prepares vocal artists without pedagogical training to interact with children aged four to eight years. The training is divided into three attendance phases, the last of which took place in August this year. In between, the participants have already developed and tested their own projects. Professor Dietrich conducts that project’s scientific monitoring.  

How did the project run? Have the participants already worked with the children during the workshops?
By this developmental research, the BMBF wants to encourage the interdisciplinary collaboration of artists and educational institutions. In spite of the great number of proposals, said collaboration often fails due to the difference in logic, which emerges when a freelance artist and an educator work together in one established institution, such as a school or kindergarten. Therefore, next to knowledge of child development and mediation, artists need to know about the logic behind institutional arrangements, to be able to settle there at all. The participants to the training, which is conducted at the Federal Academy for Cultural Education in Wolfenbüttel, included actresses, musicians and singers of different styles, circus performers and professional storytellers. These are all people who earn their money with their voices. It was very inspiring to watch this heterogeneity as a very productive, mutual enrichment. At the Federal Academy, small individual projects with children had already taken place between the attendance phases. Moreover, children who live in Wolfenbüttel were invited to the training, for which the participants prepared a programme. The instruction took place in small groups, and was followed by a reflection on how it went; this resulted in the integration of two education internships. These workshops were conducted by professional music teachers.Our research team guided this continuing professional development course. We videoed the participants and lecturers and put questionnaires to them. We also conducted group discussions. It means that practice provided the subject of our research.

Which subjects are these?
Well, on the one hand, the professional self-image of the artists I just mentioned, which is being quasi-educationally expanded in continuing education, and in part experienced as violently exasperating. There, representations of freedom versus constraint, goal-oriented planning versus open processes, artistic quality and its assessment play an important role. On the other hand, questions related to the success and failure of non-formal learning processes, which take place in such continuing education courses and beyond, may be important for such issues as school development where school is no longer confined to a classroom with approximately homogeneous learning groups, but must fulfil many other tasks, which may even include non-formal learning. And thirdly, we continue to take care of the relationship between the core contents, language, communication, and their musical and sonic dimension in artistic activity.

Did the projects developed by the participants in the attendance phases serve as foundation material for what can be realised later?
Yes and no. The artists have learned many things, designed their own projects, and are also capable to try things out straightforwardly with children. In some cases, this went well. One participant has carried out, for example, a theatre project with Syrian asylum-seeker children. During that four-week project, these children have developed scenes about their situation as refugees and also learned German – initially, they could only communicate by miming, but this is a core theatre-acting skill. Things, which are considered as deficits elsewhere, thus become main artistic design elements. I think that is educationally highly significant. The projects, therefore, provided an experimental exploration of the field between language, music and voice. For us, it was always about enabling children to accede to their own expressiveness and articulateness. And, like with any trial, some of our experiments did not run according to plan. This is when the participants had to take a few creative detours. But that comes with the job – and for us, by the way, it’s an exciting research field.

Do you already have preliminary results available?
We don’t have any findings as yet, but we are looking forward to next year, which we have left to evaluate the ethnographic data. But I am confident that we can contribute a lot of new material related to the issues raised. In March, a meeting is also scheduled, where we will resume the discussion about our results with the experts from the fields of education, music pedagogy, speech training and various humanities, before publishing them.

Why is restricting the activity to voice and speech, excluding, for example, the promotion of reading, so important to the project?
Voice links language to music. And particularly in the context of migration and inclusion, language represents a tremendous issue at school. That’s why we operated within that field. The prevailing idea was, then, that what is referred to as language acquisition, is really a desire to communicate, a longing for connection and  the audacity to become articulate, which is not necessarily always present in some children, but can be largely encouraged by aesthetic "channels". Of course this process can also be extended to literacy acquisition; one of our participants has done just that.

You have just addressed the topic of "Migration and inclusion". Did the project also focus on promoting the integration by children from migrant families?
Integration was not a main focus of the programme, but it evolved spontaneously through the participants’ actions. The accompanying research was responsive in design: The research is conceived so as to do justice, in each of the phases, to previous artistic experience and participants’ expectations. The participants themselves were in part from immigrant backgrounds, they are active in the intercultural context. That’s why they requested integrative topics, which were then incorporated into the project in the course of last year. Thus, the participants are not just research objects, but treated as experts in their own right. This is also what we’re trying to do in childhood studies.

For more detailed information

Prof. Dr. Cornelie Dietrich
Universitätsallee 1, C1.220
21335 Lüneburg
Fon +49.4131.677-1622
Fax +49.4131.677-1688

Interview conducted by Morgaine Struve, University Communications. University, research and study news can be send to