On Arts Education: Changing the Paradigm in Schools

by Andrew Garcia

February 5, 2011

Perception is a big stumbling block when we advocate for arts education in general and arts integration, specifically.  If the arts are perceived as separate subjects and the domain of specialists a problematic situation arises in schools. This is where mental turf wars begin. I have been witness to the following (mis)perceptions: ‘Why are you pushing your subject on me?!’ ‘My subject is actually a CORE?!’.

Schools, intended or not, teach this divisiveness. Children absorb it and learn it. Once in middle school, our students who are still very concrete thinkers, really begin to believe this is true. We reinforce the notion by having students physically leave one subject class and go to another. It is up to them to bridge the gaps, to find the commonalities among subjects. Worse, students learn to place these subjects in a hierarchy with the arts being, if not dead last, close to it.  They may even articulate this without realizing what they are saying: “It’s only music class, why do we have to do this?”. Ironically, arts subjects are also where students are the most engaged, absorbed and ‘on’. It is precisely because of this ‘flow’- the ability to be engaged in learning without noticing that confuses students and teachers as well. It all just seems like "fun" as if fun and learning cannot be part of the same process.

The arts are about doing.  About crafting and creating. About building and dismantling and re-defining and refining according to what seems right, feels right, sounds right, looks right.  That doesn’t mean critical thought is not part of the process. Critical thinking precedes the process of creating and doing that the arts represent. Changing entrenched perceptions means starting a whole new conversation around, not the arts as subjects, but the arts as a doorway to doing, perceiving, thinking and creating. Adopting an arts-based approach to learning would shift the focus of classroom learning from a product-result-right answer orientation to a process-fluid-multiple perspective orientation.

How many of us have been disappointed when students ask a version of the following questions: How many words (paragraphs, pages, notes, measures) does it have to be? How much counts as an “A”?  The problem isn’t that students are naturally superficial. They’ve just learned to play the ‘how much’ game. Simultaneously, they have also learned to play the ‘right answer’ game.  As teachers we have collectively taught students that there is a ‘right answer’ and if you can figure it out (quickly!), you ‘win’. The more you can do this, the better student you are. The better the student you are, the higher your GPA. This right answer quickly approach is reinforced by timed standardized tests.

Few students value the processes of thinking, creating, reflecting and refining-and thus the quality of what they are doing- partly because they are being asked to churn out a ridiculous amount of finished home ”works" (to paraphrase Ron Berger). Since they get this request of so many teachers, they are overwhelmed and need, by necessity, to know what the minimum requirement will be to do well. Is this what we want? If not, how do we go about encouraging a shift in student thinking (and teacher practice)? Part of the answer has to do with changing that question of theirs. Instead of ‘how much’ we need our students to be asking ‘how come’ then have them investigate the answer(s) collaboratively. Furthermore, these investigations need to take them into real world spaces-either physically or virtually: Places and spaces that look familiar when students are NOT in school. The arts help to marry the 'real world' and school; the real 'internal' and external worlds of the student-worlds where learning is natural, not prescribed.  Interestingly (and thankfully) the processes of thinking, creating, reflecting and refining are not restricted to the arts. For example, as Professor James Zull reminds us, there is art even in such a seemingly ‘artless’ field as neuroscience: “The neuroscientist is also an artist. The very process of seeking understanding has its own mysteries”. That bears repeating: the very process of SEEKING UNDERSTANDING has its own mysteries.  Isn’t the process of seeking understating another way of saying learning? And isn’t learning at the core of this thing we call Education?

If all subjects were approached with a process orientation (and, perhaps but not necessarily with art-product ends in mind) there would be more learning. Genuine learning involves trial, error, failure, critical thinking, and creating by doing. It is also best approached in groups since the learning of one is amplified and augmented within a collaborative group. What are classrooms if not spaces ripe for potential collaborative investigation? It is the arts-especially music performance, drama and dance where learning to work with and within a group is an intrinsic part of the process. As teachers shift to 'artistic' modes of inquiry and learning, they have built in consultants right in schools themselves-arts specialists!

Beyond integrating art subjects themselves within other disciplines, I advocate for an adoption of artistic habits of mind to be infused within the culture of all schools/classrooms.  The subject separation that we teach at school is an illusion and it is damaging because it limits the potential of our youngest members of society.  It often takes real life well beyond school for students to begin thinking in connective, creative (arts-minded) ways.  There exists support for moving in the direction of artistic modes of learning. In the words of Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind: “The future belongs to a very different kind of person with a very different kind of mind - creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers and meaning makers.” Additionally, the Framework of 21st Century Learning as outlined by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills includes the now infamous 4 C's: Critical Thinking, Communication, Collaboration and Creativity. Sounds like the Arts to me. As districts adopt 21st Century protocols, they should look to the arts and arts teachers to help navigate the way forward.

References:

Berger, Ron. (2003). An ethic of excellence: Building a culture of craftsmanship with students. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Pink, D.H. (2005). A Whole New Mind. New York: Riverhead Books.

Zull, J. (2002). The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning. Sterling: Stylus Publishing, LLC.