Taking a Leap
What is the value of teaching the arts? Elliott Seif gives 10 pretty good reasons for doing so:
Reason 1: Many children come to school and stay in school because of the arts.
Reason 2: Children learn positive habits, behaviors and attitudes through the arts.
Reason 3: The arts enhance creativity
Reason 4: The arts help students develop critical intellectual skills.
Reason 5: The arts teach students methods for learning language skills.
Reason 6: The arts help students learn mathematics.
Reason 7: The arts expand on and enrich learning in other subjects.
Reason 8: Aesthetic learning is its own reward.
Reason 9: Children’s arts talents and interests are developed.
Reason 10: The arts teach teamwork!!
But it’s intriguing that only four of the ten reasons (2, 3, 8, 9) really think about the arts as having value without having to make the child a better mathematician or reader. This is fairly typical of arts rationales. Far from thinking about the arts within their own rights, most justifications lean heavily on what the arts can contribute to something else. That something else is, of course, always connected to test scores. Sure enough, the National Art Educators Association quotes the same reasons and, just to punch the point home, has articles about ESSA (the inheritor of NCLB) down below. That’s not good enough. If you are an arts teacher, you shouldn’t have to justify your discipline on the basis of what it will do for test scores in LA and Math! No, the Arts are much more important than that!
Studio Thinking: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education (Teacher’s College Press, 2007)—takes a different approach.
First, it points out that there is no good research that actually connects the arts to skills in other classrooms. “We amassed no evidence that studying the arts, either as separate disciplines or infused into the academic curriculum, raises grades in academic subjects or improves performance on standardized verbal and mathematics tests” (p. 2).
Then it articulates 8 Habits of Mind that it contends the arts do teach, and teach extraordinarily well: develop craft, engage and persist, stretch and explore, envision, reflect, express, and observe. Empower would like to briefly take one of these each month and suggest their power within a 21st century curriculum. Hopefully, this will be helpful to arts teachers in their curriculum development and in their advocacy for the arts in their schools. It should also be helpful to teachers in other disciplines who embrace divergent thinking to spur greater innovation in their own work.
We will look at Stretch and Explore here. The sub title of the chapter is ‘Taking A Leap’ and that encapsulates the point of this Habit of Mind. While all disciplines talk about risk-taking, only the arts truly embrace and does not penalize taking a risk / leap. In any other subject, getting something wrong is reason for loss of marks and a grade that suddenly dips. Got the answer wrong in a science lab? Lose marks! Got the answer wrong on a history essay? Lose marks! Indeed, one of the biggest fears students express is around losing marks, lowering their grade, not qualifying to take a higher level course, being advised to lower their expectations.
The dictum of Stretch and Explore in the arts is, however, entirely the opposite. Here, exploration is rewarded; process is much more important than answer; mistakes are an opportunity for discovery; rules can be followed and not followed and even new rules invented. “The end product is not important; only the process matters” (p. 91). The intent is to lose inhibition and be inspired to experiment. This does not imply at all a lack of form, structure, challenge, and standards. It does imply that, of course, the student does not know what clay, for example, can do; of course, the student is not aware how to build structures. The arts, instead of giving the answer, provides a highly effective playground within which the student is always pushing the limits. One student is quoted as saying: “I think the most important think I’ve learned is thinking outside the box. Coming up with interesting solutions to interesting problems” (p. 95). Stretch and Explore asks students to live in an ambiguous world where there are “infinite solutions”, and where they are to “play around, to take risks, to discover what can happen, and to try out alternatives”.
The process leads the student from a dependent relationship on the teacher where the teacher initiates to self-direction that includes both self-awareness and intrinsic motivation. One of the goals of education must surely be the ability to self-direct and to be so engaged as to be self-motivated. That cannot happen without the encouragement to make mistakes in order to discover what’s possible. Stretch and Explore does just that.