Why teach the arts? This is the second of several articles that look at the intrinsic reasons art is a critical part of how and what a student learns at school. In the first article, I noted that typical reasons for taking arts – that it is a benefit to other subjects and improves test scores – and suggested that was pretty weak, if not insulting. 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.

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. In the first article, we considered Stretch and Explore or Take A Leap. In this article, we will look at Engage and Persist. This is the ability to “commit and follow through”, a characteristic also known through words such a grit and perseverance that have been much in the news of late. Many researchers have noted the importance of students learning how to persevere including Angela Lee Duckworth, who researches, writes, and speaks about the topic. If you’re interested, you can ask your own students to take the ‘grit scale’ that is freely available.

Arts education is way ahead of the researchers on this one with the habit of mind that empowers students to exercise self-control as well as demonstrate perseverance. In Studio Thinking, the authors write: “Students are taught to identify their own passions and connect these to art projects, whether assigned or developed autonomously. They are also taught to focus, to develop mental states conducive to working, and to develop self-regulation. They are taught to break out of ruts and blocks, and to feel encouraged about their learning and motivated to go on”. What’s interesting about this is the connection made between intrinsic motivation and pushing on. As the authors put it, “Engagement is what makes someone want to persist”. In the art class, choice is automatic, reflection is continuous, failure is assumed as part of success, and the final product is important whatever its level of proficiency. This is hard to replicate in any other subject with the intrusive imperative of content and exams.

Thus persisting, grit, self-regulation all flow from intrinsic motivation and engagement. The teacher’s role in this is significant. Wherever the student begins in terms of their ability to persist and stay “on track”, the teacher is constantly there to ensure the student doesn’t “get lost” and is moving in a good direction. As the students practice these skills, they are able to do it for longer and longer periods of time. As one student puts it in Studio Thinking: “It was only (at this school) when I really started finishing pieces and that was a big thing for me because it’s like wow I actually completed something! And I like it!”.

The teacher’s role is also profound in the development of the student’s self-awareness. “The skill that makes engagement possible is self-awareness. Students need to be able to identify their interests.” Following on from Carol Dweck’s work on mind-set, they must also believe that they can improve and make a difference in their own work i.e. that they have agency in their progress. So self-awareness has two dimensions in particular – I can do it, and, I know what I am interested in.

Self-awareness leads to engagement;

Engagement leads to intrinsic motivation;

Intrinsic motivation leads to persisting and self-regulation.

Art is a powerful teacher for students in key attributes that they will need in their lives and will take into their lives whether they pursue art or not in their futures. It becomes apparent too that this process is always a natural part of art as a discipline as it should be of all disciplines. In art, however, it is taught systematically and from the beginning and is intrinsic to any art class. This is not so in disciplines where curriculum / content has overwhelmed process. Art has much to offer its students; it also has much in it to inspire its colleagues.