Why teach the arts? This is the third 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! So the first two articles dealt with Taking a Leap and Engage and Persist.

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 Develop Craft i.e. learning skills and using them “attentively”, and caring for “materials, tools, works, and studio spaces” (p. 41).

This Studio Habit of Mind is interesting because learning skills is, of course, no different than learning skills in any other discipline. In English, we learn the craft of writing; in science we learn to write lab reports after carefully observing what happened in carrying out an experiment. But in art, you learn skills and use them “attentively”. What is fascinating about this is the assumption that the art teacher makes about the techniques learned. Far from rigid adherence to, for example, the color wheel, learning the basics frees the students to invent new colors and to practice trial and error on a constant basis. This “alerts” the students to the gap between theory and practice and keeps them aware of possibility that they might exploit. Developing Craft includes the idea of purpose. A skill is just that. A technique is always tied to a purpose – “making an idea visible”.

This teaching of the students to observe carefully, to use trial and error, to turn skill into technique and thus give it purpose, to experiment, to be “attentive” so that you know when conventions are useful and when conventions should be broken, all this is potentially radical in the development of deep learning. The metacognitive is constantly involved as well and standardized through the student’s maintenance of a portfolio that shows a progression of learning including the student’s accretion of skills and the use of those skills to evoke meaning.

The second half of this habit seems also at first glance to be pretty basic – clean-up at the end of the period. But there are depths to this practice as well. It, of course, has a practical basis to it. A brush that is not cared for may have to be thrown away with the waste of resources that implies; a floor that is not swept may result in dirt going on a painting and the loss of great effort. That much is obvious. The Habit is nonetheless proactive, not reactive. The environment is important because it supports learning – the studio space is intended for learning and its organization supports or does not support that. Cleaning, storing, labelling are all part of the artistic process.

Developing Craft, as with any of the Habits, cannot be developed in isolation. Or, rather, if it is developed in isolation it turns into drudgery and mere training. This is a helpful reminder about the inspiration that finding meaning has in teaching students. When the craft is merely a trained skill, the student feels neither excitement nor motivation. When the Craft becomes a technique, imbued with purpose, allied with stretching and exploring, taking a leap or risk, then the student experiences both excitement and motivation (at least periodically!).

This reminds us that in any kind of learning purpose is essential. When the student asks: why am I doing this? What use does it have? the student is asking an important question. If it has no utility, what is the point of doing it? The supposedly core academic subjects have a hard time answering that question. Algebra is an assumed good but even sites that sell online math education have a hard time coming up with good reasons for it, admitting that you will never use it again unless you teach it (a pretty self-serving argument!) or use it in a profession that requires it. In fact, it becomes pretty clear that most things we teach in school are not that useful in terms of being used later in life. Indeed, it is becoming clear that the economic benefit of a university degree that is well established is not based on the usefulness of the degree itself but the fact that it is the new high school diploma.

What the arts have going for them is that there is an obvious outcome that the student can be proud about whether it is a portfolio or the end of year show. There is an aesthetic pleasure that can be gained, an important increase in “attentiveness” that offers at least a glimmer of meaning. For most students much of the time, their courses are taken because they are essential to meeting graduation requirements. The reality that you need four credits in English guarantees English teachers jobs for life. The reality that most schools only require one credit means that students who take the arts are truly interested and dedicated.

Lastly, the student’s experience of excitement and motivation reminds us that to Develop Craft is to be focused on mastery learning. Unlike the textbook discipline of everyone having to be on the same page at the same time – a Procrustean exercise that has crippled millions of students – to Develop Craft is highly individual, tuned to the student’s own journey, and meeting the student’s own need. While everyone might learn color theory at roughly the same time, the application of color theory, the exploration of its possibilities, the capacity to invent and productively engage in trial and error, all these are connected to the level of mastery the student has at any given moment. Art is a spur to all teachers then to move to the concept of mastery learning to allow students the possibilities in their own subjects that are nurtured and developed in the arts.

The Studio Habit of Mind of Mind – Develop Craft – shows clearly that the 20th century vision of core academics is outmoded, if not actually a danger to good 21st century education. While colleges and universities are slowly but inexorably moving away from trust in standardized testing and leading universities consider portfolio applications – something art students have always done – schools can relax as they “add” art to its core program!