Arts Education Advocates Speak Out

A block of marble reveals a secret

I am sharing some insights by a few profound thinkers on the subject of arts education.  I hope you will find these ideas though-provoking.  Please let me know what you think.  If you have a quote that should be included, share it in your comment.

The Disappearing Arts

“In America, we do not reserve arts education for privileged students or the elite. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds, students who are English language learners, and students with disabilities often do not get the enrichment experiences of affluent students anywhere except at school. President Obama recalls that when he was a child ‘you always had an art teacher and a music teacher. Even in the poorest school districts everyone had access to music and other arts.’

Today, sadly, that is no longer the case.”

– U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, April 9, 2010


The Integrated Arts

“The arts in the schools do not, cannot, and should not exist in isolation.  They necessarily must operate in the framework of general education.  When they are part of the curriculum of American schools – and this cannot be taken for granted – inevitably they are there because they give students an indispensable educational dimension… The arts are affiliated with the schools’ important responsibility to pass on civilization.”

-from Strong Arts, Strong Schools by Charles Fowler
1996 Oxford University Press


The Arts Equation

“Education minus art? Such an equation equals schooling that fails to value ingenuity and innovation. The word art, derived from an ancient Indo-European root that means “to fit together,” suggests as much. Art is about fitting things together: words, images, objects, processes, thoughts, historical epochs.

It is both a form of serious play governed by rules and techniques that can be acquired through rigorous study, and a realm of freedom where the mind and body are mobilized to address complex questions — questions that, sometimes, only art itself can answer: What is meaningful or beautiful? Why does something move us? How can I get you to see what I see? Why does symmetry provide a sense of pleasure?”

-Jeffrey T. Schnapp is director of the Stanford Humanities Lab at Stanford University, a prominent cultural historian of the 20th century, and a frequent curator of art exhibitions in Europe and the United States.


The Squandered Arts

“All kids have tremendous talents and we squander them pretty ruthlessly… We (educators) stigmatize mistakes… We are educating people out of their creative capacities… We don’t grow into creativity, we are educated out of it.”

-Sir Ken Robinson, PhD is an internationally recognized leader in the development of creativity, innovation and human resources.


The Teaching Arts

“Learning to think within the affordances and constraints of the material is one of the things that the arts teach… we can look at the arts as tasks which develop the mind because of the kinds of thinking that they evoke, practice and develop… What we need in American education is not for the arts to look more like the academics… but for the academics to look more like the arts.”

-Elliot W. Eisner, Lee Jacks Professor of Education and professor of art at Stanford University, speaking in September 2006 on “What Do the Arts Teach?”

Are American Students World-Ready?

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There are many reasons for a child to receive a compulsory education.  In ancient Greek and Roman cultures it meant training young men for military service.  During the post Civil War era it provided leaders for the industrial age.  Many modern students focus on career-preparedness.  Before we can address “education reform” we have to have an objective.  Any teacher knows that lessons plans begin with a goal.  What is the goal of a transformation in how we teach?  A new term that has cropped up in many blogs is world-readiness.  The information age, a period of development that may prove more potent than the European Renaissance, provides for global networking that could barely be imagined in the fast-moving 1970’s and 80’s and even 90’s when many teachers were having their own student experience.  Our students can now see children in remote villages all over the world in real-time.  American kids can see videos of their Japanese counterparts’ decimated homes shot with cell phones on the day the tsunami struck.

Instead of identifying these fast times as too fast and fighting to hold this technology at arm’s length, we have an opportunity to engage students in a conversation to help them identify what information is useful, entertaining or meaningful.  By learning to categorize the information that comes in at what we old farts qualify as “too fast”, young people will begin to make valuable fast-paced decisions that insure world-readiness.

The hit-and-miss style of education we’ve been pursuing probably looks to kids like a grand game of Whac-a-Mole.  Take a whack at the math mole, then swing for the science mole before an arts mole pops his head up for a split second. While this compartmentalization of subjects has served a purpose, a change is long overdue.  We have to address the need for world-readiness by teaching and mentoring students in the decision-making process rather than in the traditional “reading, writing and arithmetic” model.  In his own style, Stephen Nachmanovitch promotes this type of learning as does James Gee.  Nachmanovitch says,  “The important thing is to start someplace, anyplace.” While Gee points out “We can put you [the student] into a goal-directed world in which you’re directed to solving problems.” They both agree that holistic learning can have value far beyond the surface subject area.  Study after study shows that when kids are allowed to research, try out different scenarios, problem-solve with their peers and fail without the consequences of poor grades and low scores, their learning has legs.  Digging to the deepest part of a problem garners answers even teachers miss.  This kind of learning is invigorating but scary.  If educators don’t have the answers, we become students as well.  The possibility of creating a learning environment where students can choose a medium and pursue the ancillary subjects while learning the basics makes curriculum choice a real option.  Learners can choose what interests them and identify the information trail they want to follow.  This is closer to the real world than anything we are currently doing in education today.

World-readiness is about having the tools and soft skills to make meaningful choices.  Too many young people are graduating from college without the ability to make a potentially wrong decision.  Our current education model frowns upon risk-taking and yet it is one of the absolutely essential skills for solving world crises.

As teachers we can help students develop their own determinism.  If they are learning anything outside of school it is this cause-and-effect model we echo so poorly in the school setting.  We have an opportunity while this conversation is gaining momentum, to make certain we know why we want education to change.  Get ready world, here comes the next generation.

Art is Everywhere!

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Art is everywhere.  It is in everything we use, see or express.  The art we experience is the art created by millions of people who express creativity through design.  These are people who move beyond traditional models of art.  They have all been practicing artists.  Because of their commitment, training and creativity, we are so immersed in the arts we aren’t even aware of it.  We respond to the arts as a fish responds to water.  We rarely acknowledge its existence.  When we do, we speak of music, visual art or theater as if they are things we must create in order for our children to have an “arts experience”.   Kids are no more cognitively aware of their arts immersion than the adults.  Let me give an example: When I wake up, I often hear music on my radio.  This is an obvious arts experience.  But when I trudge to my bathroom I am immersed in design.  My toilet, mirror, sink, the colors on my bathroom walls, the shape of my toothbrush may be based on utilitarian notions, but there is an artistic design element to everything I use.  Even if everything were gray and made of steel, someone would find a way to insert a level of personal expression into a utilitarian product.  This ubiquitousness of artistic expression is not limited to design.  According to Mr. Webster something is theatrical if it “has the qualities of a staged presentation”.  If I attend church or synagogue or mosque or even a Buddhist temple, there is theater just as there are players in a courtroom, classroom or sports arena.  We call these events by different names but the term ‘live theater’ applies.  Dance is also an area of self expression that shows up everywhere from the traffic circle to the crowded hallways of Grand Central Station.  Many of our driving patterns are choreographed as are the flight patterns around an airport.  It is our perception or lack of it that makes artistic expression seem scarce.  Let’s return to my modern morning ritual.  At some point I will dress in clothing designed by an artist.  It won’t matter if I bought it at a thrift store or WalMart or Saks Fifth Avenue.  Before it could be made, it had to be sketched.  The design was then rendered through an artistic process.  Trial and error revealed a useful, aesthetically pleasing garment.  Fabrics and details were selected which were also designed by artists in those fields.  After all this creativity a piece of clothing appeared. The same goes for my coffee and creamer and anything that didn’t come directly from the earth.  The coffee maker I use is different in design from my brother’s coffee maker, or my sister’s, or my parents’.  If there is no need for art outside the areas designated for expression, why is there a need for differently designed appliances?  Business leaders understand the appeal of design.  They spend billions of dollars on designers and artists every year to create products that appeal to our cultural and aesthetic sensibilities.  If there is no need for art outside of its designated areas, there is no reason for design.

There has never been a time in history when art was not being created.  There are numberless examples of profound works of art emerging from dark periods of human history.  This includes the great Jewish artists of the Holocaust, Byzantine art following the fall of the Roman Empire, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, the photography of the Great Depression and Dustbowl period.  Even the balladeers, bards and brilliant thinkers of the dark ages whose work is lost to us set the stage for the European Renaissance that followed.  The indispensable and urgent human need to express has been with us since cave paintings and dances ’round the fire.  After I finish writing this blog post, I will grab my beautifully composed leather bag and place in it my aesthetically pleasing computer full of music and media files.  I will walk outside my house that was designed by an architect who was  an artist in the field of building design.  I will press a button on the elegantly fashioned car key that opens the door of my goldenrod minivan.  There will not be a moment in my day when I do not experience another human being’s artistic expression.  This expression is not about talent, it’s about practice.  For everyone who believes it is more important to learn the answers on a test than to learn how to artistically express an idea, it’s time to wake up and smell the artisan coffee.

A Lengthy Literature List for Learners

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This is an excerpt from an article in the Sunday, March 13 Tulsa World newspaper.  In it my friend, Suzy Griffin, lists several books as a recommended canon of classic literature for secondary school students.  She made a point of telling me it is by no means complete and isn’t necessarily meant as a read-all.  It is simply a collection of books useful to a shared literary and cultural experience.  Of all the things we do as teachers, teaching students to read, understand, and communicate using the written word is the most relevant teaching we do.

From The Tulsa World, Sunday, March 13, 2011:

“There’s a reason these books are considered classics,” said Susan Griffin, a department head at Edison. “They tell the stories of our history and our culture; there are allusions everywhere around us, from restaurant titles to song lyrics to crossword puzzles.  “Whether you love them or hate them,” she said, “reading the classics adds a depth of knowledge to our understanding of the world.”

So, starting from the age of 5, here’s a chronological list of some of the books Griffin and her fellow instructors think people ought to read in a lifetime:

The Cat in the Hat or any other books by Dr. SeussMother Goose; How Droofus the Dragon Lost His Head, Bill Peet; Where the Sidewalk Ends and The Giving Tree, Shel Silverstein; Aesop’s Fables; Black Beauty, Anna Sewell; Heidi, Johanna Spyri; The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame; Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, E.B. White; Winnie-the-Pooh books, A.A. Milne; The Little House on the Prairie series, Laura Ingalls Wilder; Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie; Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking-Glass, Lewis Carroll; Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson; Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain; Little Women, Little Men and Jo’s Boys, Louisa May Alcott; Trixie Beldon, Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys and Bobbsey Twins books; The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, Howard Pyle; King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table, Roger Lancelyn Green; Anne of Green Gables series, Lucy Maud Montgomery, Agatha Christie books; Sherlock Holmes books, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; The Count of Monte Cristo, and The Three Musketeers, Alexander Dumas; Anything by Edgar Allan Poe; The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien; The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane; To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee; A Tale of Two Cities, Charles DickensThe Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle, Washington Irving; Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe; War of the Worlds, H. G. Wells; The Once and Future King, T.H. White; Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl; A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith; Ivanhoe, Sir Walter Scott; Idylls of the King, Alfred, Lord TennysonWuthering Heights, Emily Bronte; Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte; Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen; The complete works of Emily Dickinson; Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier; The House of Seven Gables and The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne; Moby Dick, Herman Melville; Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Thomas HardyAnna Karenina and War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy; Anything by William Shakespeare; The Odyssey and The Iliad, Homer; The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde; Walden, Henry David Thoreau; Les Miserables, Victor Hugo; Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell, Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes; The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald; Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck.”

For some, this list might be your summer reading challenge.  But for many of us (I am included) the list simply serves as an example of the quality of literature that makes for a lifetime of excellent reading.

How to Walk in Your Students’ Shoes

Thalhimers, shoesWe’ve all heard the phrase “Walk a mile in another man’s shoes.” How exactly do we teach our students how to do that when we struggle with it in our own lives?  I learned a neat technique many years ago that allows me to experience first hand how it feels to be one of my students.  When I remember to use it, the technique gives me some real perspective into the experience of being with me in a conversation.  I tried it out with my son this morning and he said I should blog about it.  He suggested teachers use this tool to see how it is to be one of their students.  Here’s how it works:

Find an empathetic friend and tell your friend about a particularly challenging student (or person in your life).  Don’t use too much detail, and it’s not necessary to use actual names.  You know who the person is.  This is a broad stroke exercise.  You want to give your friend information that explains why the student is challenging, such as, “He always argues with me,” or “She never seems to be paying attention.”

Next, pick a topic.  You can talk about homework, a class project, or even the lunch menu.  It doesn’t matter what you talk about.  What matters is that you notice how it feels to be the other guy.

Third, ask your friend to participate in a conversation with you.  Your friend will be playing the part of you.  This gets a little tricky because rather than play yourself, you get to play the annoying student.  Your job is to be the student when the student is at his best; no annoying habits, arguments, or backtalk.  Your friend gets to play you when you are expecting the worst from your student.  Your friend will behave in this made up conversation as though he is you when you are annoyed by the expected behavior.

Finally, have an impromptu conversation.  As you play the student, notice how it feels to talk with someone who expects the worst from you.  It takes only a minute or two after starting the conversation to see just how difficult it is to be your student under these circumstances.

This seems like a fairly simple exercise but it can produce profound insight.  As teachers we have no control over whether our students have a good breakfast, lose a pet, or have a rough start to the morning.  We can only control our own behavior.  This is true in every area of your life.  When I had three kids under the age of five with me most of the day I would remind myself when patience wore thin that my kids will remember my response to their antics long after they have forgotten their challenging behavior.

It is a simple but important thing to remember:  Children have good and bad days just as adults do.  We hope as we grow older we will develop coping skills that our students may not have discovered.  These soft skills are often overlooked when people talk about what it is that educators do in the classroom.  Teachers, however, are keenly aware of the lessons we teach every day that have nothing to do with what’s on the test.  When it seems the curriculum is overshadowed by “teachable moments”, take a breath, find a friend, and practice what we teach: compassion, active listening, and walking in another person’s shoes.

The Lost Generations of Arts Education

Ken Busby is the author of this post on the Americans for the Arts website.  He is also the director of my local Arts and Humanities Council.  I think Ken has some insight into the missing piece for promoting arts education: the business community.  I hope you enjoy his blog.  We are very proud of the work Ken and the staff at the Tulsa Arts and Humanities Council does.  It would be so cool if every community had a similar staff of arts advocates.


The Lost Generations of Arts Education.

Students Will Decide How They Are Educated

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When I was growing up and my family had dinner table conversations, I was allowed, encouraged even, to express my opinion on just about any subject.  As I became a teenager I grew to believe my opinion mattered.  But as a teenager in the late 70’s I had strong opinions but lacked the information to back them up.  My kids have opinions and ideas based on real information.  If I want to debate who rode the bomb in the movie Dr. Strangelove, it’s a very short conversation.  In my youth we could spend half an hour debating this topic.  My kids don’t even take half a minute before they go to and tell me it was Slim Pickens.  It’s not that they’re equipped with bigger brains or faster synapses.  They are trained in information retrieval.  They know 10 times more stuff 100 times faster.

This ability to access information faster than our 1976 Zenith TV could warm up means now we debate ideas rather than information.  Information is at our fingertips so there is no need to debate it.  Many in education argue that our students lack the experience to know what information is legitimate.  We assume our children are not experienced enough to tell the difference between fact and fiction.  Kids today are experts at discerning the difference between good and bad information.  We certainly want to help them develop their BS radar but that comes with time.  My generation is trained to accept the word of an individual who appears to be an expert.  My children, however, know how to find the source of the information.  They listen to the experts interpret what the President said in the State of the Union speech and then they watch the President’s actual speech.  They may even read the speech online.  This generation is culturally literate for modern as well as historically significant culture.  On the one hand they’ll  catch Charlie Sheen‘s Tweet where he claims to have invented Tulsa, their birthplace.  Then they’ll turn around and look for examples of letters and other scanned documents from early historical figures and read contextually the parts they only see in quotation marks in books.

It is absurd to think professors will sustain the attention of a class of 200 students with a chalkboard and a clip-on microphone when students have wi-fi and a laptop in the classroom.  Complain if you want, but it’s like saying teenagers shouldn’t think about sex.  The pull of relevance is too strong and higher learning institutions must become relevant or die.  This problem is just as pronounced in secondary schools but the compulsory nature of K-12 classes means change will come more slowly.

Universities are closely linked with the free market economy and the savvier students become, the more likely it is they will comparison shop.  When they compare colleges, it is unlikely lecture-style classrooms will appeal to them.  What a lecture provides in two hours sitting in uncomfortable chairs can be found by a resourceful student in twenty minutes sitting on a couch in the Commons.  Perhaps this will be the educational model; a group of students sharing resources and developing projects while hanging out in their pj’s.  What will that mean for the living and working environments of the future?  Who knows?  It could mean our kids will spend more time with their families.  Maybe they’ll get back to sitting around the dinner table debating Dr. Strangelove.

Check in every Monday, Wednesday and Friday

Here’s  a very short video for you! I realized that when life gets hectic I am a little slower to post so I came up with a plan: I will post blog entries on Monday, Wednesday and Friday every week.  That way, you can check in to see what’s on my education radar.  In the meantime, I’ll keep reading and surfing so you stay up to date on the news about what’s going on in the world of compulsory education, especially as it relates to the arts.  Thanks for reading.  Look for some other exciting changes this week and feel free to let me know what it is you would like to see me discuss on this blog!

Arts Teaches 21st Century Skills

In 2004 The Partnership for 21st Century skills released a document that should have everyone in the world of education jumping through their hatbands.  Although there are some articles touting the efficacy of this bit of research, there isn’t quite the fanfare one would expect for such a project.  I have my theories as to why we might want to ignore a project that turns our current learning model on its ear.  But it is out there.

Cutting edge businesses such as Apple, Blackboard, Intel, Lego, Microsoft, Oracle, Verizon, Cisco and many others are deeply involved in the conversation to raise awareness.  If we pay attention to what progressive business leaders and visionary educators have to say about why, what and how we are teaching rather than how much it costs to prop up the old model, we might see positive, groundbreaking, grassroots social change.  According to Ken Kay, President of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, (this link is less than a minute and worth your time). “There is no doubt that creating an aligned 21st century education system that prepares students, workers and citizens to triumph in the global skills race is the central economic competitiveness issue for the next decade.”

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills arts map is a simple, colorful, 17 page, brochure-style document that can be used for curriculum development in all areas.  There are four other skills maps and three literacy maps as well as a variety of other resources and valuable information.  Each of the maps comes with a more precise framework definition document.  The entire project looks to the future of knowledge and education.  The emphasis on media literacy,  life skills and technology seems a no-brainer, but we avoid considering the obvious because of economic short-sightedness.

It is no surprise to arts teachers that the Partnership for 21st Century Skills has at its core an education model that looks very similar to the one arts educators have been using for decades. It features critical thinking, collaboration and innovation and emphasizes integrated learning.  For some of us, integrated means we made an art project depicting the Lewis & Clark expedition.  But for arts educators we understand the value of integration in our curriculum.  It isn’t necessary to explain to students that “today we are going to learn a math skill” when they enlarge an art project using a grid.  We don’t have to explain integration of physics in our curriculum when demonstrating how the pulley system works to operate the grand curtain at a stage proscenium.  There is no discussion of a history lesson when the choir teacher explains the Baroque period.  It is commonly accepted that all arts teachers are integrative.  It is not otherwise possible to teach an arts class.  I am by no means suggesting that science teachers do not expect to teach some writing skills or that English teachers wouldn’t run across a history lesson.  I am saying that our current model compartmentalizes learning in a way that has no parallel in the real world.

If we are to address widespread resignation, poverty, labor skills deficits, teen suicide, juvenile crime and our economic position in a global market, we must first address the most profound influence on young people outside their families; we must transform our education system.  If we do not, we will see a continued increase in the gap between haves and have-nots, a rising budget deficit, decreased standing in a world market and an eventual slide into 2nd World status.  It is time we got serious about joining the 21st Century.