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The Arts Are Essential

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How have we arrived, once again, at a place where the arts are considered something that can be separated from the learning experience we offer children? At the very time we are talking about the value of developing students who are able to create and innovate, the arts are being threatened. Innovation, the focus of this century, will surely be rooted in science and technology. Thinking that STEM programs will be the solution to producing graduates prepared to create these innovations is an incomplete view.  STEM programs designed to entice students into science, technology, engineering, and math without redesigning the whole school experience represents old thinking. STEM at its best incorporates the arts to engage the part of the brain from which creativity arises. Depth comes when we examine how children learn, generically and individually. That investigation leads to programs that require curiosity, problem solving and project based experiences. Robert Root-Bernstein and his colleagues reported The Arts Foster Scientific Success. Their study suggests that "creativity in scientific endeavors are correlated to creative activities outside of science." Just think about the number of Nobel Prize Winners who were artists as well as scientists. 

In other times of financial stress, schools have resorted to "art on the cart." Now, in the 21st century, we are once again struggling with diminishing resources, changing standards and curriculum, and issues relating to accountability. The accountability issues may very well be second only to the financial limitations that impact our value for the arts. "If they don't count, then we can't afford to invest in them" is the thinking that leaders must resist.   

In his February 18th article in Edutopia, Jeffrey T. Schnapp, director of Stanford Humanities Lab at Stanford University wrote about the arts and said,

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?

The answers to those questions are both very personal and somewhat universal. But none can be answered without activating a different part of the brain than the part that accumulates all the information presented in 13 years of education. The arts are where we expand our ability to transcend generations and cultures. The recognition that the current dynamics of human interaction happened centuries ago as well and are recorded in literature offers a perspective no lecture or textbook can offer.  The masterpieces of painters and composers, long gone, move us still. And, we can learn about textures, colors, light and sound. Producing art is an expression that connects one from the inside to the world. Music offers a study in changing times, experimentation, and expression that reveal the undertones of each period. Art is both about the creation of the piece and the appreciation of it. Simple appreciation needs attention and development these days.

A model program exists in Arizona. The Tucson Unified School District has been recognized for its integrated arts program called Opening Minds through the Arts (OMA).  It

...uses the arts to teach academic standards in math, science, reading, writing and social studies and is designed around state and federal standards. In OMA schools, all ethnic backgrounds, regardless of socioeconomic status, showed improvement on mandated tests...in all tested areas. The quality of the OMA Program and the documented student achievement results have gained national recognition from the U.S. Department of Education, Harvard Project Zero, Arts Education Partnership, and others.

In a recent OMA newsletter it was noted that they had adopted the Harvard Visible Thinking Protocol and had made a concerted effort to train their staff, not to replace other practices, but to integrate it into their repertoire. It is also important to note that this same school district that has had this arts program in place for several years, and has improved testing results to show for it, has also what they call both STEM and STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) programs.  Both programs are aimed to deliver instruction in an inquiry and project-based format and naturally, and essentially belong together. STEM cannot provide invitation to all students unless its basis is the way students learn, which must include the arts.  And none of it can be successful, unless its basis is project and problem based. 

In 1991 Blumenfeld, Soloway, Marx, Krajcik, Guzdial, and Palincsar wrote a paper on motivating project-based learning. In it they concluded in part:

It is important to emphasize that project design, teaching and the use of technology, all need to be considered as opportunities for marshaling existing student motivation, creating opportunities for motivation, and sustaining motivation once project-based learning activities are underway.

Most teachers are confident that if their students were engaged and motivated, they could teach them.  Well, we suggest that the evidence is telling us that presently we have students with a wider range of values about education, abilities, disabilities, challenges both in and outside of our buildings, health issues, and socio-economic and cultural differences. At the same time, we are pressed to finally make changes to our system that offer a more relevant education to our students, preparing them for the world in which they will live as adults. We have to make it different. Without art, we deny students the opportunity for

...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 (Schnapp, 2014).

And it is through those experiences students will be better able to attend to other complex problems in science, technology, engineering, math, and society with the skill, engagement and motivation that every teacher wants for their students. Minimizing the arts makes no sense but neither does preserving them as a separate and apart from academics, especially in this time of focus on STEM subjects. They are interrelated.  While we are struggling to find the best way to best educate today's students, we cannot let the arts slip away. 

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