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The Power of "What If" Learning

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By Gail Connelly, Executive Director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP)

What if students could build sculptures for an art-math expo? Or act out skits with a backdrop of life-size, student-created paintings based on stories they read? Or use LEGOS to program robots — and then film a movie about them?

These ideas are just a few of the winning proposals submitted this year from schools across the country for the Champion Creatively Alive Children grant program. This joint Crayola-NAESP initiative challenges principals to imagine innovative projects that bring the arts to life in their schools. Embedding the arts in everyday learning is essential for equipping students with 21st century skills — but it takes visionary, creative school leadership to take ideas from "what-ifs" to reality.

Arts education is a crucial foundation for preparing students to take part in a rapidly changing world. Arts-infused education spurs students to innovate, analyze, and apply what they are learning. For example, one way to learn geometry is with pencil, graph paper, compass, and protractor. But consider how learning changes when students use the fundamental theories of geometry to work in groups to craft a three-dimensional sculpture of the Great Pyramid of Giza. The result is complex problem-solving, a fundamental skill for career-readiness. In working with the arts, students develop the social competencies — teamwork, self-confidence, tolerance — they need for personal growth and to participate in their communities.

Study after study has tied arts education to better student achievement, higher student motivation, and increased student engagement — all linked to reduction in the drop-out rate. The comprehensive report "Arts Education in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools," released last month by the National Center for Education Statistics, indicates that most schools across the nation (80 to 90 percent) offer music and visual art programs. But there's still an access gap — having a dedicated art teacher, for instance, or delivering instruction throughout the year — between high-poverty and low-poverty schools. Plus, theater and dance programs (especially at the elementary level) are in danger of becoming extinct.

The key, in these times of lean budgets and high-stakes testing, is for school leaders, educators, community agencies, and parents to implement a little creativity in how we work together to protect and fortify arts education. The best way to use the arts as a tool for 21st century learning is to make sure it doesn't stop at the music room's threshold; it should instead be embedded into the curriculum. Educators can work together to design robust, project-based activities that cross academic disciplines. Project-based, arts-infused education involves teamwork among staff members and rethinking how students are assessed (across subjects, instead of through individual standardized tests). Principals can help foster connections between staff members, carve out time for comprehensive planning with core teams, and facilitate communication with parents about what project-based learning entails. Principals can also connect with community organizations, nonprofits, or local artists to enrich existing school curricula with performances or workshops, thus transforming the arts into a vehicle for community engagement.

Weaving music or art instruction throughout lessons is vital — but for a school to become fully arts-immersed, it must embrace a larger school and staff culture of creativity, too. School leaders set the tone for learning — it's up to them to cultivate an atmosphere of discovery where new ideas are encouraged. It's also the principal's role to organize open brainstorming sessions and professional development sessions that challenge staff to think differently.

Approaching teaching and learning in creative ways can be challenging for students, parents, teachers, and principals alike. But working together across disciplines, educators can create an arts-infused setting for learning, fertile for problem-solving and teamwork. Setting an example of innovation starts with us; inspired school leadership can transform "what if" to action.


Views expressed in this post are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.

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