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by Eric Jensen
Table of Contents
Right from the start, it's imperative to understand that evidence from brain research is only one of many reasons to support the arts as an integral part of the educational process. There are studies that report benefits from a long-term arts curriculum, but many of them are deficient in some respect (Eisner, 1998). A recent Project Zero study (2000) cautioned against making causal links between arts and academic performance. This Harvard group is correct; arts are not to be used as a “quick fix” to shore up other nagging deficits in a district's educational process. Arts are for the long term; and one should be cautious in claims about how they affect test scores. In fact, a report by the Arts Education Partnership and the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, funded by General Electric Corporation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Champions of Change (Fiske, 1999), suggests that the influence of the arts is far wider and deeper than simply improved letter grades.
If we place value only on higher test scores—and if the tests measure only math, problem-solving, and verbal skills—the arts are at a clear disadvantage. If we demand quick results, the arts will not supply them. The arts develop neural systems that often take months and years to fine-tune. The benefits, when they appear, will be sprinkled across the spectrum, from fine motor skills to creativity and improved emotional balance.
In today's educational climate, delaying returns on investment beyond a few weeks is considered inefficient and sinful; and since art-making is inefficient, how does one justify arts in the curriculum? In the past, supporters of arts education tried to show it boosted test scores in other disciplines. Judith Burton of Columbia University gathered research to show that subjects such as science, mathematics, and language require complex cognitive and creative capacities “typical of arts learning” (Burton, Horowitz, & Abeles, 1999).
Eventually, though, the way the question is framed changes to, “Does music help math?” “Does art help language?” “Does P.E. help science?” That is ludicrous. The arts do not need—and may not be able—to justify their existence that way.
Second, and paradoxically, even if the arts did help every other discipline to a degree, it may not be the most efficient way to learn them. If students learn history through the arts, couldn't they learn it faster by doing it much more directly? It's essential to recognize that in this recent push for greater school efficiency (e.g., every minute counts), the arts are terribly inefficient. It is dreadfully time consuming to learn visual, musical, and movement arts. A theater group might rehearse for 100 minutes a day for 100 days to put on a single 90-minute play. For other students, long hours over several years are invested, with marginal artistic results. So now the question shifts to, If arts are not efficient, what are they?
The central theme of this book is that the arts promote the development of valuable human neurobiological systems. Theories of the brain exist that help us understand what is going on when we do art. Chapters 2–4 introduce separate theories for the musical, visual, and kinesthetic arts. It's not enough to say that the arts probably benefit us; we ought to be able to articulate what goes on in the brain to make that happen. Chapter 5 addresses controversial arts assessment issues.
The arts enhance the process of learning. The systems they nourish, which include our integrated sensory, attentional, cognitive, emotional, and motor capacities, are, in fact, the driving forces behind all other learning. That doesn't mean that one cannot learn without the arts; many have. The arts, however, provide learners with opportunities to simultaneously develop and mature multiple brain systems, none of which are easy to assess because they support processes that yield cumulative results. The systems and processes are not, in and of themselves, the results. Testing the processes instead of results can narrow the development of the very neurobiological systems they depend on. Students will restrict their artistic activities in hopes of better grades.
It may be more important, finally, to value the nonacademic benefits of the arts. Why be sheepish about the possibility that the arts may promote self-discipline and motivation? What's embarrassing about countless otherart benefits that include aesthetic awareness, cultural exposure, social harmony, creativity, improved emotional expression, and appreciation of diversity? Aren't these the underpinnings of a healthy culture? In Champions of Change: The Impact of the Arts on Learning, the contributors highlight some of the “take-home” messages about arts (Fiske, 1999):
Let's start with a question. What makes a subject or discipline a “major discipline”? How do we decide what is worth making everybody study and learn? It's a difficult question, well worth exploring. I believe educators can use seven criteria to define major disciplines like science or languages. Let's discover whether or not the arts receive a passing grade as a major discipline.
Often you'll encounter a person who is afraid that the “arts thing” is another one of the “liberal educational agendas” full of “touchy-feely” programs that vaporize when you try defend them. These critics of an arts curriculum have a concern—well, let me be more accurate—a deep fear. They fear that the arts are not as rigorous as, let's say, math. They fear students won't get the discipline of memorizing times tables. They fear the arts will compete for resources, or even that the arts might make education too enjoyable.
I have news for critics of the arts as a major discipline. Times have changed. The cries for cultural literacy and “back to basics” ignore significant evolutions in today's world. The promoters of more content per school year are living in the past. Yes, there was a time when scholars could master a good deal of what was known. It was called the Dark Ages. But information has begun doubling, again and again, faster and faster. Today, a heavily content-based curriculum makes less and less sense.
First, teachers' lectures and textbooks are no longer the primary sources of content in our world. Students are more likely to hear and see things on television or access information on the Internet. That changes the whole concept of an educational system as the source of content. Teachers can no longer stand in front of the class and tell students all the content they need to master. Filling the brain with knowledge is history. Content increases far too rapidly for mastery. Today, the “brass ring” in learning is not what you know, but knowing how to find information and how to use that information quickly, creatively, and cooperatively.
Second, high school graduation rates for the first 20 years of the 20th century were close to 25 percent. Kids typically left school after the 8th grade and went to work. But during the Great Depression, those rare and precious jobs went only to family breadwinners, and teenagers stayed in school.
By 1950 and through 1970, high school graduation rates in the United States averaged an estimated 50–70 percent. From the '70s to the end of the century, the number of graduates as a percentage of 18-year-olds remained close to 70 percent. The number of 25- to 29-year-olds with high school diplomas in 1995 rose to about 87 percent because of alternative programs such as night school (NCES, 1998).
More content added yearly
Fewer students graduate
Teach to the test
Dichotomy of logic vs. art
Knowledge is power
The Digital World
Students overloaded already
Inclusive, differentiated instruction
High graduated rates needed
Learn for a real world
Integrated art & science
Emotional intelligence is key
In the course of that increase in graduation rates, the educational agendas of the past 30 years became more inclusive. The students who used to drop out because of financial needs, behavior and attention disorders, poor memory, pregnancy, weak social skills, household violence, or a host of other problems, are now in schools. The bottom line is that so-called hard-to-reach students used to drop out. Now we are committed to helping them stay in school—and to succeed. The arts are the best vehicle available to do that job. This book presents data to support this claim.
Third, the Information Age is different from what you thought it was. Knowledge is no longer key now that everyone has access to it. Rolf Jensen, director of the Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies, gives us a glimpse into this new 21st century:
We are in the twilight of a society based on data. As information and intelligence become the domain of computers, society will place a new value on the one human ability that can't be automated: emotion (Jensen, 1999, p. 84).
So let me translate all of those real-world, workplace demands for you: Emotional balance and cognitive flexibility will become gold (if not platinum!) That's right. At the start of this new century, for those with emotional balance and cognitive flexibility, the world will be their oyster. They will have the social skills, self-discipline, and thinking skills to thrive in a fast-changing world.
Finally, those critical of the arts are stuck in the old dichotomy between the arts and sciences. They often pit the arts and sciences against each other in meaningless, irrelevant oppositions such as touchy-feely versus high standards, right brain versus left brain, intuition versus logic, or enjoyment versus hard work. None of those hold up under scrutiny if you understand the brain. Studies demonstrate that both the arts and sciences use both sides of the brain and, in fact, some of the arts may use more of the brain than most science. Still, to incorporate the elements that lead to better thinkers and better people, I believe elementary and secondary policymakers ought to cut the volume of content in half. Students are asked to learn far too much trivia that they'll never remember past test time. Be honest with yourself. How much subject matter content do you remember from high school? Most would say under 5 percent. Let's learn not to value something just because it is easy to teach, is easy to test, and makes politicians look good.
It's not the quantity of textbook pages assigned that makes students smart. It's how they learn to think about their new learning. Can they analyze it, critique it, and place it in context? Students need to study bigger, more difficult questions and to take the time to ponder and reflect. The more challenging and ambiguous the problems, the better. The more disciplines learning involves, the better. The longer it takes students to explore a topic, the better. We need less trivia and more in-depth learning about the things that matter the most in our world: order, integrity, thinking skills, a sense of wonder, truth, flexibility, fairness, dignity, contribution, justice, creativity, and cooperation. Does that sound like a tall order? The arts can do all that. We need more of the arts because they can do more of that than any other discipline.
The critic who wants students to focus on higher test scores is really saying, “I want someone who values doing well on tests. I want someone who feels strongly about the long-term gains that might come from the test. I want someone who, even though he or she might have a headache or the flu, will set their cares aside and do well on the test.”
But what does that critic really want? Isn't that critic asking educators to inculcate strong shared values and the ability to self-regulate behavior? The arts can help do this. But remember that high test scores are just part of the overall set of indicators as to whether a student is doing well.
Make the goal high test scores and you get a majority of students who get higher test scores and a minority who are turned off by learning and school. Make your priority better human beings and you'll not only get better test scores, you'll also get cooperative, self-disciplined, creative, and compassionate students with a real love of learning.
If you're wondering, right up front, if the arts-laden curriculum I propose will work, rest assured. One good model has been succeeding for more than 50 years: the Waldorf schools, independent, arts-centered institutions that are one of the fastest-growing educational models in the world, with 130 schools in the United States and 700 worldwide (visit the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America on the Web at http://www.awsna.org/awsna/ and search for Waldorf Schools; many schools have Web sites).
Other exemplary schools—not in the Waldorf system—include Anza Elementary School in Los Angeles; Eliot Elementary in Needham, Massachusetts; and Davidson Middle/High School in Augusta, Georgia.
At a Waldorf school, there are countless things to drive straight-line, high standards, bean-counting, highly competitive parents crazy. Waldorf teachers avoid textbooks. They heap on field trips, encourage journal reflections, downplay tests. These schools use the looping practice, where teachers stay with students for years, usually 1st through 8th grades. This places a premium on long-term relationships. Waldorf schools never force reading on students, focusing instead on love of languages and literature. Often children don't learn to read until age 7, 8, or even 9. Students often spend a whole year building a piece of furniture or a musical instrument. Valuable class time is used for community service. This kind of loosey-goosey schooling really tests the patience of anxious parents. Understandably, some panic and pull their children out of school.
But something must be working. Prominent educational figures such as Howard Gardner and Theodore Sizer admire Waldorf schools. Oppenheimer (1999) recounts a number of facts about Waldorf: On Scholastic Assessment Tests, Waldorf students outperform national averages. Waldorf school records are full of athletic victories over schools two or three times their size. At a local martial arts studio, the instructor muses, “In thirteen years, I've had two black belts, both Waldorf kids.” Graduates commonly get into the best universities. They often pass achievement tests at double or triple the rate for public school students. College professors remark about the humility, sense of wonder, concentration and intellectual resourcefulness of Waldorf graduates.
So what is the secret? How do small, underfunded private schools produce successful graduates like Oscar-winning actor Paul Newman, Nobel laureate and novelist Saul Bellow, and legendary dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov?
You may have guessed the answer. The Waldorf curriculum is heavily grounded in the arts. Younger students do drawings with crayons and colored pens every day. They work with puppets and dolls early on. Student notebooks are filled with notes, records, and observations from classroom experiments and field trips. Students give oral presentations nearly every day. Students hear fables and stories every day. They build wooden art objects from scratch, often taking months to complete projects.
Music is just as strong. All 1st graders learn to play a recorder, storing them in cases they build themselves. The schools offers jazz, choir, orchestra, and more. A day starts with singing and may end with a drama. Students learn math by hopping around an exercise room in a syncopated pattern. Movement, dance, and physical education are embedded throughout the curriculum.
Obviously, over the years, students learn a tremendous amount of science, literature and math. But they do it through the processes of the arts.
What does all this do for the students? Graduate Peter Nitze, who attended Waldorf then later graduated from both Harvard and Stanford, said, “If you've had the experience of binding a book, knitting a sock, playing a recorder, then you feel you can build a rocket ship—or learn a software program you've never touched. It's not a bravado, just a quiet confidence. There's nothing you can't do. . . .” By the way, Nitze is the global operations director for Allied-Signal, a multinational, billion-dollar aerospace and automotive manufacturing corporation.
Is there a lesson here for other schools? There could be—if you're looking for a way to not just raise test scores, but to raise better people, go through the doorway marked, “The Arts Taught Here.”
Copyright © 2001 by Eric Jensen. All rights reserved.
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