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March 2011 | Volume 68 | Number 6
What Students Need to Learn
Bonnie B. Rushlow
We must preserve a place in the curriculum for high-quality visual arts education.
Have you ever visited a nationally recognized elementary or middle school? Most likely, its halls were covered with outstanding student artwork. The visual arts are part of what creates a positive, inviting learning environment. In fact, a good visual arts program is often at the hub of a top-notch school (Rushlow, 2007).
Why is learning in the visual arts essential to a high-quality education? As a longtime elementary and middle school arts educator and now a professor of art education, I have seen visual arts programs deliver three main benefits:
To fully provide these benefits, however, school-based arts programs must be have adequate resources; must be taught by highly qualified teachers who understand the importance of the arts in education; and must center on activities that encourage creativity and skill building, rather than on prepackaged or teacher-made activities or just free art time. That means these programs need strong and visible support from school administrators.
A substantial visual arts education program develops skills that anyone aspiring to be an engaged, contributing 21st century adult needs—and that are essential in the citizens of countries that wish to compete globally. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills (2004) identifies skills students must be taught to prepare for an increasingly complex world. These include creativity and innovation, critical thinking and problem solving, and communication and collaboration.
We continue to hear cries from U.S. business leaders that they need more high school or college graduates prepared to be creative, innovative employees. Unfortunately, high-stakes standardized testing forces many schools to teach to the test and to teach a narrower range of subjects rather than develop such skills as innovation, flexibility, persistence, and critical thinking.
Enter the visual arts. Substantial training in the visual arts can correct this narrowing of subject matter and skills. Lois Hetland and her colleagues at Harvard University's Project Zero describe eight "studio habits of mind" that can be found in the art classroom: the tendency to observe, envision, reflect, express oneself, explore, engage, and persist—with the eighth habit being to understand the art world (Hetland, Winner, Veenema, & Sheridan, 2007). Eliot Eisner (2004) identifies skills that the visual arts teach, including flexibility, expression, imagination, and the ability to shift direction. Eisner also notes that making art teaches people to make good judgments—rather than to find the "right answer"—and to realize that problems can have more than one solution.
Flexibility and problem solving are inherent in the visual arts. Every time an arts educator teaches a particular unit or project, even one taught many times before, the contours of that unit change because art teachers not only give information to learners, but also constantly pull from those learners' imaginations. As an art teacher, I've seen students get upset because something doesn't go right with a project—paint drips where they didn't intend, for example—and lament, "Now I have to start all over." If I say, "Well, why not see what you can do with that?" even very young students will start thinking about how they might be more flexible, use their imagination, and make the "mistake" work. Making mistakes is part of the creative process, and students who are allowed to take risks learn problem-solving skills that they can apply in other academic areas of the curriculum.
The visual arts promote active, complex learning, and they are highly motivating. Technology has changed the way young people perceive and learn. Teachers are responsible for delivering instruction that competes with their students' digital world; visual arts can do that. Arts education equips students to form their own mental images and use those images to solve problems or to think up new ideas (an ability that engineers and architects frequently use). It requires students to actively use their hands and eyes to bring ideas into concrete form. And research indicates that high school arts programs often help students who are at risk of dropping out remain in school (Barry, Taylor, & Walls, 2002).
Jerome Kagan (2009) recently expressed his belief that students struggling with traditional academics might get a chance to shine in the arts—a chance that could change their future school trajectories. If early-elementary-age students had more opportunities to experience success and parity with peers (particularly in areas other than math and reading, where large performance gaps between students at this age are common), they would be less likely to give up on school learning. Kagan notes,
An eight-year-old having difficulty learning to read at grade level whose artwork or musical instrument performance is far better than many of the children in the top 30 percent on reading or arithmetic will experience a sudden boost of confidence that, in some cases, is generalized to the formal academic domains.
When you visit an exemplary art classroom, you'll see students who are excited and actively involved in their own learning. Good arts educators model original and imaginative teaching practices in their classrooms.
Studying the visual arts can also foster students' knowledge in other subject areas, from math (measuring and determining perspective) to emotional intelligence (celebrating multiple perspectives and interpretations). To connect art and science learning, I've guided 2nd grade students in making a group mural based on Henri Matisse's Beasts of the Sea, which uses abstract, cutout shapes derived from aquatic life. To enhance students' learning, my coteacher for this unit brought specimens of actual sea creatures—shark fins and teeth, a chambered nautilus, shells—into class for students, many of whom had never seen or touched such objects.
The arts strengthen literacy and are vital to language development (Danko-McGhee & Slutsky, 2007; Wilhelm, 2002). They are often the first language through which young children communicate with the world around them. A normal part of early development, drawing pictures is often a child's first attempt to express his or her ideas. Young children are naturally curious and love to ask "why"; drawing helps children who haven't yet learned to make up stories about the world in which they live.
Because art is a universal language, the art room is a place in which children from all cultural and economic backgrounds, speaking all languages, often feel at home.
Administrators who understand the value of the visual arts in schools may wonder what they can do to support their art teachers and set the standard for high-quality arts instruction. Here are some concrete things school administrators can and should do.
A strong arts program requires students to master skills that are often invisible to the naked eye. Thomas Friedman (2010) recently claimed, "We live in an age when the most valuable asset any economy can have is the ability to be creative—to spark and imagine new ideas." Exemplary visual arts programs that embrace creative thinking are an essential component of every child's education.
National Art Education Association: www.arteducators.org
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Eisner, E. (2004). The Arts and the creation of mind. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Friedman, T. (2010, August 3). Broadway and the mosque. The New York Times. Retrieved from www.nytimes.com/2010/08/04/opinion/04friedman.html
Hetland, L., Winner, E., Veenema, S., & Sheridan, K. (2007). Studio thinking: The real benefits of visual arts education. New York: Teachers College Press.
Kagan, J. (2009, May). Why the arts matter: Six good reasons for advocating the importance of arts in school. Keynote address at Neuroeducation: Learning, Arts, and the Brain Symposium sponsored by John Hopkins University and the Dana Foundation, Baltimore, MD. Retrieved from www.dana.org/printerfriendly.aspx?id=24040
Partnership for 21st Century Skills. (2004). A framework for 21st century learning. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from www.p21.org/documents.P21_Framework.pdf
Rushlow, B. (2007). Why middle school art matters. Middle Matters, 16(2), 1–3.
Wilhelm, J. (1995). Reading is seeing: Using visual response to improve the literary reading of reluctant readers. Journal of Reading Behavior, 27(4), 467–503.
Bonnie B. Rushlow is an assistant professor of art education at Middle Tennessee State University and a former public school art teacher, fine arts coordinator, and principal. She is the editor of The Changing Roles of Arts Leadership (National Art Education Association, 2005).
Copyright © 2011 by ASCD
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