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Why Art Matters Essay

Why Art Education in Public Schools Matters

People have been using art to record events, express thoughts, ideas, and beliefs, since the very beginning.  From Paleolithic cave drawings in Lascaux, France to the early tools and pottery of native peoples, to the pyramids in Egypt, and later to the rise of fine arts in the Western world, art has been intertwined with our existence.  It’s how humans have communicated, celebrated, recorded and described our lives since the dawn of time.  Elliot Eisner states that “The arts help children learn to say what cannot be said” in his list of “10 Lessons the Arts Teach”.  Art is a language and form of communication that humans have used throughout history.  Also, the fact that humans have instinctively used art as a form of communication and creative expression speaks volumes about its importance in the world.  Furthermore, it’s no coincidence that our greatest innovators and scientists were also gifted in the arts.  Cultivating creativity in today’s public schools ensures the next generation will have the skills needed to solve the problems and think up creative innovations in the 21st Century.  So, it only stands to reason that we include art education in public schools. 

Human beings are not machines. Our brains are not computer hard drives to which you can just upload information.  I believe that humans are creative by nature and that art education can help to nurture the creativity that lies within all of us.  Evidence of this creative nature is apparent throughout history.  And, I think that today’s children are not being creatively stimulated enough in public schools. 
With the emphasis on standardized testing, sadly the public school curriculum has narrowed to exclude what’s been deemed as “extras”.  In an economic downturn were most schools rely on tax revenue as well as state and federal funding, art education seems to be one of the first things to be cut from the curriculum.  As a result, we are seeing an outcry regarding the creativity crisis in this country.  Teachers are under pressure to have successful outcomes in standardized tests, so they employ rote memorization techniques and end up “teaching to the test”.  This unfortunately does not result in real learning.  Real learning occurs, when there is true broad understanding of a subject matter and/or concept.  

Children have been conditioned to think that there is one correct answer for everything as a result of the overemphasis on standardized testing.  They are afraid to think of alternate answers to questions and even question the questions themselves.  Art education teaches that there are multiple solutions to problems.  In turn, it teaches problem solving and the idea that questioning and possibilities are endless.  This is how creativity is nurtured.  Questioning and creative thinking are part of human nature, but they can also be nurtured as well.  

In teaching to “big ideas” and core concepts as outlined in the “Backwards Design” learning model, students gain a deeper understanding of content instead of memorizing pat answers to pass a test.  They begin to make connections and deepen learning in other subjects such as history and science.  In fact, art education is a great way to connect subjects together, to develop understanding across the school curriculum.  Instead of learning fragmented bits and pieces of information, that may not often be relevant to them, teaching to big ideas in art education gets students thinking about concepts in their entirety.  They become engaged and part of the learning process, as they learn to question dig deeper for more knowledge.  In art education classes teaching to big ideas, learning is often collaborative and less competitive.  Teachers act as guides and students learn from each other.  Creativity flourishes in an environment such as this.  

Play is another way to encourage creativity.  Play and art education have a lot in common.  Friedrich Froebel’s Kindergarten utilized hands-on play as a way for children to explore their world, just as art educators use art to explore ideas and expression.  Freedom of expression was encouraged through movement and play through multiple senses in Froebel’s Kindergarten.  Unfortunately, Froebel’s Kindergarten model has sadly gone by the wayside in today’s Kindergarten classes, as kindergarten is now thought of “as the new first grade”.  Couple this with high stakes testing and it’s no wonder that today’s children are stressed out. 

Art education offers children a break from the traditional way of rote memorization and also cultivates creativity and critical thinking through problem solving.  We as art teachers have an opportunity to bring out creative potential in students.  Natalie Robinson Cole felt that there was an artist within every child and that it was the job of the teacher to bring that out in him/her.  I too believe that children have many untapped creative abilities just waiting to come out.  Children don’t all learn and process information in the same way.  Art education has the potential to allow children to express themselves and flourish in a subject that doesn’t require one right answer on a multiple-choice test.   

Unfortunately because of how public schools now geared towards training students to look for one right answer, many feel stunted in art class.  Common stories from art teachers include students afraid to start projects and asking, “Is this right” as they are afraid to make any mistakes.  By allowing children the freedom to explore creatively, art teachers can teach their students to try multiple possibilities.  They can further deepen the experience of learning by allowing their students to collaborate and learn from one another, which is something they don’t often get to experience in other subjects.  Once children see that it’s okay to try and even make mistakes, it builds their confidence.  This feeling can spill over in to other aspects of their school experience and lives.  A recent study titled “Reinvesting in Arts Education: Winning America’s Future Through Creative Schools” provides evidence that children are more engaged and focused in school.  It can and does enhance learning in other subjects.  Furthermore, art education can be a great cross-curricular vehicle with other subjects such as history and science in deepening understanding of big ideas.  

Another important benefit of art education in the 21st Century, is visual literacy.  Obviously, most students never become professional artists.  However, they will have to navigate, interpret, and decode the multitude of visual images they are bombarded with on a daily basis.  Art education can enable them to become astute questioners of visual images by learning how to “read” the language of art.  This skill is important no matter what vocation students choose.  

We cannot even being to imagine what the next generation’s careers will entail, just as the previous generation probably could not have imagined the internet, and smart-phones.  Things like the internet, were dreamed up by creative thinkers.  Our next innovators will come from the creative thinkers of this next generation.  Although creative thinking can be fostered in any subject, art education offers a unique venue in which to do so through working in multiple mediums and problem solving through them.  No other subject matter presents endless possibilities to children like art education.  

Elliot Eisner's 10 Lessons the Arts Teach

1. The arts teach children to make good judgments about qualitative relationships.
Unlike much of the curriculum in which correct answers and rules prevail, in the arts, it
is judgment rather than rules that prevail.

2. The arts teach children that problems can have more than one solution
and that questions can have more than one answer.

3. The arts celebrate multiple perspectives.
One of their large lessons is that there are many ways to see and interpret the world.

4. The arts teach children that in complex forms of problem solving
purposes are seldom fixed, but change with circumstance and opportunity. 
Learning in the arts requires the ability and a willingness to surrender to the unanticipated possibilities of the work as it unfolds.

5. The arts make vivid the fact that neither words in their literal form nor numbers exhaust what we can know. The limits of our language do not define the limits of our cognition.

6. The arts teach students that small differences can have large effects.
The arts traffic in subtleties.

7. The arts teach students to think through and within a material.
All art forms employ some means through which images become real.

8. The arts help children learn to say what cannot be said.
When children are invited to disclose what a work of art helps them feel, they must reach into their poetic capacities to find the words that will do the job.

9. The arts enable us to have experience we can have from no other source 
and through such experience to discover the range and variety of what we are capable of feeling.

10. The arts' position in the school curriculum symbolizes to the young 
what adults believe is important.

SOURCE: Eisner, E. (2002). The Arts and the Creation of Mind, In Chapter 4, What the Arts Teach and How It Shows. (pp. 70-92). Yale University Press. Available from NAEA Publications. NAEA grants reprint permission for this excerpt from Ten Lessons with proper acknowledgment of its source and NAEA.

Whenever education budgets get tightened, art programs are the first to get cut. Like the enduring popularity of reality TV, this never ceases to amaze me. So much evidence points to art's importance in a child's development - and not just in the development of abstract thought. Art is a critical component in a well-rounded education. Art is the level playing field - no matter how rich or poor, tall or short, pretty or ugly to the bone, if you can draw, you can find personal fulfillment and build self-confidence.  Art is the highest achievement of mankind. And, when art is suppressed, so is the civilization that suppresses it.  Remember the monumental Buddhas destroyed by the Taliban in the months leading up to 9/11.  Remember the suppression of art in Nazi Germany.

A Mother's Day art project from a Central Valley school.

Studies show that art-centered schools outscore non-art-centered schools in academic achievement scores. Art education can actually help the brain to rewire itself, to make stronger and more plentiful neural connections, and can help build memory skills. Self-discipline, intuition, reasoning, imagination, and dexterity are just a few of the other benefits of an art-filled education, especially for primary school students. According to First Lady Michelle Obama, "Learning through the arts reinforces critical academic skills in reading, language arts, and math, and provides students with the skills to creatively solve problems."

So, how is it that, when it comes to art education, California comes in dead last out of all 50 states - even below Guam? According to State Councilman Bobby Shriver, California's public schools no longer even offer arts education.

This is why, my personal love of art aside, Stewart and I have made a point of supporting P.S. ARTS, an organization dedicated to providing arts education to students attending under-served public schools. We were so impressed with the program that we've made it a part of our educational programs in the Central Valley in California , where many of our employees' children attend school. For many children in California, English is a second language, but art is a universal language.

Seeing some of the recent work from these budding Picassos and O'Keeffes prompted me to share with you their progress. The P.S. ARTS  program was founded in 1991, and has been in the Central Valley since 2003.  We've watched these children's imaginations blossom since their first few classes, and their progress has been inspiring.

Students' designs from a P.S. ARTS mocassion project.

If art means as much to you as it does to me, or even if you're just exploring the art world for the first time, I invite you to turn off the boob tube,  pry the Wii controllers from your kids' hands, and drag them to a museum.  You may be surprised to learn that many museums have weekend activities geared to families, and almost all museums now have or are planning hands-on exhibits and playrooms specifically geared towards their younger visitors, which help to enrich the museum-going experience.  Your kids might feel more apt to try some art of their own after viewing contemporary works that are far less intimidating than those of the Old Masters.

Art is a great way of appreciating the other cultures in our society.   When viewing the great art traditions of the Middle East, you may find a new respect for this ancient culture.  Or when children view the historical works of their own culture, it builds pride in one's heritage. Art builds bridges of understanding.

Once you reconnect with the freedom and openness that come with art, you just might recall how satisfying it was to finish a paint-by-number or to bring home your macaroni opus to hang on the fridge. Memories of personal fulfillment aside, artistic expression has been proven to stimulate brain activity, and in our age of Tivo, iPhones, and technological doodads, we could all use some good old-fashioned cerebral stimulation. The next time your local school puts its arts program on the chopping block, I hope you'll consider all that's at stake: It's so much more than construction paper and pipe cleaners. It is the doorway to a whole new world of expression.

Follow Lynda Resnick on Twitter: www.twitter.com/lyndaresnick

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