Secrets of Arts Education in the 21st Century

William Shakespeare wrote, “Nimble thought can jump both sea and land.”  There were few nimbler thinkers than the Bard.  Young William may have had an instructor who valued his budding artistic nature.  It’s likely Shakespeare had a single schoolmaster for all his subjects.  Today’s schools, however, are compartmentalized for ease of assessment.  Classes are divided into “core” and “non-core” classes, or classes that count and classes where you can get an easy A.

The paradox of teaching non-core classes is this: These classes are rarely, if ever, valued by schools at the level of core classes.  The very term “core classes” indicates classes which are at the center of the education experience.  They are also classes with a level of standardization, mostly due to testing, and can have more mechanics in their instruction than creativity. Fine arts, theater, photography, dance and music are not core classes.  This implied reduced value of “non core” subjects has the unexpected benefit of leaving students free to fail in profound and provocative ways.  Learning to fail well is pretty important for anyone who wants to live a fulfilling life. “Core classes” teachers are not in a position to encourage failure mostly because of the march toward standardized testing.

Even if an English or math teacher wanted to shake things up and allow for some creative expression, the looming test schedules force the focus on mechanics.  This may be why these classes get a bad rap for being all about mechanics.  The basics you learn in order to flourish in any subject will end up the primary focus if students are only tested on retention of information.  Getting it right or making the grade replaces curiosity and creativity.  This is largely due to the difficulty in standardizing assessment tools for creative thinking.  And education is nothing if not assessment-friendly.

There are those who appropriately teach only the basics.  In fact, all teachers must address the basics of a learning unit at some point, preferably the beginning.  If I am a music instructor, I will teach students about scales and time signatures before playing etudes.  If I am directing a play, it’s helpful if my actors know how to read.  If I am a math teacher it is imperative that students know how to count.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that teaching the mechanics of a subject without purpose is dull and uninspiring.  It’s a wonder students stay awake. Mechanics can be fun, though, and even exciting if we inspire our students to want to learn the mechanics for a particular subject. I teach with many core instructors I consider master teachers.  They have the expertise and talent as teachers to cause their students to want to learn the basics. The basics become exciting when a greater purpose is identified and the students are motivated.

There is a former student from my school who now plays piano professionally.  I have heard him practicing scales endlessly on the grand piano we keep in storage under the stage.  He will practice scales for hours.  But I know he doesn’t practice scales because he is inspired by scales.  He practices scales to gain facility with the deft hand work necessary to play the music that inspires him.  This is where the arts shine brightest.  Plays, poetry, photography, dance, sculpture, drawing, painting, singing and playing instruments are motivational activities.

If we can encourage young people to aspire to an art form where every class requires creative endeavor then we have given them the all-important intrinsic motivator to learn the skills of grammar, geometry, physics, algebra and the plethora of other competencies necessary to master an art form.  We see this in sports as well; a hitter who wants to improve will go to the batting cages, a wrestler will lift weights to give him an edge, a swimmer will swim miles learning to adjust his breathing technique.  It’s not the basics that make our children learn, it’s creative vision that makes them want to learn the basics.

It is, in the end, the non core teacher who often pushes his students past the mechanical bounderies of the basics into the accelerated world of creative endeavor.  We ask our students to step outside their comfort zone of correct answers and consider questions which have no right answers.  The students may balk at first.  They are so accustomed to the correct answer model it is sometimes challenging to make the transition. It is a transition worth making.  The answers they get through their own exploration,  discovery and creation will, ultimately, allow them to say, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.”

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