Secrets of Arts Education in the 21st Century

A Dinner Party with Sir Ken

Lately I’ve been crazy for anything Sir Ken Robinson has to say.  I’m reading The Element, his book subtitled, How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything.  Although it’s a very different kind of writing, the title reminds me of my book, From Martyr to Mentor: Creating Passion From Within (available at Amazon.com be sure and click on the link in the blogroll on the right sidebar to order your copy today!)  Sir Ken focuses on the ways in which our education systems do not serve our most vital needs of creativity and self-expression.  He does this while celebrating the great creators of our century who overcame or, more appropriately, circumvented traditional education because their need to express was so great.

I find myself pushing my students to dig a little to discover what it is they need to say.  If we don’t address the needs of those children unable to find the hidden routes to self-expression, we doom them to a life of frustration and ultimately, resignation.  As Sir Ken notes in one of his TED talks (look for links on the right sidebar blogroll) “We are educating people out of their creative capacities.” He makes some very compelling arguments about the way children have creativity squeezed out to make room for testing and assessment.  “We don’t grow into creativity, we are educated out of it.”  This resonates powerfully with me as an arts teacher.  There are some compelling reasons education has evolved (or devolved) into its current iteration: Ease of assessment, social discipline, classroom management, standardization.  This is what some have called factory learning.  We say that in order to do more we would need more money, more teachers, more stuff.  This is a myth.  What we need is a new mindset; something so far from our indoctrinated way of thinking about education that many teachers and administrators cannot even imagine it.

It’s clear that individuality is not embraced or even encouraged. It might even be a hindrance to social success for kids who are not self-possessed.  It will take an army of thinkers such as Sir Ken to move us toward a new way of thinking.  But one person crying in the wilderness can definitely pave the way.  We have at least a dinner party’s worth of people who are dedicating their careers to making this difference in education.  I think my perfect dinner party would have to include Sir Ken. It would also include my friend Suzy Griffin with whom I am writing a book about arts education.  She says, “What education in general has been saying to our students is: “We’re here to learn about our culture but not impact it.””  This thought strikes me as particularly on point.  We are keeping kids mired in creative expressions of the past rather than using these examples as a springboard for the future.  It’s useful to study our past but not at the expense of bright minds and that is exactly what education has been doing.  We are afraid to trust the ideas of new generations forcing them to take their ideas outside the system.  What if they do it wrong and mess things up?  After all, this is the way we’ve always done it.  As Sir Ken notes in The Element, “This stratified, one-size-fits-all approach to education marginalizes all of those who do not take naturally to learning this way.”  Considering how things are going, the way we’ve always done it is due for an overhaul.

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