Secrets of Arts Education in the 21st Century

Race to Nowhere

documentary movie poster

poster from the documentary film Race to Nowhere

At my school’s professional day this morning, the entire faculty from pre-K through 12th grade, watched the movie: Race to Nowhere, a Reel Link Film by concerned parent and filmmaker Vicki Abeles.  I felt very fortunate that my school administration thought it was important enough to create a mandatory faculty viewing time for what I think is a crucial message.  The theme of the film is: The Dark Side of America’s Achievement Culture.  It would be a challenge at best to recreate the film’s impact in a blog so I encourage anyone interested in knowing more about what this achievement culture is doing to our nation to see the film.  There is a link in my blogroll that will take you to the film’s website.

Watching the movie reinforced an impression I already had: We should absolutely encourage our children to achieve great things, but we may not know the recipe for achievement anymore.  Our children will not succeed in their future using models from our past.  Future generations will be faced with the challenges of a very different economic engine.  We are no longer a production-oriented society.  Yet we perpetuate a factory-based education model.  So much depends on young people being able to make decisions about events we cannot imagine.

Our national emphasis on tests, standardization and information regurgitation means we are not educating for creativity and problem solving skills.  Maybe we never were. This lack of a creativity teaching model means we are flying blind when it comes to emphasizing the skills they will actually need to survive, let alone thrive.  Of course, because I am an arts teacher (or maybe I am an arts teacher because of this) I believe the model for arts education is as close to ‘educating for the future’ as we have available in the current system.  Right-brain thinking, self-expression, large motor movement and non-verbal communication are all part of the arts experience.  One student interviewed in the movie makes the point, “There’s no standardized test for art or different ideas.”  One activity rarely associated with arts classes, other than practicing an instrument, is homework.

In Sara Bennett’s book, The Case Against Homework, she cites Duke Professor Harris Cooper’s Review of Educational Research (2006) that looks at over 180 studies considering the correlation between homework and achievement and notes, “too much homework may diminish its effectiveness or even become counterproductive.”  She further points out, “Many countries with the highest scoring students on achievement tests… have teachers who assign little homework.”  Conversely, “countries… where students have some of the worst average scores, have teachers who assign a lot of homework.”  There is, however, a basic flaw even in this line of reasoning.  The achievement review is based on success in testing.  Testing is given so much power over how children are educated as to make any other teaching values pale in comparison.  The move toward portfolios and non-graded classes may be going the right direction but it is difficult to know when the assessments seem like comparing apples to kumquats or when there are no standard assessment tools.

If the goal of secondary education is college preparation or even preparation for the workplace, it seems that teaching to the standards of these institutions is appropriate.  But with students spending the bulk of their waking hours in school, there is little time left for kids to address the more basic quality of life issues.  The reason we want good educations is to get good jobs that lead to good lives.  But what if a good life can be had without spending a king’s ransom?  We have collapsed money-making with improved quality of life.  Once you make enough to pay the bills, the two really don’t have much in common.  Time with loved ones, good health, pursuits involving self-expression, being part of a community; these things can be had without spending any money and they provide the foundation for happiness.  In our current direction we spend family time in the car on the way to other activities.  Playtime is squeezed in or lost altogether.  And sleep, what some researchers believe is the most vital adolescent activity is, at best, inadequate.  We are teaching our children we value something other than a great quality of life.

As a parent in the movie points out, “People get caught up in this race to nowhere.”  Students interviewed in the film confirm what we think might be true, “How are you expected to do well when you can’t even make mistakes?”  Another student admits, “I stopped trying because if you don’t try you can’t fail.”  Rather than sounding absurd, this student’s comment resonates for many teachers as we see it repeated in the classroom.  A child who struggles with the expectations of the adults in his life will either rise to the expectation or give up.  In some cases, “giving up” will look like “getting by”.  A student who is resigned about his ability to succeed might be performing at an average level that gets him under the radar of parents and teachers.

Films such as Race to Nowhere bring this issue to light.  Rather than provide a solution, it gives us a springboard for conversation.  The sooner this conversation becomes a priority, the sooner we will be able to make a difference in the lives of all children and eventually, the world.

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Comments on: "Race to Nowhere" (2)

  1. I’m glad to see you liked “Race To Nowhere”. I’m in the process of bringing it to Spokane, Wa.
    It’s great that your administration thought it important enough to show it. Unfortunately I don’t think that will fly here. Our administrators are pushing standardized testing. which I think is just a tool to privatize education.

    • I highly recommend this film. It does a pretty good job outlining he challenges of modern teens who are academically minded (and a few who are not). Its limitation lies in that it provides no suggestions for solutions. But I don’t think that was the filmmakers’ intention.

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