Secrets of Arts Education in the 21st Century

Posts tagged ‘standardization’

From Legos to littleBits

Ayah Bdeir at TED: Building blocks that blink, beep and teach
How does approaching a complex problem with the mind of a child elicit fresh, creative, accessible new things?  Ayah Bdeir, an artist/engineer looked at Legos and was inspired to consider transistors in a new way.  I have often told my students that art is a unique expression of a universal idea.  This broadens the concept of art significantly.  If we want to inspire creative thinking, we must be willing to encourage and celebrate differentness and its contribution to the creative process.  Diversity, a buzzword for racial and gender integration, takes on powerful meaning in the world of art and education.  Diversity is a necessity for artists.  But children who are different often feel at odds with a system that rewards sameness.  I look at a classroom full of middle school kids and I sometimes wonder if teaching them how to work to a standard is one way to let them off the hook.  Kids do the minimum required rather than push for greater understanding, deeper knowledge, and personal best skill development.  Once a student recognizes the objectives of the academic game, he or she is free to play at any level.  If good grades are the goal, many savvy learners do what is required to get to the goal, but no more.  For those not interested in the game, playing at academics is boring, annoying, or off the radar.  For those who have been trained to believe their grades have some connection to an individual’s character quality, the game of school can produce paralyzing anxiety.

How do we, as educators, provide the assessments kids want without attaching them to a child’s self-worth?  This non-judgmental assessment feature is no fantasy.  Children who play video games live in a world of action assessment.  When a character dies on a video screen as a result of a lack of skill or knowledge, there is rarely a response like some I have seen in school when children do poorly on tests.  The gamer’s reaction to a lack of skill is to get better at the game whether through repetition, research, or online cheats (don’t be fooled by the name; cheats have their own learning curve).  When the expectations for schoolwork reach beyond skill building and touch the sensitive nerves around a student’s developing sense of self, there is room for reassessment of our assessment tools.

Rather than push for homogeny, we could reward new ways of thinking.  The weird girl who thinks differently will be included at lunch because the school’s environment embraces and rewards her contributions.  The weird boy who daydreams will be lured into conversations to mine his mind for unique ideas that cause an upward spiral of abstract thought in the classroom.  We have a role to play as teachers in creating an environment where divergence is no longer frowned upon but encouraged.  In fact, we now know it is this divergent thinking that creates great ideas such as Legos and littleBits.  It’s about time we stop rewarding imitation.  Let’s celebrate the weird kids and give everyone permission to reveal his or her diversity.

Don’t Blow Your Kid’s Chances of College Admission – Forbes

Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of the Unite...

Image via Wikipedia

Having gone through the college admission process two times now, I can say I have learned a few things. This article has so much good advice, I wish I had read it a little earlier.  Tufts, Tulane and now Oklahoma State University notwithstanding, most colleges are not yet on board with the super creative admission materials (a la Legally Blond) but we are headed that way.  I predict the college admission process will be completely transformed in less than a decade.

The financial aid section is especially useful.  A friend of mine gave me the best advice ever: “Whatever they offer, go back and ask for more.  There is a little black box under someone’s desk and it’s full of money for your kid.  If the financial aid counselor tells you there is no such box, ask that person to look again.”  Using this strategy, my oldest went from $0 to full ride.  It doesn’t always go that way but like Winston Churchill famously intoned, “Never, never, never, never give up.”

Enjoy!

Don’t Blow Your Kid’s Chances of College Admission – Forbes.

Grammar’s Not Your Gramma

Cover of "Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Ze...

Cover via Amazon

I remember the videos on TV in the 70’s under the title Grammar Rock.  I really loved these videos.  Grammar seemed like a fun concept when I was a kid.  Lately, though, we seem to have lost some of our enthusiasm for excellent grammar.  Back when Grammar Rock was playing on Saturday morning television I had a junior high teacher named Mrs. Wallace.  She taught me how to diagram a sentence.  It was a game to figure out where prepositional phrases fit and what could be done to repair a dangling participle.   I believe this activity is now limited to college linguistics classes.

Since the 70’s I have been a grammar champion.  I know the difference between lie and lay (thanks to my Aunt Gwen) as well as how to use  objective and nominative pronouns.  A few years ago, my eldest daughter asked for a book titled Eats, Shoots & Leaves, a hilarious take on the misuse and correct use of English grammar.  We referred to her as the Grammar Nazi all through high school though she was not allowed to use the moniker online as it contained the dreaded ‘n’ word.  She corrected spirit signs in the hallways of her school with a little red Sharpie.  She later took to calling herself the Grammar Bandit.  Very few people knew who was defacing their grammatically impotent signs but still she found satisfaction in the act.  It’s not a crime to break the rules.  It’s limiting, though, if you don’t even know what the rules are.  My other daughter is a writer who knows the rules and chooses to break them regularly.

It seems to me there are more and more journalists and other types of writers graduating without a solid foundation for their writing.  Grammar is important for linguistic continuity and as the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) point out in a position statement on the teaching of grammar in American schools, “knowing about grammar helps us understand what makes sentences and paragraphs clear and interesting and precise.

I thought playing the grammar game in junior high was a lot of fun.  I really enjoyed diagramming sentences and I work hard not to end a sentence a preposition with.  This is, sadly, something many radio and TV journalists have forgotten.  Many times, I hear them say things such as, “where the economy is headed to” or “here’s where we’re at” and I cringe.  I know the preposition they are adding is superfluous but, clearly, it seems necessary in an age where words seem cheap.  But words are not cheap.  It’s how we use them that cheapens them.

Part 2 (of 4) – Reconceptualizing Education

Educational innovator, Dr. Jim Taylor, Huffington Post blogger and author of twelve books on parenting, education, and sports psychology, asserts that it’s time we trade in the S.T.E.M. educational model “Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics”and, as he puts it, “Broaden our focus into S.T.A.M.P.E.R… which stands for Science, Technology, Arts, Mathematics, Physical (activity), Emotions, and Reason.”

Everyone admits the current system is inadequate to the future we envision, but changing anything often means spending money.  Right now, with districts cutting everything from teacher salaries and jobs to closing entire schools, folks cannot imagine affording any kind of sweeping change.  It causes many reform-minded administrators to lose heart.  Taylor argues for the inclusion of the arts in the new model because, “Inventive thinking cannot be “taught” in the traditional sense of the word, but it can be experienced and nurtured through the various forms of artistic expression.”  Experience, free play, and the freedom to fail and recreate a project is not unique to the arts but arts teachers understand better than most the value of these concepts.  Without ‘failure freedom’ actors would hesitate to get on stage.  Without the experience of playing with a particular medium, an artist might not consider combining it with another medium to create a new form.  Recreation is essential in dance where an artist must return to a piece again and again to perfect her physical communication.

Dr. Taylor is recently fond of pointing out that success in education begins before school starts.  In addition to supportive families and a loving home environment, he supports free play and recess for the development of children’s imaginations and he is definitely interested in encouraging kids to push themselves hard enough to fail.

Our most famous innovators would certainly agree that free play and social creativity, ‘freedom failure’, and experience make for success in nearly every field..  Henry Ford was interested in social creativity.  He once said, “I am looking for a lot of people who have an infinite capacity to not know what can’t be done.”  Thomas Edison was known for monetizing his failures.  He famously noted, “I make more mistakes than anyone else I know, and sooner or later, I patent most of them.”  And Pablo Picasso remarked, “I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.”

Perhaps Taylor is not saying anything particularly new and fresh, but if enough educators such as Taylor speak out about these common sense strategies we may finally begin to reconceptualize education for the 21st century.  We may indeed learn to honor the current generation’s needs more than we honor education’s poorly performing past.

Arts Teaches 21st Century Skills

In 2004 The Partnership for 21st Century skills released a document that should have everyone in the world of education jumping through their hatbands.  Although there are some articles touting the efficacy of this bit of research, there isn’t quite the fanfare one would expect for such a project.  I have my theories as to why we might want to ignore a project that turns our current learning model on its ear.  But it is out there.

Cutting edge businesses such as Apple, Blackboard, Intel, Lego, Microsoft, Oracle, Verizon, Cisco and many others are deeply involved in the conversation to raise awareness.  If we pay attention to what progressive business leaders and visionary educators have to say about why, what and how we are teaching rather than how much it costs to prop up the old model, we might see positive, groundbreaking, grassroots social change.  According to Ken Kay, President of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, (this link is less than a minute and worth your time). “There is no doubt that creating an aligned 21st century education system that prepares students, workers and citizens to triumph in the global skills race is the central economic competitiveness issue for the next decade.”

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills arts map is a simple, colorful, 17 page, brochure-style document that can be used for curriculum development in all areas.  There are four other skills maps and three literacy maps as well as a variety of other resources and valuable information.  Each of the maps comes with a more precise framework definition document.  The entire project looks to the future of knowledge and education.  The emphasis on media literacy,  life skills and technology seems a no-brainer, but we avoid considering the obvious because of economic short-sightedness.

It is no surprise to arts teachers that the Partnership for 21st Century Skills has at its core an education model that looks very similar to the one arts educators have been using for decades. It features critical thinking, collaboration and innovation and emphasizes integrated learning.  For some of us, integrated means we made an art project depicting the Lewis & Clark expedition.  But for arts educators we understand the value of integration in our curriculum.  It isn’t necessary to explain to students that “today we are going to learn a math skill” when they enlarge an art project using a grid.  We don’t have to explain integration of physics in our curriculum when demonstrating how the pulley system works to operate the grand curtain at a stage proscenium.  There is no discussion of a history lesson when the choir teacher explains the Baroque period.  It is commonly accepted that all arts teachers are integrative.  It is not otherwise possible to teach an arts class.  I am by no means suggesting that science teachers do not expect to teach some writing skills or that English teachers wouldn’t run across a history lesson.  I am saying that our current model compartmentalizes learning in a way that has no parallel in the real world.

If we are to address widespread resignation, poverty, labor skills deficits, teen suicide, juvenile crime and our economic position in a global market, we must first address the most profound influence on young people outside their families; we must transform our education system.  If we do not, we will see a continued increase in the gap between haves and have-nots, a rising budget deficit, decreased standing in a world market and an eventual slide into 2nd World status.  It is time we got serious about joining the 21st Century.



The Arts, Not Testing Practice, Improve Test Scores

“We started to treat the arts program like we treat all the other departments that matter in our school.”  That’s what Rose Greco, literacy coach, for  MS 223 in New York City says about the reason for the success of the School Arts Support Initiative (SASI) in her school.  An article in the February 2011 issue of Middle Ground (the National Middle School Association‘s practitioners’ magazine) features a different kind of educational program.  In 2008 the Center for Arts Education launched, “a multiyear research project in four New York City middle schools that provided little or no arts education.” The program began having immediate results.  According to the article, “The impact was apparent in improved student attendance and social behaviors. Results on local and standardized tests showed greater overall proficiency. The culture of each school began to change. Faculty members, administrators, and visiting artists noticed the changes… Attendance has improved dramatically… English Language Arts scores improved despite less time devoted to test preparation… Suspensions declined. Students have also acquired artistic skills that have increased their likelihood of being accepted to arts-focused high schools.”  In this video from MS 223, staff members reveal the reasons they believe the program works:

This Ain’t Your Mama’s Teaching Model

your mama's teaching model

Lately, I’ve been studying up on the origins of the American public school system.  There is agreement, it seems, that the first modern schools began in the middle of the 16th century in Germany.   Soon after, John Calvin set up mandatory schools in Geneva.  It should be noted that even the Spartans had compulsory education for students in military settings long before the German model.

The difference between earlier Spartan versions of education for the masses and the evolving Calvinistic model is that after nearly three centuries of compulsory public education, German idealism began to creep in to the Calvinistic model.  While I can’t explain German Idealism, I can tell you it was developed by a cadre of well-known philosophers including the lesser known Johann Gottlieb Fichte.  Fichte was a German philosopher born a little more than a decade before the start of the American Revolution.  He was part of a group of philosophers that included Immanuel Kant and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel who were committed to German Idealism.  Of the ideal education Fichte is quoted as saying, “If you want to influence [the student] at all, you must do more than merely talk to him; you must fashion him, and fashion him in such a way that he simply cannot will otherwise than what you wish him to will.”  This thought seems sinister by modern standards.  The new and improved model for compulsory education was a response to an age of steam powered printing presses, telegraphic communication, consolidation of postal services, scandalous dancing (the waltz introduced the touching of arms in 1816), the invention of chemical processing for photography, and in France, freedom of the press was introduced in 1819.  This was a world on the verge of converging.  Nationalism actually became relevant and nations needed their citizens to think alike.  For those of us who remember the emergence of the Internet, this may seem familiar.

According to Wikipedia (my new favorite resource), Prussia was an influential European player from the mid 16th century to the end of WWII. Prussia included parts of modern-day Germany, Poland, Russia, Lithuania, Denmark, Belgium, Czech Republic, Netherlands and Switzerland.  It was really, really big (by European standards).  In an attempt to assert its national superiority, Prussia led the charge against Napoleon in the early 19th century.  Though their army had really dapper uniforms, the Prussians learned a lesson about regimentation from the French.  Despite Prussia’s size, Napoleon’s forces defeated the Prussian army in 1806 in the battle of Jena.  It was after this embarrassing defeat that compulsory public education exploded in Prussia.  By 1819 the model was in place and would soon be responsible for educating 92% of Prussian children.  Another 8% were educated privately.

In 1843, Massachusetts state senator Horace Mann visited Prussian schools and became the most influential spokesperson for compulsory public education in the U.S.  In 1844 in his Seventh Annual Report as Secretary of the Board of Education in Massachusetts, Mann proclaimed, “Among the nations of Europe, Prussia has long enjoyed the most distinguished reputation for the excellence of its schools.”  When he returned to the U.S. he campaigned with fervor for a similar education model in his home state. There are many who believe that Massachusetts based their model on Calvinism.  Though Horace Mann was raised a strict Calvinist, he rejected it in favor of Unitarianism.  A lot of different ideas powered his concept.  He believed, “A human being is not attaining his full heights until he is educated.”  He called education “the great equalizer” as well as “our only political safety”.  In addition to his political motivations, he was also very concerned with teaching compassion, morality and reading.

While the Prussian model may have seemed progressive in the mid 19th century, it is little changed in the 21st century.  C.J. Westerberg of The Daily Riff (a popular education blog) says of modern schools, “If you put a doctor of a hundred years ago in an operating room she would get lost, yet if you placed a teacher of a hundred years ago into one of today’s classrooms she wouldn’t skip a beat.”  This is not to say we throw the baby out with the bath water.  A wildly different education model doesn’t necessarily mean a better education model.  After all, students today are no less in need of lessons in good citizenship. But the definition of a good citizen has experienced a transformation in the age of instant access.  We’re still citizens of nations but we are fast becoming citizens of the world.

My kids know more about everything than I did at their age except, maybe, how to roller skate.  We are fooling ourselves if we think our kids go to school to learn facts.  They have facts about anything they care to know at their fingertips.  We need to quit complaining about their calculators, laptops and ear buds and start addressing the way they learn.  They haven’t stopped wanting human interaction.  We just won’t acknowledge how they do it.  Rather than whine and bemoan the loss of traditional ways of interacting, it’s time we really look at how kids learn today and prepare to take another quantum leap.  We have a plethora of studies and empirical evidence that kids learn faster outside traditional classrooms.  Horace Mann and his generation taught a type of groupthink they believed was necessary for a docile citizenry.  While we watch as revolution surges in the Middle East, it seems a docile citizenry is not docile so much as it is demoralized.  For those who want to make Mann the villain of our current system, I have a newsflash.  He’s been dead for over 150 years.  And I learned all that while sitting in bed and surfing the Inter-webs.