A calm and cool summary of the value of arts education in public schools:
What are “the habits of mind” cultivated in arts classrooms, they ask in their book “Studio Thinking: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education.” As unsatisfied with wafty promises that arts learning inspires “creativity” as with pledges that it boosts scores, the Project Zero researchers videotaped several very different classrooms in two schools with intensive arts instruction. They watched teachers imparting techniques and introducing students to the world of the visual arts, and saw certain cognitive “dispositions” being elicited by the interactions: persistence in tackling problems, observational acuity, expressive clarity, reflective capacity to question and judge, ability to envision alternative possibilities and openness to exploration.
I haven’t read “Studio-Thinking,” but that summary sounds about right. The current obsession with measuring learning – quantifying the contents of young minds – certainly has some benefits (accountability is good), but it also comes with some serious drawbacks, since it diminishes all the forms of learning, like arts education, that can’t be translated into a score on a multiple choice exam.
But I think that even this clinical evaluation of arts education misses the real benefit of such class time: self-expression. I shudder to think that second graders, at least in most schools, are never taught the value of putting their mind on the page. They are drilled in spelling, phonetics and arithmetic (the NCLB school day must be so tedious), and yet nobody ever shows them how to take their thoughts and feelings and translate them into an act of creation. We assume that creativity will take care of itself, that the imagination doesn’t need to be nurtured. But that’s bunk. I can barely do long-division anymore (sorry, Ms. Alpert), and yet I can still remember the teacher (Mr. Edelson) who made his fourth-grade students write a sonnet. My ten-year old self was surprised at how difficult it was to fit my ideas into a set number of syllables, cramming my lofty vision into a rigid form. I’m sure the sonnet was adorably awful, but isn’t that the point? Creativity takes practice. Expressing oneself well is never easy.