The Frontal Cortex

Arts Education

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.


  1. #1 McFawn
    April 30, 2008

    I hear you about “losing” long division.

    In step with what you said about expression, I also see art/creativity as a way of creating a more tangible self. Thoughts, impulses, jolts of sublime feeling–all that is like so much gossamer and fog if left in the mind. Yesterday’s profound shock of truth is today’s baffled recollection.

    But creating art gives record to the mind, and therefore gives substance to it. I think art makes one own’s existence more real. Art gives kids the gift of existence…one could easily say that the problems with youth (sloth, following trends, poor critical thinking) is because they don’t see the solid shape of themselves. They don’t see themselves as consequential.

  2. #2 Lee Pirozzi
    May 3, 2008

    That was tough – should I respond to madness or arts-in- education ? I recently yanked Einstein’s remarkable image from the front cover of a magazine – took it to my
    second-grader’s class – showed the children the lights – and darks of his face, the strengths and weaknesses, and the fact that the head was shaped not like a ball but more like an egg. I then proceeded to hand them a pen and paper.
    Out of 20 students at least five sketched superbly recognizable Einsteins. The others caught at least
    two or more of the most contrasted parts of the photo. I am framing them with black matts and giving them to the students before school is finished. Unfortunately in most art classes for children of this age, they are so restricted by preplanned safety rules, and pre-age-approved instructions that the very process of innate creativity is stifled. I simply told them to relax – they could not make any mistakes by simply looking and drawing. Maybe someday education will change for the better in the arts for children.

  3. #3 Venice
    May 8, 2008

    I am a writer who has been teaching creative writing to 4th and 5th graders for the past four years. The value of arts education isn’t about what the kids produce – most of the kids I work with will not go on to be best selling authors – it’s about a thought process that is completely different from what is taught in other educational disciplines. I tell the kids there are no wrong answers in writing. What I don’t tell them is that there are no right answers either. The truth is that the creative process is open ended, it is about process not product. Arts education, at its best, teaches kids to be comfortable in the ambiguous, disconcerting, ugly process of creating something new. In our society, we view discomfort with extreme distrust. Discomfort is our call to action to fix something. Rarely do we enter into the zone of discomfort to see what we can discover within this process. Many times, when I present the kids with a writing exercies, I am met with groans and complaints and a fair amount of classroom disruption because they are uncomfortable being asked to do something where they can not simply add two numbers together and know if the answer is correct. Over the years, I’ve found that the greater the level of complaint, the better the writing the kids produce when they get over it and start writing. The true value of arts education is helping developing brains become comfortable with the ambiguous and abstract, to not immediately seek the “right” answer but to follow a line of thought, develop it, deepen it, and let their brains make associations and connections once they realize there is only a process with which to be engaged rather than a correct answer to be found.

  4. #4 C.G.
    July 8, 2008

    One of the benefits of art education, is that it is one areas where we should be able to let the students “muck about”‘ without the fear that they must attain a certain grade level to pass the assignment. Allowing observation, imitation, and trial and error to take place freely is the best education. Each student will absorb at a level appropriate for their talent, interest or desire. It is interesting how a more relaxed atmosphere will allow desire to trump talent!

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