A Personal Response Supporting Advancing Arts Programs
Dr. Shelley Robinson
After writing the literature review Promising Practices and Core Learnings in Art Education (Alberta Education, 2008) and then reviewing the K-12 Arts Education Curriculum Framework (Alberta Education, June 2009 Draft), I pose the following question: What is our essential goal as educators when offering the arts in public education? And, how do modular programs compare with advancing programs (that require some pre-requisite skills) in achieving this goal? What seems most natural for me when considering this question is to personalize my understanding of what both documents raise as key values in the arts. Although my personal experiences and conclusions are not generalizable of all who have experienced the arts in education, it may resonate with some.
The further I get away from my own experience as a student of the arts in my formative schooling (which was predominantly curricular and extra-curricular music, with some exposure to art and drama), the more I ask myself, “What did I learn and retain from my formative schooling in the arts? What was engaging and powerful enough for me to believe that I could enjoy and do it then; and in turn, have enough confidence to do and appreciate again throughout my lifetime?” I believe that this question of engagement and sustainability is woven throughout most of the research about successful programs and experiences in the arts.
Much of the literature around the arts concerns itself with its impact on cognition and the various learning domains (affective, connotative, spiritual and kinesthetic); and its benefits to learning as a whole:
[S]ocial scientists have postulated that students who participate in the fine arts tend to experience greater academic achievement and are less likely to have social, emotional, or behavioural problems…[M]usic, painting, dance and drama have been cited as essential to academic and emotional development. (Respress & Lutfi, 2006, p. 24)
There are many findings that indicate that the arts help to promote positive learning (critical and creative thinking) experiences across the subject areas. “The arts have an important role to play in refining our sensory system and cultivating our imaginative abilities…and provide a kind of permission to pursue qualitative experience in a particularly focused way and to engage in the constructive exploration of what that imaginative process may engender” (Eisner, 2002), p. 4). However, there is less research about how we teach the arts and which ways are most engaging and hold the greatest potential for achieving “indicators of success” now and into the future in the various disciplines (Robinson, 2008, p. 29).
What seems most valuable to me is to get to the essence of the arts and how true and deep fine arts experiences do what Eisner has been writing about for almost three decades: The arts “…provide permission to engage the imagination as a means for exploring new possibilities. The arts liberate us from the literal; they enable us to step into the shoes of others and to experience vicariously what we have not experienced directly” (2002, p. 10). When we are “authentically engaged” (Schlechty, 2000) in the powerful rush of the “flow” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990) of the experience, we encounter something very special. We embody creativity in new ways and become present, intentional, and in some cases lost to the incredible focus required of the experience. When here, we can lose track of all time, and external distractions. This experience may be foreign to some who have not (for various reasons) experienced this intimacy with a fine art, but to those of us where this was possible, we got “hooked”.
Therefore I have found myself asking, after being in the grips of playing the piano (where I achieve flow best), “Hey, I like this experience! How do I do it again?” And as an educator, “How can I re-create this special state of mind and spirit with my students through the arts?” It is here where I get to the crux of my point that I wish I had expanded upon more in the Promising Practices research (2008). These curricular and extra-curricular experiences where I 1) participated fully; 2) rigorously; 3) creatively; 4) with a solid skill based; and 5) ongoing feedback from significant “connoisseurs” (Eisner, 2003); as well as 6) having multiple opportunities and time to learn the language of the discipline; is where I was most influenced by the arts. It is also here where I have returned again, sometimes, as a pianist, accompanist, composer, audience, and now, the mother of a musician.
In contrast, where I had only fleeting and very rudimentary “arts and crafts” experiments with fine arts “technicians”, (I have a couple of awkward memories working with clay, oil painting and acting), I remember being entertained for the duration of the enterprise. However, I came away from these classes feeling, at best, unsatisfied, and most often, just a little bit inadequate. It has only been where I had substantial skill and confidence where I was/am able to get carried away by the flow of the experience. When I stumble over rudimentary skills, it breaks the flow. Some might argue that music is/was where my talent lay, and therefore, I am passionate about music because of it. I would respond by saying that there have been other disciplines where I had less “talent”, but with sufficient mentorship, was capable of moving into a higher learning state (flow), such as, writing, and drawing, etc. Again, it was only where I was able to develop a working level of competence and confidence through 1) sufficient engagement; 2) repetition and rehearsal; 3) an ever-expanding gradation of learning targets and 4) multiple forms of feedback, that I became “sold” that I was an aspiring artist (or at the least participant) in that discipline. Creative thinking (Gregory, 2005) and creative problem solving (Sousa, 2003) can be taught.
Therefore, I would postulate that authentic, rich, ever-advancing fine arts programs provide students with the opportunity to love the arts. We may not ever be able to teach students the love of the arts as we experienced it, but we can foster creative environments for it, model it, hook students into it and embrace all aspects of it (Robinson, 2009). At the least, we need to encourage a respect for the arts so that the students will be at the very least, “ritually engaged”, and this can lead to “authentic engagement” (Schlechty, 2000). By having a strong art foundation with proper training, students who may initially be reticent to learn, might open their creative doors in the future when they find their own meaning and voice.
Finally, students can sense when they are in the presence of real artists. There is an awe and wonderment that captivates them differently than when they are exposed to a series of curriculum outcomes inserted into isolated islands of experience (modules), which lack continuity and breadth. They appreciate the passion and the critical eye/ear/voice of the real artists who know the discreet and sophisticated language of the discipline. Pseudo-arts experiences with teachers only hosting programs, hold less magic and less potential for students to truly love the arts.
Therefore, we need to help schools do both: We need to foster multiple entry points in solid school arts programs as described above, as well as developing programs that allow students to pursue higher levels of achievement over time. These programs need to be done with capable fine arts teachers who can also knowledgeably collaborate with other fine arts and content area teachers to build the profile of arts in the school, and as well, begin to seamlessly infuse the arts into all areas of teaching and learning.