Why the Arts Deserve Center Stage

Committing to creative learning for students that will restore America’s role as a leader in nurturing innovation by Richard J. Deasy

Michael Hinojosa, general superintendent of the Dallas Independent School District, is hiring 140 new arts teachers this year. It’s the latest and perhaps most remarkable step in a 10-year effort by policymakers, educators and community leaders to ensure that every student in Dallas has access to quality arts learning experiences in and out of school.

Hinojosa grew up in Dallas and after serving as an administrator and superintendent in districts throughout Texas returned in 2006 to his hometown. He knows from personal experience the educational importance of the arts to the diverse and economically challenged communities of Dallas. For students who speak little or no English and who may face other barriers to fully engaging in the life of the school, the arts are the “languages” that reveal their abilities and potential to teachers — the crucial connection that motivates them to learn.

“When they connect with what they’re learning, it’s magical,” Hinojosa says. “I believe it is important … to make that magical connection for every child, every day.”

The citywide effort he inherited began a decade earlier when school district and city officials asked a nonprofit organization to study how many students attended the programs they were funding at Dallas cultural organizations. Few city students was the answer. Most attendees came from the suburbs. The problem was aggravated by the lack of arts teachers in the Dallas schools.

The nonprofit organization, now known as Big Thought, was asked to lead a coordinated school and community process to change those demographics. It has. Providing and evaluating the impact of an arts program on every elementary school student was a first goal. The evaluation data showed the effect of the arts on test scores and other important learning outcomes.

Big Thought now manages the Dallas Arts Learning Initiative, the recent recipient of grants from the Ford and Wallace foundations for its role as a beacon of hope for what is possible in urban districts. The grants supplement the substantial commitment of the school district, the city and local funders.

“There’s no doubt in my mind,” Hinojosa says, “that the Dallas Arts Learning Initiative is an appropriate solution for getting our students connected.”

Dallas considers the experiences it wants for all students “creative learning” and sees the arts as crucial. In doing so, it embraces a growing national awareness revealed in public opinion polling and national reports demanding that schools renew their commitment to fostering the imaginative capacities that will restore America’s role as a leader in innovation and creativity.

Nurturing Imagination
Imagination, innovation and creativity have been the foundation that catapulted the United States into a world leadership role, not only in the realm of economics, but by offering the world a unique model of democracy, one capable at its best of embracing a diversity of peoples in forging a vibrant society. Our leadership is threatened to the extent we do not revitalize and sustain these capacities in ourselves and in the students we teach.

Numerous national analyses and reports, ranging from the Conference Board of corporate CEOs to reports and polling data from the Partnership for 21st Century Skills to books by commentators like Thomas Friedman and Daniel Pink, call for a focus on what might be called the “new basics” that schools must nurture: imagination and its application in being innovative and creative.

The major focus of the business-oriented reports has been on economic competitiveness. Several argue that imagination must be harnessed within the STEM disciplines — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — to yield the innovations and advances that will maintain our global position.

But others, including Friedman and Pink — and Michael Hinojosa — boldly and correctly add the arts to the equation. There are good reasons for doing so.

Integrated Learning
It would be unfortunate if the debate devolved into an “either/or” dispute among the disciplines, between the arts and the sciences, for instance. The development and use of the imagination cannot be confined to a single discipline nor can the content, skills and modes of thought of a single discipline satisfy the demand to develop the other skills deemed crucial to a 21st century workforce by national reports: collaboration and teamwork, critical thinking and problem solving, initiative and self-direction, the ability to communicate in multiple forms, and social and cross-cultural skills. Integrated, interdisciplinary learning is essential to developing these skills.

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Specific characteristics of the arts bring multiple values to interdisciplinary work. And they bring their explicit purpose, the development and application of the imagination — the capacity to visualize new possibilities for human thought, behavior and the use of materials — and embody those visions creatively in tangible and multiple forms of communication.

For the arts to make their contribution, however, administrators and policymakers need to understand the value of moving them from the margins of school priorities and time to a more substantive role in the curriculum and life of the school.

Under the pressures of accountability testing required by states and No Child Left Behind, it’s not easy for policymakers and administrators to take the risk, as Hinojosa has done, of placing some of their bets on the arts as they respond to current and new challenges. They can draw confidence from a growing body of research clarifying the nature of learning in the arts and the intellectual, personal and social skills the arts require and nurture.

Peer-Reviewed Capacities
Obviously, the purpose for teaching the arts is to enable students to develop the capacities to create, perform and respond with understanding, critical judgment and appreciation of works of art. Mind, heart and body are challenged in doing so. The human being is fully engaged.

What does that take and what are the effects as learners get better at it? What cognitive, personal and social skills are required; what habits of mind and personal dispositions are developed as the learner grows more competent?

Compilations of more than 60 peer-reviewed independent studies published in recent years by the national Arts Education Partnership have begun to provide research-based answers to these questions. The studies identify the cognitive capacities — habits of mind and personal dispositions — that are developed as students tackle the specific challenges of an art form: the choreography and movements of a dance; the composition and performance of a piece of music; the script and acting of a drama; the design and creation of a painting or sculpture; the writing and performance of an opera. As students learn the content, processes and techniques specific to each of these art forms, they are at the same time developing and applying these capacities.

  • Imagination. To write or act in a play, design a building or write a song, we must visualize new possibilities for human thought and action and the use of materials. This engages the cognitive capacity of imagination.
  • Innovation and creativity. When imagination is put into action, the results can be a piece of music, a hybrid car, or a cure for cancer. Getting the results takes discipline, persistence and resilience. One needs to stay on task despite challenges and frustrations of setbacks.
  • Engagement and achievement motivation. Imagining and pursuing a personal vision is profoundly engaging. It’s an act of self expression and an act of communicating meaning and feelings to other. Students become goal-oriented and self-directed.
  • Conditional reasoning. As a painting instructor once told me, “You don’t start until you have an image of where you are going.” Nor do you write a song or a play word by word. You have to have an idea or story in mind of what you want to make and be prepared to adjust it as you go along. This is conditional reasoning, proceeding by trial and error. It’s theorizing about actions, outcomes and consequences, defining and generating optional approaches and solutions to problems and conditions.
  • Symbolic understanding. Reading, writing and doing math are processes of grasping and using symbols. So is playing the notes on sheet music, assembling colors and shapes into a portrait. Understanding and using multiple modes to represent and communicate ideas and feelings helps us get better at all of them. That’s one of the links between the arts and literacy.
  • Critical thinking. To make and appreciate a good piece of music, a poem or a play, you have to develop and apply criteria and standards for making judgments about quality — evaluate your products or performances and those of others to determine whether they are any good. Fix what’s wrong.
  • Collaborative learning and action. Rehearsing and putting on a play, practicing and performing in a chorus and dancing in a musical are collaborative processes of acquiring and manifesting knowledge and skills. You are committed to pursuing a common goal and working toward it. It’s teamwork.

Major Culprit
These capacities demanded by the arts are the same skills that business and corporate leaders tell us are essential for American success in the global economy. But the desire for schools to develop students’ imaginative capacities goes beyond the economic imperative. The American public is equally concerned about the ability of young people to navigate their way successfully through the challenges of daily life and to be contributing citizens now and in the future.

For instance, in a poll for the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, the public ranked ethics and social responsibility, teamwork and collaboration, lifelong learning and self-direction along with imagination, innovation and creativity as skills they want schools to do a better job of teaching. They ranked these values and abilities as more important than individual school subjects, including science and mathematics.

The Arts Education Partnership, a national nonprofit coalition of more than 100 education, arts, government and philanthropic organizations, found a similar set of concerns in focus groups and in a national independent poll commissioned on behalf of its coalition. Imagination, focus group participants said, allowed young people to have dreams and aspirations for their future, to have a vision of what they could become and accomplish. These hopes and goals motivate them to learn. They are a reason to stay in school and are the basis for developing the skills and values needed to succeed. Without them, both students and schools will fail.

“I’m angry about schools,” one frustrated urban parent said to murmurs of support from others in a focus group. “Schools are stifling imagination and creativity. I’m doing more at home than the schools are.”

“Schools are about making sure everybody’s average,” said another. “All that rote stuff to pass tests. America can’t afford that. We’ve got to go way beyond average.”

Standardized testing is the major though not lone culprit the public blames for the absence of imaginative and creative learning in schools. The absence of the arts as part of the core curriculum and culture of the school is another.

On the national poll commissioned by the Arts Education Partnership, 80 percent of the respondents said it was important or extremely important for schools to develop the imagination and innovative and creative skills of students. And 88 percent said the arts were essential for doing so and were a sound educational investment. On each of the cognitive capacities developed by the arts discussed above, an average of 80 percent of respondents felt they were important to be taught in schools and 79 percent felt schools were not doing so. (Full findings at www.theimaginenation.net.)

It’s clear the public believes the arts play a crucial and catalytic role in developing the imagination, but all teaching should foster imaginative thinking. Multiple forms of the arts give students a chance to reveal their individuality, their knowledge, their competence, their feelings and beliefs, their potential. These revelations in the works they produce give teachers insights and understanding to inform their teaching, to better foster the full exercise of students’ imagination and creativity, and to give every student confirmation their aspirations are achievable. Those attitudes can bring a about a transformation in the entire school.

Transformative Prospects
The Arts Education Partnership explored this potential impact of arts education in a three-year study of 10 high-poverty, high-performing schools. In each of the schools, more than 50 percent of students received free or reduced-price lunch. Each school had been recognized by federal, state or local authorities for making significant progress in academic performance and other measures of school success in recent years, and each school had adopted the arts as a central focus of the curriculum and school culture. There were four elementary, two middle, two K-8 and two high schools in the study.

The crucial and seminal finding is that the arts created positive and empowering learning environments in classrooms and in the school. These environments emerged as the result of new sets of relationships the arts fostered between and among students and teachers.

The key to the shift in relationships were teacher attitudes toward the art works produced by students, seeing them primarily as expressive communications of matters personally meaningful to students and, therefore, to be read for insights into how to motivate and guide the students’ academic, personal and social development.

Encouraged by teachers to be both imaginative and progressively more competent in their use of the techniques of an art form, students matured both individually and as a community of learners. This represents the arc of development that cognitive scientists such as John Bransford and his colleagues describe as leading to “adaptive expertise,” the ability to apply what you learn in new settings and conditions, a fundamental goal of schooling.

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The habits of mind and dispositions discussed above were developing, and there were also strong and significant personal and social effects. These effects speak directly to the public concerns and beliefs that schools must prepare students not just for economic roles but for family life and citizenship.

Three of those effects were rated of great importance by focus groups and in polling and seen as advanced by the arts. Drama is particularly effective at developing the first two. All of the arts, well taught, nurture the third.

  • Empathy: understanding another’s feelings and point of view;
  • Social tolerance: respecting multiple values and perspectives;
  • Self-esteem and self-efficacy: realistically valuing oneself and the impact of one’s actions against a set of internalized standards and believing you can make a difference.

A Robust Presence
Various factors have contributed to the low priority and marginal role of the arts in American public education. Lack of financial resources is usually blamed first, but the major factor is the lack of clear understanding of the nature of the learning that occurs in the arts and the power and relevance of that learning in addressing our personal, societal, cultural and economic needs. None of those needs will be fully met — and certainly we will not empower every young person with 21st century skills — until and unless the arts are fully and robustly present in the curriculum and life of our schools. Polls show the public believes that.

Beyond the school walls the arts are not only richly integrated into the world of today and tomorrow, they are major forces shaping those worlds through communications, design, entertainment and culture. We and our students are challenged to master and respond to these forces. By keeping learning in the arts at the margins of public education, we are condemning ourselves and our students to be marginalized in the world. And we are denying the will of the American people that we prevent that from happening.

Richard Deasy is director of the Arts Education Partnership in Washington, D.C. E-mail: DickD@ccsso.org