I spend a lot of time reading about arts education. I read articles, case studies, white papers, anything I can get my hands on that I think might help make the case for why arts education is critical. I look for data, and evidence backed by solid research, and powerful stories of impact. One particular sentence really makes me sigh whenever I see it, which is way too often: “The arts have been shown to improve standardized test scores.” Ugh. It’s a downer to read this sentence, even when it is backed up with research and data. Let me explain.
I have a daughter who is four. She loves to draw. I want her to keep loving it, and to improve at it over time through a high-quality arts education with outstanding art teachers who challenge her; who engage her body, mind and spirit; and who introduce her to the joy of expressing herself. I also want her to play an instrument, and sing, because new research shows that studying music can strengthen the brain’s pathways and increase cognitive abilities. And, I hope she will want to dance or study theater, too, because I want her to develop the same habits of mind that I have witnessed in my students, who benefitted from two hours a day of dance and theater training at the school where I taught. These are habits of mind the arts foster like nothing else–generating multiple ideas and solutions, inquiring skillfully, persisting, reflecting metacognitively, working with others, tapping intrinsic motivation (just a few of the nineteen habits of creative engagement Eric Booth has identified). These are skills that will help her be the most successful “firefighter mommy” (or whatever she wants to be next week) she can be in adulthood.
I also want her to study the arts for the reason below, from a wonderful article in The New Statesman:
Playfulness is what makes us human. Doing pointless, purposeless things, just for fun. Doing things for the sheer devilment of it. Being silly for the sake of being silly. Larking around. Taking pleasure in activities that do not advantage us and have nothing to do with our survival. These are the highest signs of intelligence. It is when a creature, having met and surmounted all the practical needs that face him, decides to dance that we know we are in the presence of a human.
I want her to play, and have fun, and be silly, and find joy in learning, with adults who play, and have fun, and are silly and make learning joyful each day for their students. All children, everywhere, deserve that in their public education–to be fully human.
That studying the arts might improve my daughter’s score on a standardized test is at the very, very bottom of the list of why I want my daughter to have access to a high-quality arts education in her school. It’s a benefit if it does (and it can be proven, correlation does not equal causation), but it’s not important enough. I would venture to guess that I am not the only parent who feels this way.
In my official position as the director of arts education at a state arts agency, I am invested in the arts as a pathway to academic achievement. Make no mistake, I am invested in academic achievement and the arts. I believe that the arts have a powerful impact on the development of young people, including academically, and that the impact can be assessed and measured. I just don’t want the profound impact the arts can have on the development of a child intellectually, socially and emotionally, the transformative power that an education in the arts provides, the joy and playfulness and humanity, reduced to a test score.
This isn’t a rallying cry against standardized tests, they have their place as one tool for assessing student growth and progress. But I am challenging those of us involved in arts education to think beyond the test score argument. The emerging research on the brain and creativity, the effort to insert the “A” for arts into STEM education, the increasing interest in the development of students’ thinking skills and habits of mind–these are exciting opportunities to make the case for arts education that get us away from talking about test scores and might grab the interest of people who make decisions about what is and is not included in school curriculum. I bet some of those decision-makers are also tired of talking about test scores.
What do you think are our best, evidence-based arguments for arts education? Leave your comments below.
In the spirit of playfullness, silliness, and doing something just for the fun of it, I offer you this Piano Guys holiday video–serious musicians “larking around.” Enjoy!