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Embracing the Arts and Creativity in Schools

August 25, 2012

Interdependence of the opposites, Earth and Water, courtesy of IStockphoto

Schools have some significant challenges ahead if they are going to embrace and reconcile the opposites of the “rational” versus the “emotional” individual.  For the purposes of this post, consider the rational individual to embody the qualities of the intellectual, the scientist or the literary critic.  While the emotional individual manifests the qualities of the artist, the dancer or the romantic.  Generally schools have academic programs to meet the needs of both types of individuals.  For the rational individual we have English, history, math, science, computer and language courses (hard courses).  For the emotional individual we have music, fine art, dance, drama and physical education (soft courses).

In most schools the courses that feed the desires of the rational individual are more highly valued, while courses that feed the emotional individual are often marginalized.  Here are some indicators which would support my point.

  • In many schools, grades in “hard courses,” especially honors and AP courses, count more towards a students GPA.  AP Calculus has a higher weight than Band.
  • In some schools, grades in “soft courses” do not count towards the GPA that determines the valedictorian.
  • In some colleges, they recalculate the GPA to exclude the soft courses so they get a “better indication” of the student’s academic potential, as it pertains to the hard courses.
  • In some school districts, budget cuts limit the soft course offerings before hard course offerings.
  • In some school districts, more class time is given to math and reading than to any courses in the soft category.  Extra periods to prepare students in math.
  • In many school districts, teachers are evaluated, and maybe given merit pay, based on student achievement on high-stakes tests, which are administered only in some of the hard course disciplines.
  • In ALL public school districts in the US we are redefining standards in education through the Common Core, which is focused only on math and language arts.  What will be the impact on the soft courses in the future?

What this means is that in many schools we send a clear message that we value the rational individual more than we do the emotional individual.  Another way of saying this is that we value the logical mind over the artistic mind.  Is there room for the artist to grow in our K-12 schools in the United States?

If we are going to confront this basic dichotomy in school, we will need to do three things:

  1. Challenge the notion that the education of the mind is more important than the education of the heart or body;
  2. Challenge the notion that a school’s curriculum must be subdivided into disciplines or discrete bodies of knowledge;
  3. Challenge the notion that teachers teach students by transmitted these bodies of knowledge to them.

This means rethinking the nature of school.  We could think of school as a place that values the education of the Whole Child.  (See ASCD’s Whole Child initiative)  Schools could think about how to seamlessly integrate mind, body and heart in their programs and practice.  What would a school look and feel like that successfully integrated all three, not placing more value on only one type of thinking or being.

Schools would need to rethink and restructure their curriculum so that disciplines would no longer be divided into departments.  Instead of teaching discrete bodies of knowledge, we would teach students 21st Century skills through an integrated approach.  The bodies of knowledge would be taught as an interconnected and interdependent.  Of course a student would sometimes study math, science, history or literature as separate activities, but always to advance their general knowledge of the world in which they find themselves.  The goal of this type of school would be to educate students to be excellent problem solvers, critical thinkers, keen observers, confident experimenters, and creative builders that see connections between unrelated ideas.

Finally, schools need to help teachers learn a wide variety of instructional strategies that transform them from being transmitters of discrete knowledge to facilitators of a more integrated approach to understanding the world.  In this way, they will be more comfortable and effective in helping students learn to see connections between unrelated ideas.  They will be more comfortable shifting their focus from being a teacher of content to a facilitator of learning.

As I think about the challenge of reconciling this idea of the rational and emotional individual, I see schools at the nexus of this work.  Our success will depend upon our ability to shift the focus from taking high-stakes tests in a few disciplines to assessment in 21st Century skills, valuing valedictorians to honoring the work of all types of students, studying discrete bodies of knowledge to integrating ideas using associative thinking (see Innovators DNA).  If we are successful, then the stories of the artists, athletes, and academicians will be told in ways that integrate rather than segregate.

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