Archive for August, 2013

Resolved: The Arts are Unnecessary

Posted by

Part Four – Paradigm Seeds and “The Big T”
(See Part One, posted on July 13, 2013)
(See Part Two, posted on July 18, 2013)
(See Part Three, posted on August 11, 20130)

In exploring the objective of creating and bringing about a paradigm shift in the arts as they relate to
educational programming, it is impossible to go back to “square one.” What would that square be? The
current educational system’s methodologies for the way arts programming is perceived, handled, funded and
treated are too deeply entrenched. The bureaucracy is fixed in place and only over time, repeatedly
offered programming that utilizes a paradigm shift and delivers quantifiable results will the status quo
be rendered obsolete.

The seeds of such a paradigm shift are, I firmly believe, planted right under our noses. The shift begins
with a radical rethink of a concept that’s been around a long time; this is the concept of “transfer,”
or more accurately, “transfer of learning.” The term has two general applications: first, it refers to
the ability to take what is learned or practiced in one lesson and then carry it over to subsequent
lessons. Secondly, transfer of learning can mean the ability to draw parallels and useful connections
from one discipline and utilize it in across other disciplines. An easy example is how studying music
has been shown to enhance students’ abilities in mathematics. After all, reading music, at its core, is
very mathematical. Note values are fractions: whole note, half note, quarter, eighth, sixteenth, and so
on. Each measure, conforming to a particular time signature, is divided up into such fractions and each
must total the correct number of beats in the measure. Music, like math, is analytical, it conforms to
specific rules, etc. As a result, there is potentially a significant amount of “transfer” from one
subject to another. With my own instrument, the theremin, there is significant transfer between music,
the science of sound, physics, electronics and even history. However, the idea of transfer is nothing new.
It has been around for a long time and the problem is that it has never been taken far enough.

In his study, Arts Learning and Its Research: Implications of Learning in and Through the Arts,
Dr. Robert Horowitz of Teachers College, Columbia University pointed out an astonishing number of
difficulties related to the subject of transfer, not the least of which is its very definition as well as
stating that “there is not one definition of arts learning on which our field can agree.”

After wading through a miasma of difficulties, Horowitz and his colleagues threw out their entire first
approach – to consider “looking at the transfer of higher order thinking skills directly from various
kinds of arts learning into other disciplines, such as math or social studies.” This is completely in
line with the predominant definition of transfer, yet he rejected it as too “challenging to define the
learning in each subject, the transfer process, and the appropriate methods of measurement.” Instead, the
point of departure was to examine broader cognitive proficiencies that they believed to be both endemic
to arts learning and the learning of other subjects.

Working with twenty-eight schools grades K-8, and over 2,000 students, the findings were that students
with more exposure to arts learning scored better in all areas than those with less exposure. Horowitz
identifies eight “cognitive outcomes.”

  • the expression of ideas and feelings
  • focused perception
  • the ability to make connections
  • the ability to layer relationships
  • improved construction and organization of meaning
  • the ability to take multiple or alternative viewpoints
  • the ability to imagine new possibilities
  • improved sensory learning

  • In addition, Horowitz identified personal learning indicators resulting from arts learning:

  • risk taking
  • a sense of competence
  • a sense of ownership of learning
  • task persistence

  • Such findings reveal the true value of “transfer of learning.” The seeds of a paradigm shift are extant
    in all of the cognitive outcomes and learning indicators cited above because they go far beyond a
    single academic subject and beyond subject-to-subject transfer. Their value extends beyond the school
    and reaches into the daily life of every student. Such extended reach is what all teaching artists and
    every program they offer should strive to demonstrate; that the skills, information, and values of their
    arts programs have meaningful applications in the “real life” of each child.

    Coming Soon:
    Part Five – Real Life and the Necessary Arts

    Resolved: The Arts Are Unnecessary

    Posted by

    Part Three – The Elephant in the Room
    (See Part One, posted on July 13, 2013)
    (See Part Two, posted on July 18, 2013)

    In our current predicament, we make the same arguments ad infinitum; solutions, viable and lasting solutions, are
    unlikely. We’re far too caught up in decrying the status quo – a status that’s been abominably quo for a long time.

    Two days ago, I inadvertently tuned in to the middle of an interview on NPR about arts programs and funding (or
    the lack thereof) in the New York school systems. There, condensed into the twenty minutes of driving, I heard
    the same litany of reasons why the arts are so important, the same sound bytes of politicians proclaiming
    that more money must be earmarked for the arts in our schools (and, of course, their actual record of taking any
    kind of action is usually revealed to be nil). As if it were planned to stuff every cliché into the program,
    one of the guests spoke of a new study that has just come out that shows once again that the arts are important
    in the development of well-rounded students. When the guests were asked point blank, based on the study and the
    sound bytes of politicians if any substantive measures would be forthcoming, both said it was unlikely. So,
    everything is stuck in same the rut it’s been for years.

    As I researched more and more, perusing arguments, reading essays by teaching artists, I believe I finally hit on
    something. Regardless of what side we’re on, we’re incapable of devising solutions and potential new avenues of
    approach because the view beyond the status quo is obstructed by a big, fragrant elephant in the room that needs
    some serious shoveling up after. I have absolutely no doubt that all factions would abjectly declare: “Hey, that
    elephant’s not mine.”

    The elephant is attitude – unproductive and adversarial attitude. In her essay, Opinion Matters: The
    Handmaiden’s Tale
    , arts educator and Harvard graduate, Lauren Jacobs asserts, “the unhappy truth is that the
    TAs [teaching artists] may never be fully respected by the educational system and the system will likely never be
    fully respected by the TAs.” There it is, stated definitively: neither faction will ever respect the other.
    According to Jacobs, that’s just the way it is; what else can we do but accept it? Trouble is, being resigned to
    the certainty that “neither faction will ever respect the other” is a lousy point of departure for any sort of
    productive dialogue or action. Buying into this notion as immutable, casting ourselves in the roles of arts
    adversaries with a lack of respect for one another, each forever complaining about the other is patently
    unacceptable. Jacobs goes on to offer a solution: “Give the arts the full respect they deserve by hiring scores
    more teachers of all the arts (Theatre, Dance, Music, Visual Art, Crafts, Poetry, Film, Multimedia Technology,
    Culinary Arts) with full roles in the educational system.”

    The author’s heart is in the right place, but her solution – to demand the respect that’s lacking – is like the
    old joke: “Doc, it hurts when I do this.” And the doctor replies, “Then, don’t do that.” The idea that the arts
    deserve respect is one that most people would probably agree with. So is the even more universal idea that people
    deserve respect. However, just saying that respect is deserved rarely makes it so. Saying, “give the arts the
    respect they deserve” and hire “scores more teachers” is a result, a final goal; it is not a course of
    action that can be implemented to bring about that result.

    The first real step toward a viable and realistic solution is to bring about a genuine paradigm shift. We also
    have to admit that nothing will ever be brought about by the mere act of saying “the real solution is to bring
    about a genuine paradigm shift.” Such a shift must be conceived of, planned, put into practice and then tested
    under real-world conditions.

    The good news is that the seeds of this shift are already planted – right under our noses.

    Coming Soon:
    Part Four – Paradigm Seeds and “The Big T”