Art Education and Why We Need to Save the Arts in Schools

Many who think of art education think of art classes... you know, classes of students in paint-covered smocks creating colorful works for parents to hang proudly on the refrigerator.  This common misconception is one of the many reasons why the arts are being cut from schools across the country.  Many politicians and school district leaders see the arts as an extra, an add-on that requires considerable resources and, in their eyes, does not help students on any standardized test.  And they are correct.  

The arts can put an incredible strain on already stretched budgets.  Materials for one painting class could easily exceed the budget of an entire math department.  And it's true, art education will not help students on standardized tests (unless test designers start adding creative problem-solving to the test or allow students to draw, paint, sing, or dance their responses).  If leaders continue to use budgets and test results to determine a program's viability, then the arts are doomed in public education.

If budget woes and test results are the reasons to remove the arts, let me offer a reason to not only keep the arts, but to also integrate them into all parts of the curriculum.  In a word, the reason is creativity.  All kids are born creative.  And that creativity is not limited to times when they have a paint brush in their hand or a kazoo in their mouth.  Kids are creative in many aspects of their lives.  And yet, when they enter a formal education setting, creativity is often left for arts and crafts time or art class.  Art education is so much more.

In addition to supporting art education, we need to start integrating art into all aspects of the curriculum.  Many teachers know that kids need 21st century skills (communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creative problem solving).  Unfortunately, because those skills are not tested, they are not valued, and are left out of the curriculum in exchange for test prep.  We need to put them back in, and we can do that through art integration.  

All four of the 21st century skills can be taught when art is integrated into the curriculum.  Visual and performing arts are forms of communication, where artists convey ideas and emotions through their work.  Many artists collaborate with others, blending different genres, disciplines, or mediums together to engage the audience in a new experience.  Although most common in music, examples of collaboration are found throughout the art world.  Critical thinking can be expanded in the curriculum through analysis of art in a historical context, symmetry in nature in a science classroom, even finding connections between the literature and the visual and performing arts of particular periods of time or geographical locations.  

The final 21st century skill is creative problem solving, and it will play a critical role in the success of children around the world as they prepare to join the global community.  Creative problem solving is the process of using divergent thinking to more clearly define the problem and generate many possible solutions.  This process requires large amounts of original thought unfettered by the constraints of perceived reality.  Many define it simply as 'thinking out of the box.'  Regardless of what you call it, one thing is clear... You need creativity.  This is where art integration, as well as art education, can help to unlock the creativity trapped inside each child.

The question now is, how do we do this?  And where do we begin?  I think I'll leave that for a future post...  But I think I can give you a preview...

Sir Ken Robinson once said: "if you're not prepared to be wrong, you'll never come up with anything original."  As educators, we need to be willing to take risks and give our students a safe and nurturing place to explore their own creativity without the fear of failure.


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