Monday, January 11, 2016

Our Schools Are Not Teaching Kids What They Truly Need to Know in Favor of Teaching Them What They Don't: They Need True Art Education

Teaching art or teaching to think like an artist? | Cindy Foley | TEDxColumbus
I started my working life, in earnest, as a middle school Visual Art teacher, a line of work I continued with for 18 years. This was not something I came to casually, I graduated from university first with an undergraduate and then a Masters degree in Fine Arts Education as preparation. Somehow, though, in my confused, young mind, a mind clouded by extreme infatuation with Art, I held the mis-perception that Art was important, and should be important to everyone. Riding this high minded, but naive, notion I ran into a very unforgiving brick wall as soon as I got in the classroom.

When I was hired at the last K-12 school I taught at, the director said to me "I assume you know how to teach Art, and as I don't know anything about it, I'll simply spend some time with you going over how we run the school, its discipline code, schedule, etc." In other words not only was he telling me that he didn't care what I did with the kids, so long as it looked like I was teaching them art, but this was an area that didn't truely merit the supervision of a principal. This was very much the same speech I got from the principals at the 5 other schools I taught at before moving on to becoming a curriculum and instruction specialist for the central school system, eventually becoming the school district administrator in charge of its citywide Instructional Technology program. I'd be tempted to resent the attitude that was shown to me, but then again, the truth is that like just about everyone else I knew, both on and off the job, these principals had grown up in and gone to public school in New York City (as I had) and pretty much whatever they knew or felt about art was formed by the same school system that I was teaching it in; precious little.

This situation had an upside, though. I was free to, literally, invent the course I taught. And while I did have to expend a great deal more work than the English, Science, Math, and other subject area teachers I sat and ate lunch with every day, there were no text books or published curriculum to get me through my work days, I had to produce everything myself - this burden represented a very nourishing freedom. In the end, I invented a 7th grade, 8th grade, 9th grade sequence that took my students (I taught them without interuption as they moved through these grades sequentially) into deep explorations of drawing and design, color and painting, and sculpture and 3D design. My sequence also included a healthy dose of grappling with "What is Art?" and "What does it mean, why do people make it?" and a large helping, of "Let's get up off our mind's lazy ass and make some magic!" In other words, an exploration of creativity and being creative. Alas, many of my fellow Art teachers got through their teaching assignments by concentrating on the technical issues of making art or telling their students "Draw whatever you want, however you like!" an approach that most often fills time, but produces little of value. Startlingly, years down the road from my first love and life filling profession, Art Education, I came across this video which hit me like a ton of bricks by its insightful brilliance.

The Arts Education tragedy is a cultural meme by now, we've heard countless incantations of the hand wringing plaints of its advocates who lament that it's been cut back, or cut out entirely. But if we are honest about it, we have to admit that this is due to society not seeing much of any true value in it. Of the hundreds of school principals I've known and worked with by now, I'd have to say that while the vast majority know that they are supposed to communicate to others that they believe Art Education is important, but if their lives depended on it, they really couldn't come up with half a handful of convincing explanations as to why saying so is true. More ironically frustrating, this truth persists alongside that other viral, ever handy bit of glibness "Our salvation is tied to our ability to be creative!" and "We have to graduate students who are more creative!"

This video, in a wonderful way, connects those dots to yield an insight of true importance; that Art, and by extension, Arts (plural) Education is an important opportunity to foster learning about creativity and to develop student creativity... BUT, we must conceive it and implement it with that goal in mind. It does not follow that Art Education necessarily does those things and that if we blindly offer kids something/anything that is called and can be construed to be Art Education, this crucial goal will be achieved.

This video, though, offers some great detailed exploration of those ideas. And it is important... VERY important. You know, one of the things that truly frightens me about contemporary public school education is that its failure to achieve its goals obscures the far greater peril that IF we were to reach them we'd find that the goals themselves would ensure another, more insidious variety of failure. In other words, heaven help us if our kids were to, en mass, ace those standardized tests... if they did we'd probably finally find out that the education they got in our schools still wouldn't add up to them being individuals who are competent, let alone masterful, in doing things that really matter in our world. Individuals learn those things, far too often, in spite of the education they receive in public school, not because of them... and this is especially true in the current 'Culture of Accountability'-driven testing/test prep-centric variety of schooling that we run our kids through. This video offers an alternative understanding: give kids Arts Education, but not instruction in How To draw and paint, How To finger a clarinet, How To write a haiku, those things are fine but they are support skills. What we need to do is teach them, teach them all and teach them well, how to think like an artist! Artists de-construct the world they live in and invent ways to re-construct it as they need it to be. It's very much like being a Scientist and Engineer, and most importantly the artist's way of thinking is a vital entry point by which we all can learn to better understand and impact the things around us. So there!

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