Young Audiences staff had a whirlwind day with visiting University of Chicago researcher Nick Rabkin, talking about teaching artists. Nick started the day with an interview on The Sound of Ideas on WCPN, listen or watch here.
Teaching artists and the idea of bringing the studio into schools started with settlement houses like Jane Addams’ Hull House in Chicago and Hiram House, Karamu House, Rainey Institute and the Cleveland Music Settlement here. Unlike art schools or music conservatories, settlements weren’t training professionals: They used arts as tools to Americanize and socialize new immigrants.
Schools began to lose their focus after “A Nation at Risk,” a 1960s study of the state of schools classifying arts as “not educationally nutritious.” The report considered academics as conscious and rational thought, explains Nick, while arts were misconceived as emotional and expressive thought. Modern cognitive science shows there’s only one kind of thinking and people can’t think without emotion and sensation, he says.
Feeding into a Reagan-inspired mistrust of government and declining economy resulting in greater declines in school funding, the arts, the “dessert,” were cut to preserve the “meat and potatoes” of core subjects. Yet today, schools are not meeting their goals, the achievement gap is widening and American students lag behind other countries in math and science.
More boring math drills won’t increase math scores.
More arts education translates into better grades in reading, math and science, according to research beginning in the 1990s. One study found children with more arts education were less likely to be bored in school, drop out, or get in trouble with the law. They were also more likely to have friends of other races, attend and finish college. And the correlation was higher for low income students than for more affluent children.
In another study, teens joined an after school program in either sports, community service or the arts. All the teens in the program performed better on academic tests than teens who weren’t in any program and the students enrolled in the arts class made the most improvement of any of the three programs.
Why? Researchers found that the arts programs were more intellectually, emotionally and socially demanding. Students would ask each other questions like “What if…” “Could we …” and “What would happen…?”
The young artists had to plan, explain their thoughts, solve complex problems, make predictions, assess their work and sometimes redirect. These are all 21st century skills, continues Nick, but that’s not what happens in schools centered on getting the “right” answer on a standardized test.
What’s special about teaching artists?
One key predictor of student success in school, after socio-economic status, is the quality of teaching. Good teachers:
- are student centered,
- activate students to pursue their own interests, and
- encourage collaboration.
When you study what good teaching looks like, it’s the same qualities that are integral to making art and that’s what teaching artists bring.
Visiting teaching artists have to win students’ commitment quickly and they do that by helping student use their own voice to create. Arts integration takes something students are already interested in and connects it to something they haven’t learned yet. Schools value discipline, but teaching artists know that good classroom management comes from engaging students in meaningful work, not insisting on silence.
Finally, artists are resources, imaginative and persistent, and they model these qualities for students.
In one school, a teaching artist and a math teacher designed a curriculum around Monet’s haystack paintings. The collective paintings represent a data set. As the lights and colors change, students can make prediction and that’s what mathematics is about. As another example, he notes that most high schoolers are required to read a Shakespeare play but that’s different than being IN a Shakespeare play.
There is reason for hope, he insists, that the failure of school reform could cause administrators to reconsider this research. To support that goal, he posits these suggestions for the arts/education community:
1. Build demand for arts education and support values like creativity.
2. Make the field sustainable for dedicated teaching artists.
3. Develop arts integrated curriculum. There are standards for art and music as subjects, but schools also need teaching artists integrating creativity into academic subjects. Schools need both full-time arts faculty and part-time teaching artists.
4. Support good arts resources throughout the community.
5. Move school assessments away from multiple choice tests.
6. Offer more professional development for teaching artists.
Arts education is one of the top experiences communities want for schoolchildren. We can find allies and together, make arts education part of a well-rounded education in every school.
Read more about arts education from Nick Rabkin
Hopeful about Funding for Arts Education, interview on ABC News
Arts Education and Arts Attendance, interview on WBEZ (NPR)
Artists Bring what Schools Need, published in the Huffington Post
The Three Horsemen of Arts Education, published in the Huffington Post