by Ryan B. Jackson, Ed.D
“I don’t think about art when I’m working. I try to think about life.”
~ Jean-Michael Basquiat
Before we knew to add, before we thought to write, before we had the capacity to control fire – we had art. Our primordial instinct for the aesthetic traces the human race back to its origin. This innate sense to artistically create has long fascinated and propelled us towards something greater, outside of ourselves. Even as early as the middle Paleolithic ages, where humans spent the majority of their time desperately hunting for food, with every move predicated on survival, even then we found time to make art.
The argument that art is an integral part of human existence, that its imperative nature is seamlessly woven into our neuro-fabric is virtually no argument at all. We’re innately artists. History suggests it and our continued attraction to symmetry, abstraction, color swatches and fashion confirms it. Why then has our current educational paradigm positioned art near the bottom rung of our learning ladder, where too often we’re expected to step-over this seemingly superfluous “elective?”
That is not a rhetorical question.
Education’s obsession with data and the resulting data-driven leadership and data-driven instruction has culminated in a data-driven culture where anything not quantifiable is tossed to the wayside, further solidifying our throwaway culture while systematically eroding any and all traces of humanity-based learning. Though we’ve talked at length about dispelling the standardization doctrine that has consumed the better part of a generation, we’ve yet to fully face the specific fallout and collateral damage. That’s not to say we haven’t begun to addressed over-testing’s psychological impact on middle-America or the stressors of high-poverty schools to compete in the rank and file race, because we have – and those very conversations have been the catalyst for earmarking standardization as education’s cancer.
The next-step then in our counter-programming offensive is to reposition subjects such as Art back to education’s foreground. How else will we regain the trust of students who have grown to loathe education’s current “learn this or else…” landscape? How else will we paint joy back into schools that have gradually morphed into the antithesis of fun? Furthermore, how would our coveted data fit into a reimagined educational hierarchy with Art serving as the thread connecting students’ innate desire to create to society’s incessant demand for imaginative innovation?
These, too, are not rhetorical questions.
Connecting the dots: From line-graphs to Pointillism
Education reform as an ideology is both archaic and futile, in terms of practicality and general sensibility. Instead, education futurists, myself included, liken the current palpable movement to a transformation, an evolution of existing, forward-thinking practices coupled with the outright abandonment of counter-productive, hurtful ones. Included in this transformation is the recognition of current subjects and curriculums that have been previously relegated to non-essential status under the ominous standardization regime. Thus, once coveted subjects of significance such as Physical Education, Computer Science and the aforementioned Art are beginning to be looked upon again as key components in the revitalization – some would say revolution – of education’s effectiveness and relevance.
In terms of overhauling education’s current infrastructure, transformation lends itself to a more efficient, practical approach – readymade scalability. Waiting in the wings are legions of passionate, dedicated teachers chomping at the bit for their turn in education’s spotlight. These teachers, who for years reluctantly and begrudgingly accepted their role as second-fiddle support players, are some of the foremost experts on education hallmarks: Metacognition, creativity, empathy, computational thinking and physiology. One simple yet profound solution is to embrace these existing resources, reaffirm not only their talents but also their role in recapturing the hearts and minds of today’s learners.
The data obsession doesn’t necessarily have to stop, either, just because we’re tapping back into right brain processing and more intuitive curriculums. In fact, quite the contrary, as an ongoing argument centers around the shortsighted standardized test measurements that present schools as Prince or Pauper. Now we can begin measuring the qualitative impact Art has on school culture, or the increased cognitive ability Physical Education has on the adolescent mind, or how about tracking the correlation between computational thinking and overall problem-solving skills?
Again, not a rhetorical question.
Recalibrating our POV
As a champion of whole-child learning, I find that my greatest joy in the recent time I’ve spent reinvesting in my school’s now thriving Art program (thank you @panthersart) is witnessing not only students’ passion for learning come back to life but more so the real-time effect of an invigorated school culture and its causal impact on the general sense of well-being that flows throughout the students and staff. The feeling became so palpable around October I coined the hashtag #ArtAntidote, because that’s exactly what it felt like: Art acting as the life-saving agent fighting off bureaucracy’s deadly neurotoxins.
It’s no secret I’ve poured into my school’s art curriculum over the past two years, showcased through our award-winning PBL work and increased alignment with arts-related business partners (big ups to @redarrowgallery!). True, I’ve also spent a good deal of time developing our computer science initiatives and blended learning rollout, but it’s been my hands-on experience with this year’s Art focus that has helped reaffirm my optimism for the future of education. Is this future rooted in student-centered creation? Can self-expression coupled with Metacognition literally reverse the effects of the learned helplessness plague? Should there be a call-to-action for Art teachers to begin assuming school leadership roles?
By now you get it, none of these are rhetorical questions.
STEAM: A revolution of Frida proportions
Still-life jokes aside, if art is life and life is about movement, where then is education’s so-called #ArtAntidote movement actually going? If art is to be more than the equivalent of a film acting extra, how is its integration done so in order to not only maximize its self-expression-inspired, therapeutic effects but also further enhance innovative curriculums – curriculums such as STEM?
Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (collectively referred to as STEM) serves as a fertile canvas yearning for Art’s right-brain counterweight to balance a rigid curriculum with a more malleable one. The result is S.T.E.A.M., education’s #ArtAntidote that when properly synthesized leaves students thinking more about life and their education’s real world applications than the mere lecture, homework, assessment doldrums they’re used to. I’m now a first-hand witness of the exponential power Art brings to education’s palate. Injected into STEM’s curriculum, Art engages, empowers and enhances 21st century students desperately searching for a unique education they can call their own, thus begging possibly education’s most important question…
Can STEAM bring joy back to education, carving a hope-filled academic identity for a generation of students clamoring to create one?