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What do the arts bring to education?

By Jane Gooding-Brown - posted Tuesday, 23 November 2010

In an article in the Boston Globe in September, 2007, Ellen Winner, Professor of Psychology at Boston College and Lois Hetland, Associate Professor of Art Education at the Massachusetts College of Art, expounded on a year-long in-depth study of five art classes in schools in the Boston area school district. Both professors are researchers at Project Zero at the Harvard School of Education.

They found that arts programs teach a specific set of thinking skills rarely addressed elsewhere in the curriculum, and that far from being irrelevant in a test-driven education system, arts education is becoming even more important as standardised tests (like the Australian NAPLAN tests) exert a narrowing influence over what schools teach.

Such skills include visual-spatial abilities, reflection, self-criticism, and the willingness to experiment and learn from mistakes. All are important to numerous careers, but are widely ignored by today's standardised tests.


They stated:

It is well established that intelligence and thinking ability are far more complex than what we choose to measure on standardized tests. The high-stakes exams we use in our schools, almost exclusively focused on verbal and quantitative skills, reward children who have a knack for language and math and who can absorb and regurgitate information. They reveal little about a student's intellectual depth or desire to learn, and are poor predictors of eventual success and satisfaction in life. … As schools increasingly shape their classes to produce high test scores, many life skills not measured by tests just don't get taught. It seems plausible to imagine that art classes might help fill the gap by encouraging different kinds of thinking. …

Arts educators across the globe have continually talked about, written papers about, given conference papers about, this specific set of thinking skills in an effort to extol the importance of the arts in the school curriculum.

The implications of the importance of an education in the arts are very significant. It is significant not only for schools but for all society. In Australia, as proposed in the new National Curriculum for the Arts, the reduction of time for the arts in the school curriculum will probably result in our losing the ability to produce not just the artistic creators of the future but importantly, innovative leaders who improve the world they inherit.

In the study of visual arts classes Winner and Hetland found that while students learnt techniques specific to the visual arts, such as how to make meaningful marks (draw), how to mix paint and understand colour, or how to centre a pot, they were also taught an extraordinary array of mental habits not emphasised elsewhere in school. They identified a number of what they called “habits of mind” that arts classes taught, each one of which was notable by their exclusion from testable skills taught elsewhere in the school curriculum.

One of these habits was making clear connections between schoolwork and the world outside the classroom. We can see artworks that bridge those spaces between school life and “real life”, between difference of “self” and “other”, between “new” and “old” lives in the annual exhibition of HSC visual arts works, ARTEXPRESS. The clear connections between “art and life” are evident in these works. Standardised testing such as NAPLAN does not allow students to explore these kinds of connections with the world past and present.


Another habit was the ability to move beyond technical skill to make artworks that expressed their own personal voice. In many art classrooms we see works that are serious and personal investigations by students of their experiences of living - and sometimes of dying. We see students exploring through art making what it means to be alienated or displaced or frightened; however, in contrast to the stereotype of art education as mainly expressive craft, the researchers found that “ teachers talked about decisions, choices, and understanding, far more than they talked about feelings”.

Yet another habit was the sustained perseverance over a period of time needed to creatively solve problems and work beyond frustration.

Other habits included innovation through exploration and reflective self-evaluation. In art classes innovation generally means “to work outside the frame” - a skill I encourage in my own art classes and which involves experimenting, taking risks and generally “mucking about to see what happens”.

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About the Author

Jane Gooding-Brown PhD has teaching experience which includes 44 years teaching as visual arts teacher with NSW Department of Education and Training; at SCECGS Redlands, Sydney; and as Assistant Professor Art Education Pennsylvania State University, Pennsylvania USA. Currently she is the Visual Arts Coordinator at the Conservatorium High School, Sydney NSW.

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