Thursday, September 07, 2006

Sometimes They Get IT Right

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum is pleased to release the findings of a three-year study to evaluate the impact of arts education on critical thinking skills and literacy among elementary school children.

Here is a summary of the report:

Over a two school year period, the study interviewed hundreds of New York City third graders--both those who had been in Museum programs and those that had not. Those children who had studied the arts, worked with visiting artists, and actively participated in the arts themselves performed better in six categories of literacy and critical thinking skills than did those who had not been as engaged in the arts. Such key thinking skills as describing, hypothesizing and reasoning were among the aspects showing gain.

An important part of this study was centered around the fact that the students had to use their verbal language skills extensively rather than rely only on the more mundane paper/pencil format of most research studies and tests. The researchers hypothesize that the literacy gains occur because "talking about art and using inquiry to help students 'tease' apart the meaning of paintings helps students learn how to tease apart the meaning of written texts, too. These skills are then applied to reading."

I was extremely gladdened to see this study in that it “scientifically” proves what I (and others) have been working on for years. I began my connection through the work of Victor Lowenfeld in how he put certain drawing capabilities with age groups. My first experiments in this field were in doing a simple party trick. I would ask guests to draw a picture of anything thing they wanted and from that I could tell them how old they were when someone they trusted told them they were not an artist.

With further study I found that Lowenfeld’s categories almost always corresponded to reading levels in children. My hypothesis was that if I could move them from one artistic category to the next level reading improvement should follow. This little experiment worked where as over an twelve week period 70% of the kids went up one reading level. Normally during that time period the average is 30%. (This was a totally unscientific study but the Principal gave me a hardy slap on the back. I was young it was enough) What I worked on with them was basic aesthetics – “draw what you see not what you know.” I worked with them on how to see and to process what they observed and I combined as many of the arts as possible. When doing a Circus theme project I played circus music, read circus stories, hung up circus posters and they wrote circus poems in a calligraphy lesson. The best one however, was our Thanksgiving project where instead of making turkeys out of hand prints I brought in a live turkey that they had to draw in an environment not the cage. The first class drew happy turkeys in sunshine filled fields. It was only in the second class that I told them that this is the turkey I will be having for Thanksgiving dinner. The turkeys they drew were not so happy and the environment they put the Turkey in was much darker.

I also found it was much easier to teach aesthesis and philosophy to 3rd and 4th graders than it is to teach the same to 11th and 12th graders, (same stuff different vocabulary). The younger ones immediately grasp that a thing is a thing and that there is mystery in everything and soon begin to work in their own voice. By time the child is in the 11th grade the ability to think independently has been taught out of them and they are constantly seeking validation and are very unwilling to explore on their own, (truly it is a joy when I come across a student willing to risk failure to find something out). It is why I still agree with Chesterton when he says, “The best reason for a revival of philosophy is that unless a man has a philosophy certain horrible things will happen to him. He will be practical; he will be progressive; he will cultivate efficiency; he will trust in evolution; he will do the work that lies nearest; he will devote himself to deeds, not words.” (From The Common Man) Philosophy and aesthesis need to be taught from an early age.

By the end of school year mentioned above the board announced budget cuts and the arts were the first to go. They were viewed as nonessential on the same level as recess - you know playtime. Sports were spared because they are important to too many parents and the board did not need the extra flack. As much fun as sports are in many schools they are little more than condoned and sanctioned child abuse.

The importance of the arts-visual, music, drama, writing, etc.--are vital to a full and rich education. I worry that our nation's emphasis on paper/pencil testing will cost our kids as they have less and less time for the arts. For example, I think every State Board of Education needs to take a very public and positive stand on behalf of the arts. I hope you will join me in working to preserve the place of the arts in our schools and in the lives of our youth.

Print out a copy of the Guggenheim report and send it to your local school board.

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