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The Intrinsic Benefits of Arts Education

Kristen Engebretsen

I recently authored a post titled The Top 10 Ways to Support Arts Education, but I’m finding that I get more requests from people asking for reasons why arts education should be supported, not how.

So as a companion piece to the how of supporting arts education, here I offer reasons why arts education should be supported.

Usually, when making the case for arts education, I direct people to resources like the recent Reinvesting in Arts Education report by the President’s Committee for the Arts and the Humanities. It compiles all of the classic arguments in favor of arts education: it boosts student achievement, it increases student engagement, and it helps to close the achievement gap.

My colleague Randy Cohen has also offered reasons to support arts education in his Top 10 Reasons to Support the Arts post. He, too, cites academic achievement, but he also mentions the role of arts education in preparing students with 21st century job skills, like communication and creativity.

However, this post is not about what arts education does in terms of other achievement areas. Rather, it is about what the arts intrinsically do for students.

Below are my favorite points on this topic, written by Elliot Eisner, Lois Hetland, and Ellen Winner. I find that I turn to these arguments because they resonate more with me than the SAT score or workforce development claims. They remind me of my own passion for the arts and why I went into the field of arts education.

When you combine the below intrinsic benefits with the above-named extrinsic benefits, you can tailor your advocacy messages to various audiences and powerfully convey the importance of arts education.

Ten Lessons the Arts Teach
Elliott Eisner, a Professor of Education at Stanford University, has identified 10 lessons which are clarified through the study of art in schools.

1.  The arts teach children to make good judgments about qualitative relationships. Unlike much of the curriculum in which correct answers and rules prevail, in the arts, it is judgment rather than rules that prevail.

2.  The arts teach children that problems can have more than one solution and that questions can have more than one answer.

3.  The arts celebrate multiple perspectives. One of their large lessons is that there are many ways to see and interpret the world.

4.  The arts teach children that in complex forms of problem-solving purposes are seldom fixed, but change with circumstance and opportunity. Learning in the arts requires the ability and willingness to surrender to the unanticipated possibilities of the work as it unfolds.

5.  The arts make vivid the fact that words do not, in their literal form or number, exhaust what we can know. The limits of our language do not define the limits of our cognition.

6.  The arts teach students that small differences can have large effects. The arts traffic in subtleties.

7.  The arts teach students to think through and within a material. All art forms employ some means through which images become real.

8.  The arts help children learn to say what cannot be said. When children are invited to disclose what a work of art helps them feel, they must reach into their poetic capacities to find the words that will do the job.

9.  The arts enable us to have experience we can have from no other source and through such experience to discover the range and variety of what we are capable of feeling.

10.  The arts’ position in the school curriculum symbolizes to the young what adults believe is important.

8 Habits of Mind
In their book Studio Thinking: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education authors Lois Hetland and Ellen Winner discuss how arts can promote the following eight habits of mind.

Develop Craft: Learning to use and care for tools (e.g., viewfinders, brushes), materials (e.g., charcoal, paint). Learning artistic conventions (e.g., perspective, color mixing).

Engage & Persist: Learning to embrace problems of relevance within the art world and/or of personal importance, to develop focus and other mental states conducive to working and persevering at art tasks.

Envision: Learning to picture mentally what cannot be directly observed and imagine possible next steps in making a piece.

Express: Learning to create works that convey an idea, a feeling, or a personal meaning.

Observe: Learning to attend to visual contexts more closely than ordinary “looking” requires, and thereby to see things that otherwise might not be seen.

Reflect: Question & Explain – Learning to think and talk with others about an aspect of one’s work or working process.

Evaluate: Learning to judge one’s own work and working process and the work of others in relation to standards of the field.

Stretch & Explore: Learning to reach beyond one’s capacities, to explore playfully without a preconceived plan, and to embrace the opportunity to learn from mistakes and accidents.

Understand Art World: Domain – Learning about art history and current practice.

Communities: Learning to interact as an artist with other artists (i.e., in classrooms, in local arts organizations, and across the art field) and within the broader society.

What would you add to the 10 lessons or 8 habits of mind that arts education provides?

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