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Helping Students Find Their Own Voices in the Arts

Mark Slavkin

As advocates for arts education, we try to stay flexible and timely in our rationale and arguments. We want to be current and relevant about the latest studies and trends.

If “21st century skills” are in vogue, we can show the relevance of arts learning. If the talk is about the primacy of science, technology, engineering, and math, we are quick to suggest we add the arts and make STEM become STEAM. And if the focus is on the economy and jobs, we stand ready to make the case for how learning in the arts prepares young people for a wealth of future job opportunities.

I worry that our advocacy and rhetoric may get ahead of the reality of our practice. Are we really delivering on all the benefits we promise?

While advocacy is essential, I wish we devoted as much time to sharing with each other about the nuts and bolts of classroom practice. Perhaps we could even display some humility about what we can deliver and what is not quite ready for prime time.

This brings me to the topic of careers in the arts. Our advocacy often refers to an economic imperative for arts education. Here in California we talk about the direct application of skills learned in arts education to jobs in the arts and the broader creative economy.

We also suggest that arts education cultivates a range of skills that will be valuable across all economic sectors, such as creativity, collaboration, and innovation.

We need to look at our own practice and make sure we are consistently cultivating the benefits we claim for arts education. Are we giving kids license to be truly creative?

For example, in the performing arts, how often are students provided opportunities to compose original music or choreograph a new dance piece? How often are students encouraged to pursue their own ideas in the arts, as opposed to following the very explicit rules and directions from the teacher?

Since the rewards system for arts teachers gives enormous weight to the final show/performance, it is no surprise to see teachers focus their limited hours with students on rehearsing for the coming show or festival. Such events help garner support from parents and principals and serve as a source of pride for the school community.

The hard work, discipline, and teamwork on display are often quite impressive. But what about our claims concerning creativity and innovation? When do the band kids get to explore their own interests and ideas in music? Of course, the same pressures and patterns are also evident in the dance studio or theater stage. Contrary to our rhetoric, I worry we may be cultivating more “rule followers” in the arts classroom.

Clearly, there is an important part of arts education that involves honing basic technique and learning the work of great masters in each discipline.

I am simply suggesting we make more space for students to explore and find their own voice in the arts.

If we want to cultivate true artists, and not mere technicians, we need to start somewhere.

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