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Learning by Doing: What We Can Learn from the Arts

Brian Cohen

Brian D. Cohen

“For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” (Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics).

The educational model of learning by doing is nowhere better exemplified than in arts education. Teachers in every discipline increasingly recognize the value of not only what students know, but what they do with what they know.

Educators are talking a lot about assessment these days, but education is too complex an enterprise to measure in one dimension. Measurement in education is too often instantaneous and linear; a momentary capture of what we already know we’re looking for. At one moment, a student shows that he or she knows a certain amount about one thing, and then the class moves on.

Say you’re learning about cell division.

Your class takes a week to study it, at the end of which you have a test. You get 36 of 50 right and you get a C – and you may never learn why you got 14 wrong or how to get them all right. And, by the way, you learn that you’re bad at science (which nobody told you involves observation and experimentation – just like art). 

A math teacher colleague created a rubric of skills and content he wanted his students to master. He made sure that these skills were essential (necessary to learn), cumulative (you needed to learn them to move on in the subject), and useful (kids could apply skills right away in context). He gave the kids the year to master them, and (because he was a math teacher) he kept a chart of when each student showed he/she could apply the skill. He approached each student and each topic in a different way.

As long as they got there, he felt – rightly – that he had done his job.

Performance in the arts involves a complex layering and interrelationship of knowledge, understanding, and interpretation. What do kids learn in an arts class? Not only the rules and language of their medium, but – importantly – to develop their own habits of mind and imagination and to acquire the discipline of continuing to work in the face of not being able to get the answers right away. And, they often learn that there is more than one way to get to an answer, and sometimes more than one answer.

What you measure is what you teach for. When we assess students in art we hope to find something we may not already know – what the student has discovered and shown us, if we are open to seeing and hearing it. Not just “is this good?” – but “what did this student intend, what has this student accomplished, how did they get there, what have they told me, what have they taught me, what have they made me feel?”

Can we teach and assess art – or science, math, history or literature – as an active and meaningful process of observation, participation, exploration ,and application?

Can we teach for and assess curiosity, determination, resolve, and imagination?

Can we help students develop a tolerance for struggle and frustration, for occasional failure, for uncertainty, for sometimes being wrong, and for trusting in their own courage, intuition, stamina and daring?

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