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September 23, 1997

Why Art?

Art Is Basic To Human Endeavors

by Turner Rogers

Art seems to have been important to almost all human societies since before recorded history. Art expressions have been, and still are, used to record, to explain, to interpret, to predict, to gain awareness, and to express those things cultures find important. It should follow that learning about art and learning through art would be important parts of our schools' curricula, but educators know that the visual arts, along with the performing arts, are the first to go when time and money are in short supply.

Frequently the arts are considered "frills" in the classroom. After all, don't students enjoy themselves too much in those classes to actually be getting an education? Although many believe that there is no practical value in having an art lesson in the elementary classroom or an art course in the secondary schools, the truth is that art classes are rigorous learning experiences. Art activities require students to solve new problems, to think critically and to come up with solutions that no one has shown them. Students learn to use thought processes which differ from those used in other subject areas, using global thinking in addition to the linear process normally associated with classroom activities. They also learn the value of hard work, that there is personal fulfillment in working with a problem until it is satisfactory resolved. And art experiences stress perceptual sensitivity. Students use the information gleaned from the senses of sight, touch, hearing and even taste and smell, to understand the world around them in order to express their ideas. Other curriculum areas seldom deal with using the senses effectively, even though our senses are the conduits of learning.

Skills developed in art class, such as thinking critically and communicating thoughts effectively, are very useful in the world of adulthood. Students in art classes learn to generate ideas and to share materials and space. They learn to resolve problems with a variety of media and processes, to evaluate and make decisions. They also learn what other cultures and societies have found important enough to warrant expression. Industry recognizes the value of art. Eli Lilly's CEO Randall L. Tobias, for example, believes that "there's a strong link between creativity fostered in the arts and scientific creativity." According to Lewis Thomas, science may produce the data, but we need the arts for full meaning.

Research indicates that arts-related experiences are extremely important to learning and communicating. Dr. Howard Gardner of Harvard University stresses that we possess not one fixed intelligence, but seven or more distinct types of intelligence, including modes such as verbal/linguistic, logical/mathematical, bodily/kinesthetic, and visual/spatial. All of us have abilities in each of these intelligences and, with nurturing, are capable of developing them. An extension of this information which is important to schooling is that children have different abilities in learning through these different intelligences, as well. Learning magazine in January, 1995 reported that of 26 children in a primary classroom, teachers might expect 25 to have learning strengths in the visual/spatial and 25 to have learning strengths in the bodily/kinesthetic mode. These children will respond well to learning delivered through the visual and performing arts. Only 18 would be expected to have learning strengths in the verbal/linguistic mode and 18 in the logical/mathematical mode -- the modes used most commonly, with uneven results, in most schools. (These numbers add up to more than 26 because children have strengths in more than a single area.)

The stress that our schools place on the low cognitive skill of memorization, at the expense of participatory learning, has an almost universal numbing effect. Robert Fulghum, author of the popular Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, has found that kindergarten children are confident that they are able to draw, sing, and dance and that they will soon be able to read and count. However, when he asks college students about their abilities, he finds only a very few of them engage in any of the arts, and of those, most only do one thing, such as draw or play the piano. And it is evident to anyone visiting an upper elementary classroom that many children decide at an early age that they are not cut out to deal with words and numbers, and few are confident in their problem-solving skills, having already learned to be dependent on the adult world for answers.

As Fulghum points out, all young children have abilities in art. These abilities are easily encouraged and developed, but they are more often discouraged and stifled or ignored and atrophied. Unfortunately, so few children are encouraged to develop their abilities that most teenagers and adults are convinced that they don't have any abilities in art, and believe they never did. Parents play a critical early role in preserving these abilities, but teachers share in the responsibility of fostering creativity once children enter school. This is done by giving students problems to solve in art activities, requiring them to do their own thinking, encouraging them to express their own ideas, experiences and emotions, and reinforcing their efforts. Creativity in art rests on originality (having new ideas), fluency (having many ideas), flexibility (being adaptable and open to new ideas) and elaboration (expanding on ideas to create an end result different from the original idea). The creative problem- solving fostered in art class requires divergent thinking -- finding new solutions to new and unexpected problems -- rather than merely finding solutions that others already know.

There are far-reaching effects associated with the learning experiences and skills developed in art class. Many elementary teachers have found that art helps students learn all of the other subjects. Literature used as a source of subject matter in art forces children to think deeply about the subject in order to express it. Vocabulary used in art makes meaning more apparent and increases understanding. Empirical science deals with observing carefully and describing what exists -- exactly what takes place in the art classroom with empirical drawing activities. That is the reason science courses have assignments such as observing single-celled organisms through a microscope and drawing what is seen, dissecting frogs and drawing and diagramming what is found, and drawing the parts of a flower or an insect. Many art projects involve experimenting with materials, which is cause-and-effect learning. Weather and the environment are favorite art subjects. Mathematics concepts commonly used in art include shape, size, symmetry, pattern, balance, ratio, proportions, positive and negative. The social sciences are included in learning about cultures, societies and events depicted in paintings and sculptures. Impressionist art and impressionist music are from the same era and are reasonably studied together. Art processes also provide involving topics for written expression, for students usually enjoy writing about the art that they have produced.

Making art is a process of giving form to thought. Prewriting, a process that leads to more effective writing, include forming ideas about one's subject, observing and gathering information, making a record of the information gathered, thinking about what one wishes to express and how to express it. Drawing and painting activities do all of these things and so are excellent prewriting experiences. In 1993, Blaine Moore and Helen Caldwell reported that "the writing quality of elementary students was consistently and significantly improved by using drawing and drama techniques, compared to the control group." In Los Angeles, high school students in the Humanities Program wrote higher quality essays and low-achieving students made gains equivalent to those made by high-achieving students. Twenty high schools were involved in the Humanities Program, which incorporates the arts into the broad curriculum, and 3,500 students have been reached.

The Arts Improve Academic Areas

Cultures utilize a variety of forms of articulation and expression, including poetry, music, visual arts, mathematics, dance and film. Without exposure and literacy, understanding is not possible. Students whose educational experiences lack in making connections in these various forms are not able to obtain meaning that would otherwise be theirs. Additionally, studies point out that giving the arts a vital place in the curriculum results in a number of important outcomes which improve the educational climate. Schools become more exciting and inviting places for students. Teachers become more enthusiastic and more creative in their planning. Students enjoy finding and using knowledge for themselves instead of solely for the teachers. Drop-out rates are lowered. Parental involvement with schools increases as students are involved in art exhibits and musical and dramatic performances.

Third grader Brittany Sells carefully chooses the right color pastel for her "impressionist" leaf drawing. Photo by L.D. Fletcher
There are many documented cases of individual schools, and entire school systems, improving academic performance and scores by putting emphasis on the arts. One elementary school in Aiken, SC raised its SAT and California Test of Basic Skills scores and was named a National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence by the U.S. Department of Education, convincing the state's legislature to allocate more money for arts education. More than 1,500 elementary schools, middle schools and high schools have effectively used the "Learning to Read Through the Arts" program to enable students who were previously unsuccessful in reading to make significant gains. In New York City, for example, students from all grade levels improved an average of one to two months in reading ability for each month that they participated in the "Learning to Read Through the Arts" program. In Ohio, students in the "Spectra+" arts program made greater gains in reading, reading vocabulary, reading comprehension and mathematics comprehension than did a control group. Students in the "Arts Alternatives" program in New Jersey significantly improved their attitudes, self-acceptance and acceptance of others. In a pilot project conducted in 1990 by the Arts Council of Mobile, third graders significantly improved their geometry skills when the subject was taught using the arts, while a control group using standard teaching practices did not. The College Board has found that students with four or more years of arts study score higher on the SAT than those without arts study -- 53 points better in verbal scores, 37 points better in mathematics scores. A U.S. Labor Department report states that competencies required by employers -- communication skills, creativity, problem-solving, collaboration skills, sociability, self-esteem and exercising individual responsibility -- are best developed by the arts.

One cautionary note: the benefit to other subjects that comes from art experiences is not found in using coloring sheets or workbooks whose main activity is coloring a printed picture. Coloring sheets have never been found to improve learning. In fact it has been documented that these worksheets, and coloring books as well, teach dependency and conformity. These mind-numbing activities teach children to wait for someone else to provide the answer and to do their thinking for them. Jim Trelease, author of the best-selling Read Aloud Handbook, laments that although no study has ever shown a correlation between reading ability and coloring worksheets, elementary school students are confronted with hundreds of worksheets a year, conditioning them to associate reading with the pain of boring and meaningless activity.

A Visual Arts Program in Schools

The value of a visual arts program should not be seen solely as a benefit to other areas of the curriculum. Art is an important subject in its own right and deals with goals that other subjects hardly touch. In making art, students develop motor skills and learn to manipulate and control a variety of tools and media, bringing into play the highest levels of cognitive activity; decision- making, problem-solving, synthesizing and evaluating. They learn the value of self-discipline and develop a positive attitude about their own abilities, because in making art there is no necessity of failure. Students learn that an artist continues working, solving problems and making changes until he or she is satisfied that the work is complete. And they learn the value of expressing ideas and emotions in positive ways.

Learning to create art objects may be fundamental to art class, but that is only one aspect of a well-rounded visual arts program. Learning about the history of art is an important academic aspect. Early and repeated exposure to art helps students increase their awareness and intellectual curiosity. Developing appreciation skills at an early age creates a basis for lifelong appreciation. It is a side benefit that knowledge of art and artists also provides awarenesses and insights to societies and historical events.

Discussing art and the visual elements of works of art also prepares students for developing aesthetic judgment and the process of criticism. The number of daily decisions which are based on a sense of aesthetics is surprising, yet few students have the kind of exposure, training and practice required for critical analysis and forming a basis for making these decisions. Most are made in a haphazard fashion, without conscious thought. An art class is likely to be the only opportunity students will have for developing aesthetic sensibility.


Turner Rogers, Ed.D. is associate professor of art education at the University of South Alabama.


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