Just when you think the arts are disappearing from public education, they emerge in interesting ways and in important places, proving that Federal and state legislation cannot keep the arts from being an important part of a child’s and a teacher’s learning life. I make this assertion not to support the incredibly constraining law-making and short-sidedness of our legislators. It is not meant to appease the real and justified concern that students, parents, teachers, and administrators have about an education bereft of art both as a concept and a skill. Instead, what I would like to do is discuss a few surprising ways that art, more specifically artistic habits of mind and body, bubble up and demand attention in a child’s school day and in a teacher’s work.
Another way that I could put this is that the more traditional or established ways of thinking about doing art are disappearing from schools: painting, sculpting, drawing. And even with this alarming void that is ever widening in the curriculum that most of our students experience across the country, the habits of mind and body of an artist, perhaps because of this increasing lack of a chance to do art, find other ways to manifest in children and teachers. They simply will not be ignored.
By artistic habits of mind and body, I mean imaginative thinking and acting. By imaginative thinking and acting, I mean the ability, the need really, to create secondary worlds as a means for exploring what is and what could be. While there are certainly other ways to define artistic habits, this piece will focus specifically on how students and teachers express creative selves in school settings and also express a real need to do so for themselves as learning human beings. My hope is that we as educators, administrators, and legislators can pay closer attention to what this all means.
I am reminded of the third grade boy that walked up to me in the hallway. His left hand was on top of his head, upside down, with his fingers flailing around. He stood right in front of me, looking up at me, I said, ‘Hi.’ He smiled, ‘I have an alien on my head.’ He flitted his fingers around for emphasis. I asked him what the alien was doing. The boy smiled again, ‘starving.’ He giggled and jostled his way into the classroom.
A colleague and I teach a university seminar entitled ‘Power of Play: Theater and Learning.’ In this course we explore the intersection of improvisation and learning. We do this through playing improvisational games, developing understandings of thorny contemporary issues through process drama, and expanding our sense of who we are as writers through collaborative writing experiments. We explore the big question: How and what do we learn through the act of improvisational play? Students come to this course from wide and seemingly disparate disciplines: chemistry, education, psychology, theater, math, political science, sociology. There is a balance of sophomores, juniors, and seniors and the occasional lucky first year student who finds a way in. Over the course of the semester, the students share many realizations with us. One thing a majority of the students always state is how much they have missed and love playing. They often lament the fact that their other courses aren’t more playful in the way that they explore concepts and develop skills. They express joy and a sense of freedom from the need that improvisation requires to trust an impulse, take a risk, make a partner look good, and work at the top of one’s intelligence.
Recently, I have been receiving requests from schools to conduct workshops on improvisation. Administrators see a need for it for their teachers and also for their students. When I tell them that I like to begin these workshops with four rules of improvisation – say yes…and, trust your impulse, make your partner look good, and work at the top of your intelligence – they light up. ‘Yes! That is what we are missing and exactly what we need.’
So kids are being guerrilla artists, creating secondary worlds in school hallways. College students are begging for college classes that push them to create new versions of themselves. Schools are spending precious funds to encourage their teachers to think and act outside of themselves and to create supportive risk-taking classrooms through improv. All of this imaginative thinking and acting is happening during a climate of reduced funding for art classes, scripted curriculum, hyper-tracking, races to the top, and over-scheduled kids. This bureaucratic din has a tendency to drown out the simple message of this piece and what is at the heart of learning and the success of our children and our society.
These elementary and college students, teachers, and administrators are our barometer in terms of the learning climate within our schools and colleges. They are showing us whether their school climates are actually enabling them to learn and to teach. Right now, students are telling me that their schools are essentially task spaces with little connection to the imaginative lives of children and youth. By task spaces, I mean classes that are designed around discreet lessons; right and wrong answers; decontextualized activities; and worksheets that do not take into account the link between the imagination and learning. A student in my Power of Play class synthesizes this phenomenon nicely, “I have been thinking back on the various chemistry courses I have taken…I feel that it is a subject that easily falls into the ‘this is right, this is wrong’ attitude. I realize I shied away from courses that handed me a power point and had the attitude that I needed to learn that and find the answers to my questions in books.” In addition, these kinds of learning environments do not take into account the skills that our students must have in order to be successful in the 21st Century workplace. According to experts from fields ranging from education, technology, demographics, and health, the following skills will be essential if one is to gain meaningful employment in the workplace of the future:
• Sense making
• Social intelligence
• Novel and adaptive thinking
• Cross cultural competency
• Computational thinking
• New Media Literacy
• Design mindset
• Cognitive load management
• Virtual collaboration
In my experience, visiting with and working in both public and private k-12 schools, the design for learning is not trending in a way that would develop these skills. Instead, learning is being narrowly constructed through assessments based on quizzes and tests, privileging memory over convergent and divergent thinking. Knowledge is defined as discreet bits of information communicated on worksheets. Subjects are still artificially separated. Risk taking is often punished through grading. Group work is avoided because students don’t know how to do it. As I describe this reality for many students and teachers, it feels so clichéd, but it is true. Perhaps we need to keep writing it until it doesn’t happen anymore.
One pressure that is demanding a change in our schools is the current economic ‘crisis’ and the supposed dip in America’s global competitiveness. Instead of opening up and thinking differently, legislation and schools return to rigid, wrong-headed basics instruction that belies current research on the brain and learning theory. This knee-jerk reaction results in evaluating students too early and too often and creating an atmosphere where there are winners and losers when it comes to children having rich, meaningful learning environments in schools. And we can’t forget that with this ‘sky is falling mentality,’ more often than not the first classes that gets jettisoned are art and music with gym and recess following close behind, predicated on the wrongheaded belief that kids need more time learning how to read and compute in ways that won’t take root and will not build 2020 skills. We design mid-terms with ten true/false questions, five short answers, and one essay question. We limit our students’ ways to demonstrate understandings of concepts and skills to weekly quizzes and monthly tests. Projects are few and far between and do not focus on teaching kids how to work in groups. The focus is on grades and numbers instead of developing the metacognitive skills that our children must have in the 21st century.
While there are schools that are designing learning around challenges, goals, projects, essential questions, and big ideas, the truth is that many schools are not. These schools are where the majority of our students are going to graduate, need jobs, and ultimately shape our future. I would contend that the teachers within these schools want to teach with 2020 skills in mind. What is infuriating and ironic is that the people that champion the skills of entrepreneurialism and utilized them in order to get where they are today – think Bill Gates – are the same people that are now marshaling their considerable wealth to pay legislators, states, and cities to mandate an educational environment that is shallow, punitive, metric-heavy, and meaning-less, based mainly on a rose-tinted class view of what was.
Just the other day, I was sitting with a teacher, talking about the student-teacher that he is mentoring this semester. He realized that a good portion of this student-teacher’s own K-12 school experience was informed and influenced by No Child Left Behind. In front of me, he began to connect the dots in terms of this student-teacher’s penchant for standing in front of the students and lecturing at them, for designing low order thinking worksheets, and for evaluating student learning solely by quizzes and tests. It was like a light went on in his head, “Of course! He’s doing what he experienced himself as a student.” The teacher went on to tell me that he also noticed that the student teacher had a difficult time problem solving and often would ask him if he had done something right as opposed to how he could do something well. Old habits die very hard, especially when they are woven into the fabric of your 13 years of schooling.
When that third grader came up to me with an alien on his head, I felt like he was telling me, “I’m keeping learning interesting.” He was also showing me how it is instinctual to use his body when he is communicating something to me. My college students keep reminding me that they appreciate learning experiences where they get to explore the big idea before getting down to the nitty-gritty. They want to play and act imaginatively because it allows their brains to work the way that they are supposed to. One of the distinguishing characteristics of Homo Sapiens is that our bodies evolved over time to be upright and to look out over the horizon. This is possibly the most natural position for us to take. Our bodies are erect and our eyes are looking forward and out, alert to what is coming over the horizon, ready to move. Most of our classes are designed with this understanding being the furthest from our minds. Students come in and sit down. The only movement that happens is the constant shifting from discomfort. And then we wonder why starting in upper elementary grades, students express frustration and sometimes dread at going to school.
A month or so ago, I ran an improv workshop for a high school World Languages department. They had just finished giving and grading mid-term exams. They were understandably tired, physically, mentally, and emotionally. By the end of the hour and a half session, to a teacher, they were laughing, eyes wide, out of breath from wooshing or dying a dramatic death. And when the time was up, they wanted to do more and find ways to keep doing it. I heard one teacher say, “We need this.”
We do need this. Not because there have been a series of double-blind experiments on it. Not because it will help us race to the top. Not because there is pressure from outside donors to make it happen. We need to do this because we are human and it is in our nature. We need to reclaim those impulses that get tamped down by standardized tests, constant connectivity, and scripted curriculum, because I would argue that our children’s success as learners and therefore our success as a society depends on it.
As a true testament to the human spirit, even in the midst of this cognitive and pedagogic time of dissonance, our students and teachers keep reminding us of how we should be teaching and learning. It is deep in our bones, deep in our brains. We would be wise to listen and change.