I think that an inordinate amount of our hand wringing around the issue of student engagement takes place well after the proverbial horse has left the barn. In fact, in many jurisdictions, a good deal of time and money are being spent contacting teenage students who have chosen to leave the system early, and exploring with them ways that they could come back and earn credits towards their graduation diploma.
I have a better idea.
Instead of trying to coax students back into a system that, in many cases, has failed them as much as they have failed it, why not concentrate our efforts on making sure that engagement and resonance are part of the way we think about school, program and curriculum design right from the very beginning? If we’re really serious about addressing the engagement dilemma, let’s begin at the earliest stages of a child’s schooling experience and build from there.
Our current obsession with test scores and graduation rates as the real measures of both school and student success will pass. And when we finally wake up to the fact that these statistical sirens have really been false idols, we’re going to have to do some rethinking.
I would suggest that when that time comes, we begin to rebuild by carefully observing our children. Look at our youngest children. Watch what they do when they’re given the freedom to choose. Look at how they explore the world, how they express themselves, how they interact with each other at their earliest stages of social development. Most often, when left to their own devices, we’ll find our children singing, dancing, colouring and role playing their way through the world. It’s not because they need a break from the other stuff in their life. It’s because this is their life and these are things that come so very naturally to them.
Walk into any daycare or pre-school facility and you’ll know what it looks and sounds like when you allow this understanding of human development to permeate the work that you do. Easels, drums, costumes, puppets, and space (!) are the hallmarks of any good early childhood education program. Spend a day in a kindergarten class and notice which activity centers are the most popular. You’ll probably find that the kitchen/house center, the art center and the music center are more populated than any other. (Some kindergarten teachers reading this may comment that these are the only centers that they have!)
And it’s not because these activities give children a break from the demands of real learning. It’s because this is where they do most of their real learning. The finger painting easel allows them to freely explore colour, shape and movement. The house centre gives them the opportunity to work out social relationships and practice some of the conversations that they hear in their own home. It is a place where conflict emerges and gets worked out (most of the time!). Rhythm instruments enable children to connect with something so deeply human that we may have lost sight of its importance in our lives.
Yet, something curious and more than a little disturbing happens after the early years of schooling. We package these activities up, call them “the arts” and, in so many cases, push them to the edges of our school communities. We build walls of curriculum around them to legitimize them as “real learning”. And in order to ensure that a teacher assigned to “the arts” doesn’t get off too easy, we demand that they be assessed and evaluated with the same tools and strategies as mathematics, science or language.
But in the process, we lose sight of the power of the arts to teach, to connect and to engage. It’s a power that is sitting right in front of us, staring back at us in the faces of our students. It’s a potential that is, quite literally, embodied in every child and young person that walks through our doors everyday. And you know something? It’s also embodied in every adult walks through the those very same doors!
So what would happen if we began to honestly and openly explore the role that the arts play in our schools? What would happen if our children had opportunities to sing, dance, act, and draw every single day? What would happen if school plays, dances and glee clubs became part of our school timetables instead of something seen as taking up valuable instructional time? What would happen if all schools were able to fly a banner on their outside wall declaring, “We are an arts-based school”?
I really believe that quality arts-based teaching and learning should be the right of every child. For me, the reason is quite simple. By nature, human beings are artistic creatures. The rhythm of music courses through our veins; imagination and creativity are hallmarks of every human invention. We are currently struggling with a vision of school that actively denies this, and we are losing our more and more of our students hearts and minds.
With your help, I would like to explore some of these questions more deeply. I would love to hear from teachers, administrators, parents and students who have an opinion on the role of the arts in our schools. You don’t have to agree with me; in fact, contrary opinions are always welcome here. If you have research or media articles to share that might support your viewpoint, tell us about them. If you have been part of an arts-based school initiative, your stories are welcome. If you’re struggling to put arts back on the radar in your district, tell us about that! Write a reply, draw a picture, sing a song. However you choose to respond, your perspective is welcome.