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Students learn to play the xylophone during Miss Amanda's class at the ArtsCalibre Academy in Victoria. (CHAD HIPOLITO FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Students learn to play the xylophone during Miss Amanda's class at the ArtsCalibre Academy in Victoria. (CHAD HIPOLITO FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Process

Arts in the service of learning Add to ...

Cast back to your childhood. Think of Where the Wild Things Are or any wondrous picture book that shaped your understanding of the world.

Then think of the visual codes that defined adolescence (preppy, skater, New Romantic, hippie), and the music, especially the music (righteous rap, riotous Ramones, David Bowie melodrama or anything in between) that formed the soundtrack of daily learning.

Now, try to think of any possible reason why educators shouldn’t be allowed to harness that innate childhood exuberance for the arts, drama, music and movement and use it to help learning across the board, in all fields of study. Recess and physical education are taken for granted, but exercising the soul through the arts is excised through budget cuts, arts specialists say.

“It’s curious, isn’t it?” said Lynn Fels, associate professor of arts education at Simon Fraser University’s Faculty of Education in Vancouver.

“All the research indicates that the arts have multiple benefits,” she said, echoing countless other specialists who list benefits such as “expression, creativity, collaboration, leadership, being responsible, and also the sheer joy and curiosity of creating something new or participating in an expression of something together, such as a band working together, or an orchestra, or creating theatre.”

Proponents of arts education are left to find yet new ways to justify the arts. Inevitably this has meant promoting the arts as an aid for other areas of learning, such as writing, math and science. Dr. Fels, though, has some reluctance to subsume all talk about arts education as merely benefitting supposedly, in some peoples’ minds, more career-minded subjects.

“I don’t know how we ended up arguing for the arts as a vehicle to improve math, because I think in so doing, we have lost the language and ability to speak to the arts in and of themselves as a place of great learning, as a gift of expression and creativity,” she said.

ArtsCalibre Academy, a small independent school in Victoria, with 51 students in its kindergarten to Grade 6 program, deals with this debate every day. The school incorporates the arts in all areas of learning, so rather than having music or drama, for instance, shunted aside to a just one hour a week at best, as it can be in other schools, the arts are part of every lesson.

“It’s a labour of love,” said Sandra Walton, ArtsCalibre’s executive director. “I’ve been a teacher in the public system for many years, both in Alberta and also here in Victoria. And I’ve always been teaching the arts, but also academics.

“And then when I had my own children, I realized that I had always wanted to open my own school, just because I felt that kids could be taught differently, and you could connect with them in a different way than the system does, through the arts.”

So, when studying the water cycle, for example, young students aren’t given the task of learning the rules of condensation, evaporation and precipitation by rote. Songs, dramatic movement and drawing or painting are added to the process. “And then because they’ve done all of those things, they’ve used their entire body, they’ll never forget,” Ms. Walton said.

Of course, there’s more to it than simply illustrating a lesson through movement or painting, Ms. Walton noted. Still, she sometimes comes up against derisive comments from parents who may be looking into the possibility of having their kids attend the school, but who ask, “What do the kids do, just paint all day?”

Tara Robertson, another teacher at the school, explained that the emphasis isn’t just about painting a picture based on a lesson, it’s about helping the students to understand how they can learn in a variety of ways, and ultimately to further understand themselves.

“Some of us are visual learners. Some of us are auditory learners. Some of us are kinaesthetic [tactile] learners. Here they’re able to dabble in all of that, to find out what works for them,” she said. “We’re understanding how we learn, what parts of our brain process information, what parts of the brain keep the memories, why we’re reactive, why we’re proactive, understanding how all of those processes work.

She stresses that learning through the arts is a process. It’s not solely about the end product. Some kids will ask Ms. Robertson, “Are we doing it right?” And she will answer, “You tell me.”

“I want them to explore the process, and I want them to be their own – I don’t want to say judge – but it’s what you learn about yourself along the way.”

Dr. Fels, however, feels that even this rationale about process may be slightly too limiting. She still believes that talking about the process of learning has its place. “Absolutely, although I kind of cringe about process and product,” she said. “That’s a theory that comes very much from the industrial age, curriculum as management.

“We think of process and product, and discipline and classroom management. That’s a language. And I think sometimes the language we use limits us to understanding. You’re very right to look at process. I think of it as a journey or an exploration,” Dr. Fels said.

The concern among many art-education proponents is that any incorporation at all of the arts into education is increasingly something relegated to private, independent schools (or private lessons after school) and not offered in the public-school system.

“School boards basically have to choose. Arts is typically what goes first. So, you’re cutting specialist positions, and they just become regular classroom teachers. And as specialists retire, they’re not replaced,” said Maggie Milne, a visual artist in Vancouver who has regularly taught art. She has also run arts camps for children and now helps operate an arts workshop space, funded by grants, in Florence Nightingale Elementary in Vancouver.

The workshop program “was a huge success. The teachers were really excited about it. So this year, we got more grant money, and I’m in there two days [a week]. All the teachers want to work with me, just to learn how to incorporate it into their classrooms. It’s amazing having an actual space for kids to be creative and messy. It’s really difficult in a regular classroom,” Ms. Milne said.

The injustice, she argued, is that the arts have been so drastically removed from public education. And ironically this is happening at the same that the arts are increasingly viewed as a new fount of career skills, “as a way of deriving strategies and methods for developing critical thinking, lateral thinking, just generally thinking outside the box,” Ms. Milne said. “It’s that ability to be flexible. That’s the definition of working in the arts.”

And this takes us right back to justifying arts education as benefitting other fields of study, rather than as a source of knowledge for its own sake.

In this light, Dr. Fels at Simon Fraser University indicates that it’s important not to lose the fact that the arts are crucial for understanding ourselves in ways other areas of study can’t, for expressing knowledge other areas can’t. And so much depends on the teachers themselves.

“So, when we talk about the arts in schools, we need to think also about nurturing teachers, [about] creating opportunities for teachers to participate in the arts, to become artists themselves, as we all once were, before we decided that the arts were limited to professionals, so that we all understand what is being lost,” Dr. Fels said.

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