Artists or Teachers?

One of the Big Issue Questions that come up when we are talking about arts integration is, “Doesn’t this dilute the art form? Aren’t we using an art form as a crutch to teach something, rather than teaching ‘art for art’s sake?'”

Physics camp students making a conveyor belt. How do you think this experience will affect their understanding of such a machine?

Here’s a quote from a recent article that might make Artists (with a capital A) wince: “We’re suggesting that teachers put music in their arsenal of tools for teaching math,” Courey said. “It’s fun, it doesn’t cost a lot, and it keeps music in the classroom.” San Francisco State University professor Susan Courey helped author a study of students studying fractions with and without targeted music lessons focused on the math concept. The music students did 50% better on a fractions test after six weeks. Click here for a link to the article.

Phrased in that way, this sentiment could make True Artists think that music is being marginalized into just another way to teach mathematics. Here are the fears:

1. Schools will stop teaching music as an art form or special class. This will not only drastically reduce the emergence of musical talent, but it will put a lot of teaching musicians out of work.

2 Classroom teachers don’t know how to teach music. They risk alienating children who might otherwise like music if they didn’t have to use it in math class, and they might teach music incorrectly, making the music specialist’s job that much harder.

3. If music can be used for prosaic purposes, it loses some of its luster as a “fine art.”

Of course, "fine art" must have monstrous palaces for its enjoyment. And we must exclude the "unwashed" from entrance.

All perfectly valid fears, in the sense that our emotions are all valid. Yet a closer look at the situation should let us put those fears to rest, when we put arts integration into practice in appropriate settings with proven strategies and plenty of caveats. Let’s go through these one by one.

1. Schools and districts cut music and visual art from their programs at the drop of a budget slash. It is perfectly reasonable to think that, if schools begin to see teachers using music in the classroom, they will be more likely to cut the music specialist when dollars are tight, in hopes that the classroom teachers will still be imparting some music to their students.

In reality, most school districts are coming to understand the power of regular arts teaching when it comes to improving attendance, student engagement, and even student test scores. Over and over again studies are showing that children who study the arts also do better when it comes to making sense of the curriculum. I have been working with numerous districts around the country who have a strong preference for continuing arts education, many times over and above packaged reading and math curricula. In the trenches, the arts are gaining increasing, not decreasing, respect.

2. Since we don’t insist that pre-service teachers have a grounding in all the art forms, and learn how to integrate those arts into their curriculum, we are wise to worry about putting arts instruction into the hands of inadequately prepared teachers. But here is where we circle back to issue #1 above. Expecting teachers to explore, experience, and integrate an art form into their teaching is a powerful way to bring new audiences and new practitioners to the arts.

When teachers and their students begin to understand how energizing, lively, and expressive the arts are, they not only transform their teaching and learning, but they become lifelong arts devotees. Children who have made up their own dances about the life of plants are both more likely to be curious about and appreciative of botany in later life, but also to become more knowledgeable and confident audiences for dance of all types.

You cannot integrate an art form into the classroom without learning, and teaching, something important about that art form. That just enlarges the community of artists and audiences. At the same time, it helps schools and teachers show children how to learn through creative yet rigorous play.

3. This is a much older and much bigger issue that we can’t resolve here, but we have to acknowledge this “background noise” to any discussion of arts integration. There are visual artists who think of public art as “vulgar” or “pandering.” There are composers who sneer at music written for film, and choreographers who think any dance that audiences immediately connect with is “shallow.” There are playwrights who can’t stand the idea of a play with a “message.” This idea that there is something called “pure art” is one that has staying power.

Yet, humanity is not in unanimity on this. Many primal or aboriginal cultures, possessed of incredible artistic skills and a long history of beautiful products (by modern standards), have no word that means “art.” Behind the name of art is “artifice,” as in something constructed that is neither natural nor essential. When art is woven into our daily lives, it becomes a part of our language and our very being. Familiarity, however, does not necessarily imply contempt.

Sure, if everyone understands music or dance in a deeper way, then it will be harder to impress audiences with mere technique, no matter how prodigious. Consumers of the arts will require meaning, connections to their lives. They will want artists to descend from their ivory studios and engage in the messy, conflict-filled reality we all share, to make sure that artists retain their connections to their human-ness.

Ideally, teachers will become more like artists, thinking flexibly and interdependently, able to weave artistic principles in and through discussions and explorations of all subjects. Conversely, artists will begin to think of education as one of the crucial tasks they all must undertake. The more deeply we understand and practice our art forms, the more we are responsible to share that knowledge and that perspective with the world.

The cycle is recursive, and regenerative. We just have to be willing to step onto the moving spiral staircase.

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About rbdancer

Randy has been a Kennedy Center Teaching Artist and Workshop Leader since 1995. During 35 years as a teaching artist, he has led over 300 in-depth workshops, courses, and seminars for teachers and teaching artists, traveling to 37 states in the process. As a choreographer and professional dancer, Randy has danced and produced dance concerts in some of the country's most storied theaters. Randy now lives with his wife in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains in northeastern New Mexico.
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3 Responses to Artists or Teachers?

  1. Bill Juraschek says:

    Wonderful piece! I especially like the mention of how teaching some art changes teachers, making them more flexible, creative and collaborative.
    It also should be noted that many professional mathematicians are snobby toward arithmetic.

  2. Tamera Cone says:

    Great write-up! One of my favorite quotes reads, “Art for art’s sake is a philosophy of the well fed”. (Frank Lloyd Wright) I have dedicated my life to widening student perceptions of the world through art, and often that means teaching academics in alternative ways (kinesthetically, visually, etc.) so that a concept can be grasped. If you have a moment please check out my blog for the Integrated Global Arts program I started at the Denver Center for International Studies (DCIS) at Ford Elementary. And let me know if you are ever in the neighborhood. I’d love to show you around. Keep on keepin on out there! :-)tamera

    • rbdancer says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting! I’m just down I-25 from you in New Mexico, so perhaps I’ll stop by when visiting my brother near Lyons. Checking out your blog now. Randy

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