Art Education: More Important Than One May Think

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Written by Dr. Heather W. Allen


According to the Oxford Dictionaries’ website, art is “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.”1 Taken one step further, the arts are “the various branches of creative activity, such as painting, music, literature, and dance.”2 According to The American Heritage Dictionary, art is “the conscious production or arrangement of sounds, colors, forms, movements, or other elements in a manner that affects the sense of beauty, specifically the production of the beautiful in a graphic or plastic medium.”3

As I researched this topic, looking for data pertaining to artists and art history, specifically as it pertained to education, I focused on the study of the arts and its importance in general. I think this focus will provide a more comprehensive foundation for why the study of the arts is important in the education of our children.

There were studies that indicated that participation in the arts positively affects brain development. Other studies claimed correlations between participation in arts education and student achievement. There were studies that showed significantly higher Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores for students who studied the arts for four years as compared to students with no coursework or experience in the arts. And there were studies that showed that students who studied the arts were accepted into medical schools at a higher percentage than those who did not.

The many studies I reviewed clearly showed positive correlations between art education and positive outcomes for students. What I took away from my research is that we should not engage our children in the arts merely because to do so encourages brain development but because of the beauty and value art brings into their lives. According to Catterall, “the talk of learning mathematics through music or producing increased standardized test scores through the visual arts demeans the higher place of art in society, further shielding the intrinsic worth of the arts from the public eye.”4

In her article titled “The Importance of Arts Education for Children,” Debbie Dragon reaches the conclusion that “arts education teaches ways of thinking unavailable in any other discipline.”5 Albert Einstein said: “I believe in intuitions and inspirations. I sometimes feel that I am right. I do not know that I am . . . [but] I would have been surprised if I had been wrong. I am enough of the artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” Knowledge requires repetitious learning of concepts already known. Imagination requires students to create something from nothing and transfers to every aspect of adult life and work.6

According to Hetland, Winner, Veenema, and Sheridan, “arts programs teach a specific set of thinking skills rarely addressed elsewhere in the school curriculum”—what they call studio habits of mind. One key habit they discussed was learning to engage and persist, meaning that the arts teach students how to learn from mistakes and press ahead, how to commit and follow through: “Students need to find problems of interest and work with them deeply over sustained periods of time.” Hetland and Winner also found that the arts help students learn to envision—that is, how to think about, that which they cannot see. That is a skill, for example, that will help a student generate a hypothesis in science or imagine past events in history.7

Elliot Eisner, an emeritus professor of art and education at Stanford University, has emphasized the subtle but important ways the arts can enhance thinking—the ability to use metaphor, for example, or the role of imagination. “These are outcomes that are useful,” says Eisner, “not only in the arts, but in business and other activities where good thinking is employed.” Eisner, in an address to the National Art Education Association, said: “In the arts, imagination is a primary virtue. So it should be in the teaching of mathematics, in all of the sciences, in history, and indeed, in virtually all that humans create.” Lastly, Eisner added: “To help students treat their work as a work of art is no small achievement. Given this conception, we can ask how much time should be devoted to the arts in school? The answer is clear: all of it.”8

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