What is arts education?

Just recently, In August 2009, Secretary Duncan made a rather vague plug for the arts, in which he stated that “the arts can help students become tenacious, team-oriented problem solvers who are confident and able to think creatively.”

If that was all the arts could do, I would shrug my shoulders. What about teaching students to sing in three-part harmony, or perform a Shakespeare monologue? What about the student who works for hours on the light and shadows in her painting?

The arts certainly have side benefits. They may draw out the abilities of a student who has not performed well in other subjects. They teach discipline and persistence. Students come to know the joy of taking part in something beautiful, of mastering difficult material and seeing it come together. And through this they may also be reading, building vocabulary, working with abstract concepts, learning about measure, rhythm, proportion, and time, and much more. The arts draw a school community together; there are few events as exciting as the opening night of a play, when the auditorium is packed with proud parents and siblings.

Beyond that, the arts prepare students to participate in cultural life, as performers, audience, or both. Without arts education, many children will know only the culture of the Internet, the iPod, and TV—rich resources in their own right, but limiting if you don’t know what to look for. Without the support of young people, many local cultural institutions will close. We will be left with whatever culture we can find on our individual screens.

So we need arts education, but what is it? What constitutes a strong arts program in schools? We can devote a certain number of hours to the arts, but what should happen during those hours?

Arts education consists of several overlapping categories.

First, there is knowledge of the arts: the study of music theory and art history; the reading and analysis of plays, and so forth. This sort of study can exist on its own, or it can be part of arts, history, and literature classes. Either way, it can enhance students’ understanding not only of the arts, but also of history, literature, and science.

Second, there is experience of the arts: watching a play, listening to music, looking at a painting, watching a photographer in the darkroom, and so on. Experience may also consist of making art: making a clay sculpture, playing a simple instrument, taking part in a class performance, or learning a simple dance.

Third, there is the discipline of the arts: the practice of working on something and seeing it take shape and improve. This could take the form of learning to play an instrument or to sing with phrasing; developing a role in a play; practicing the drawing of specific objects; or perfecting a dance step. Most serious work on plays or music takes place after school and requires substantial independent work as well.

Fourth, there is artistic creation, for instance: composing a piece of music, writing a play, or choreographing a dance. While this is difficult to do well or teach well, children should be given a chance to try.

Which of these categories cannot be left out? Which should take priority? What does a good arts program look like?

Many of us, myself included, look for schools that have excellent plays and concerts—that is, where students are at a high level of proficiency in the arts. But such a school may depend on students’ outside preparation. It may draw students who have had instruction elsewhere—in private lessons, music schools, church choirs, outside theater programs, and summer camps. The students performing in the plays may be a small percentage of the entire student body—a talented and privileged few. That in no way detracts from the school’s accomplishments in the arts, but it is not the same as an arts curriculum.

Readers, what makes an excellent arts curriculum, in your view? If you were looking for a school with a strong arts program–where you might study, teach, or enroll your child–what would you be looking for?

And here’s a harder question: Suppose students had one period of music and one period of art per week (one period=45 minutes). Under those circumstances, what sort of arts instruction would benefit the students the most?

Diana Senechal


  1. Richard Aubrey says:

    Everything, practically, that was said about arts as a benefit can be said about athletics.
    Including the advantages of outside preparation. There are skills camps, summer leagues, cooperative parents to help in practice. Although this is obvious in sports like golf and tennis, somewhat less obvious but still valid in, say, swimming, it is also valid in football and basketball.
    When I was in jr hi back in the Fifties, there was a semester class called “General Music” which was mandatory and included theory and exposure. The other semester was art–painting, drawing and sculpture,, theory and exposure.
    Seems to me that even a modest intro makes it far easier to become interested in something. Things make sense. Things that make sense are easier to follow, things that are easier to follow can be…interesting. Beats random encounters with one item or another and trying to make sense.

  2. For music: choral singing interspersed with lessons on how to read music and in the upper grades, a little music history/world music instruction. For art: Hands-on art lessons in two dimensional and three dimensional art, with some (but not too much) electronic art, leading to some art appreciation/world art.

  3. “the arts can help students become tenacious, team-oriented problem solvers”

    Yeah, that’s what I think about when I think about Beethoven or Picasso…”What a hell of a team player!”

    (sarc mode OFF)

    What a bizarre comment!

  4. I totally agree with “Rechard”.

  5. Why should everyone have to take a (notional) hour of music a week? Those of us with no musical inclinations are, I assure you, not going to benefit all that much from being forced to sing or play.

    Didn’t the arts not just survive but thrive in the time before state-run mandatory schooling?

    Can’t they survive now without it?

    And given how terrible many schools are now at managing their core duties of teaching basic language and math skills (not to mention the long-ignored idea of teaching civics), an hour or two of arts a week seems like an even greater waste of time and money.

    (I say this, by the way, as someone with college-level fine art training and a life-long love of art… but that doesn’t mean I think it’s something the schools have to be inculcating.

    Indeed, this very site has had, I believe, copious examples of “art” replacing “learning” in the form of poster-making and the like.

    We might have too much (practical) art in the schools already – and I’m not a big believer in the schools teaching “art appreciation”.)

  6. I’d like to see more focus on art & music appreciation. Not every child needs to be technically proficient in creating his/her own art work or playing a musical instrument, but everyone ought to be able to intelligently discuss the great masterpieces of our civilization.

  7. To Crimson Wife: Amen, amen, amen. My family has no artistic or musical talent but we have all benefited from appreciation. Not that my kids’ schools ever offered either; the art/music teachers apparently weren’t interested in art or music history/appreciation. Their whole focus was on performance. Thank heaven for the photography course; it met the junior high fine arts requirement. I would have preferred the appreciation path that I had to do at home, because my husband and I feel that it is an important part of education.

    Richard: athletic success requires serious outside prep. My kids grew up in serious soccer areas, which meant that a kid who had not been playing year-round, high-level travel soccer since about age 10 had almost no chance of making the high school varsity and might not even make the JV. Most of the top kids had had significant summer camp/Olympic Development experience and were likely to make the varsity as freshmen.

    As far as swimming is concerned, it takes HUGE amounts of training time (in-pool and weight training) in order to be competitive. It is common for USS clubs’ top-level age 13+ groups to spend 4-5 hours a day in training.

    Forget the teamwork stuff. Soccer is a team sport, but I have seen teams using guest players who have never even practiced with the team with which they were guesting and they were seamlessly integrated. This is also true of all-star teams of various kinds. If they have the skills, know the tactics and are willing to be team players, it will all work. Of course, soccer is a game run by the players on the field, not by the coaches, so it is more flexible (than football, for instance). The top kids will all know the “usual” types of “set” plays that might be used.

  8. Bill Leonard says:

    Most kids are going to be neither artists nor musicians, but I believe art and music appreciation classes are worthwhile — particularly given the current state of art and especially, popular music.

    Who knows? High school students subjected to masterpieces such as the 1939 Coleman Hawkins version of “Body and Soul” might actually generate an appreciation in the young for jazz, American’s indigenous classical music.

  9. the study of music theory and art history; the reading and analysis of plays, and so forth.

    The study of music theory is a lot more practical and hands-on than non-musicians know. Good theory classes depend on students actually implementing the concepts taught. The equivalent in the visual arts would be classes that taught the use of space, color, contrast, and proportion and then immediately asked students to create drawings based on them. Personally, I still have notebooks crammed with theory exercises and composition sketches from college, all done as part of theory classes.

    In the categorization above, music theory would really fall into the discipline of the arts, as it involves learning and implementing the harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic practices being taught.

    The knowledge of the arts classes for music would actually be music history and world music. Just like art history classes don’t delve deeply into the how and why of art, focusing instead on the what of art, music history and world music focus on the what of music. Also, these classes by exposing students to a wide range of music, are the most value in providing them the opportunity to become familiar with their own musical heritage.

  10. Diana Senechal says:

    Quincy, you are right. Music theory does require practice (and I have taken music theory). Nothing about the “knowledge” category implied otherwise. As I said before, the categories overlap. Theory could easily fall into the discipline category as well as the knowledge category. But I agree–it probably fits better in the discipline category.

  11. I don’t know how to build a curriculum but I know what my kids had in elementary, middle and high schools. In elementary all kids were exposed to music and art starting in kindergarten. By third grade they were learning how to read music and play the recorder and keyboard. Their art progressed in a deeper curriculum, too. In middle school on child had a six weeks rotation through music and art each year. He actually joined the band and did advanced art, too. My older one played in the band four years and did advanced art in 7th grade. In high school an arts rotation was required and they could take drama classes as well.

    I believe all children need to be exposed to the arts (and athletics). One never knows how a child will respond to such an exposure. Both of mine are incredibly talented artistically. My younger one is also an athlete. Both of these disciplines required tons of outside practice, private lessons (yes, in athletics, too) and discipline.

    What is interesting is I watched my sons from an early, early age have the ability to concentrate for hours at a time on the arts. It was very easy for us to supplement their interest with materials to see what would happen. We were very fortunate to have strong art/music teachers throughout their K-12 public and private education to compliment and encourage their interests. Sadly not all art and music teachers have the ability to do this…

  12. My thoughts as I read this were almost exactly the same as Richard’ s — pretty much everything that was said here about the arts could also be said about athletics. And I’ll disagree with momof4 on her point on soccer teamwork — while it may be true that guest players can integrate with teams easily, it is because they know the patterns of the game. However I have seen soccer teams where the kids all try and do it by themselves — and it is most often unsuccessful. The teams that are most successful are those that pass the ball around and work together.

    But back to the topic of arts. In elementary school my kids had art once a week with an excellent teacher who devised projects that taught the kids both art appreciation and art techniques and allowed them to be successful. They spent a lot of spare time drawing. Their school also had a strong music program and while my boys didn’t play instruments they benefitted from both choral and music appreciation. Their middle school has a much weaker arts program although it does period seminar days focused on an aspect of art (kids learn a bit about a particular type of art and then spend the day on activities surrounding that type of art. They also regularly visit local art museums, plays and music presentations that tie to other parts of the curriculum. The inclusion of art as a break from the normal routine seems to have engendered a positive view of art.

    On the downside, I encouraged my son to take Art 1 as a freshman last year because he had enjoyed art and drawing in elementary school and I hoped he would perhaps re-ignite his past interest in drawing or at least enjoy the class. Unfortunately he got a teacher that managed to undo in one year all the positive experiences he had earlier. Instead of using Art 1 as an opportunity to engender an appreciation and love of art, she treated the class as if they were all self-proclaimed artists and she was trying to get rid of the ‘bad’ ones. I’ll guarantee that if my son had to vote on an arts program in any school he would vote against it now.

    So I guess that is a very long way of saying that I think programs that treat art as something to be appreciated and enjoyed (and thereby hopefully engendering an interest in those so inclined to produce it themselves) are positive. However done incorrectly, art programs can do more harm than good.

  13. Always among the highest expression of every culture, the arts teach us much about every historical period through its literature, visual arts, music, dance, and drama. Today it is recognized that to be truly well educated one must not only learn to appreciate the arts, but must have rich opportunities to actively participate in creative work.


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