It’s not just Enrichment, it’s Essential.
Schools are bolstering their education programs to address what is being called “learning loss”, but the longer school years and high-dosage tutoring are missing the point. Sometimes it feels like we’re only treating the symptoms of “learning loss” but not addressing the cause. I think a holistic arts education for each individual learner is needed right now. Arts are the answer!
I heard again on the news today about “learning loss” in our schools and I just turned it off. It’s one of those perennial news stories that never seem to go away. A “boogeyman” that the news networks can always draw on when it’s a “slow news day” or they need a good scare. It’s been called an “unmitigated disaster” by FOX and to NPR our declining test scores are an impending “public health measure”. While almost everyone agrees it’s learning loss is bad, it’s almost always only represented as falling test scores. Test scores are a tangible metric that bureaucrats love and teachers abhor. However, another narrative has been emerging behind the scenes, one that is much less reported and much more difficult to track and assess; and that is the “learning loss” that has happened for children socially. “The pandemic ruined my social skills” reads like a catchy headline (because it is) but it also belies the gravity of this statement. Students are expected to return to school, study hard, work diligently, and recover from that learning loss (ie: improve test scores). They hear about it on the news, and from their teachers, who hear about it from their principals, who hear about it from someone above them. Everyone is concerned about those test scores, but we should be more concerned about our children. Students are already coming back to school with heightened levels of grief and anxiety, and are experiencing mental, behavioral, and developmental trauma at double the normal rate. Unloading the burden of “fixing” learning loss on these students is not only unrealistic, it’s unfair. So what can we do, as schools and teachers, to serve our students in this moment?
Artistic expression may decrease anxiety, feelings of anger and depression. This creative process can also enhance cognitive abilities, foster greater self-awareness and help students regulate their emotions.
Art is the Answer
In this time of need, I believe that schools need to take a step back from aggressive instruction and “catch-up” policies that promote test score growth and focus on a holistic, artistic, approach to learning. Art has the power to heal and teach simultaneously, it allows for creativity, self-expression, and insightful development. It can decrease anxiety, feelings of anger, and depression while enhancing cognitive abilities, fostering greater self-awareness, and help students to regulate their emotions. Art has everything that the alarmists claim to seek, except the tangible test scores. Art teaches kids problem-solving and decision-making skills, all of which are elusive “21st Century Learning” skills. Art promotes creativity and creativity promotes identity development, helping students to find their ‘place’ in the world. (source) If you want to truly improve the learning experiences for our students then you need to look beyond “high dosage tutoring” and longer school years and give learners the time and space to explore, create, and feel.
Art education has seen many iterations since the inception of modern schooling in 1837; for starters, it wasn’t even included in the initial model. It wasn’t until almost a century later that forward-thinking educators began to see the value in allowing for creative expression in schools. Public funding and support for the arts have waxed and waned over the years, and unfortunately, according to the National Endowment for the Arts, participation in quality arts education has been steadily declining over the last decade or so. It’s gotten to a point where schools are only able to fund their arts programs through the intervention of private organizations, yet even in those instances, the results are still overwhelmingly positive. The wealth of data that shows this correlation between the arts and learning, as well as self-esteem and mental health, is overwhelming and so I say that now more than ever…..
Now is the Time to Invest in the Arts
If schools are willing to invest in the arts with the same fervor that they invest in sports or STEM education the face of our education system might look very different. The only time the arts are valued in education is when they benefit something else. The arts are good because they improve …. (insert non-art thing). For example, STEM became STEAM and incorporated the arts, not for the sake of the art, or the holistic development of the learner, but because accessing creativity allowed better STEM solutions. “The arts boost test scores and student achievement” claim study after study examining the outcome but perhaps overlooking the causes. Is it something instinctive about arts, or is it just that students are freer, happier, and healthier? In fact, while doing research I stumbled upon a particular inspiring line in the REAP analysis from Harvard more than 20 years ago.
Let’s stop requiring more of the arts than of other subjects. The arts are the only school subjects that have been challenged to demonstrate transfer as a justification for their usefulness.
I often wonder how much of the benefits the arts seem to confer on their participants are due to the subject material. Perhaps the arts offer a freedom to explore, permission to daydream, and the legitimate validation to just be yourself. If we want to improve the outcomes of our learners we need to improve the input. Let’s foster an environment where students are prized for being themselves and their creativity is valued. If you open a space where students can think, feel, and explore, I guarantee you will see a shift in learning. We need to shift our focus on what “learning loss” really is – yes we may have falling test scores, but we also have anxiety, trauma, deferred social skills, and stunted emotional development. We need to see our students not as data but as individuals. The arts can play a crucial role for students and educators, especially in addressing healing and trauma. Through research, we know that participation in the arts can support the social and emotional learning needs of students, including teaching emotional regulation and compassion for others. They can also provide an outlet for students to process their emotions following trauma so they can begin the healing process and build resiliency. So let’s stop treating the symptoms of our “learning loss” and start addressing the cause – a holistic arts education for each individual learner is needed right now. It’s not just enrichment, it’s essential.