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Commentary: Arts education: The two words have to go together

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 14, 2010 - A preacher came home one Sunday and said, "I preached a great sermon today."

"Oh," his wife responded. "What was it about?"

"It was all about how the rich should give to the poor," the preacher answered.

"Oh," said his wife. "And were you very convincing?"

"Well," the preacher said. "I sure convinced the poor."

Since taking this job eight months ago, I feel a lot like that preacher: I spend an awful lot of time talking with people who already agree with me. We do that a lot in the arts. And we certainly do it in arts education.

But I am encouraged to see new people joining the conversation, and many of them agreeing.

When I arrived at the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) back in August, I knew a great deal about a very small corner of the world: west 44th Street in Manhattan. So, I knew that I needed an arts education myself, and that is why I have been visiting Detroit, Peoria, Philadelphia, San Diego and lots of other places to see how art works.

At each of those stops, I have confessed that in many cases, my knowledge of the nonprofit arts world was "not even vestigial."

Turning to arts education, and attempting to extend yet another metaphor, my knowledge might better be described as "previously extinct."

But I have had a crash course, meeting with arts education stakeholders at community organizations like the San Francisco Community Music Center; charter schools like Miami's Design and Architecture Senior High; Stanford University's Arts Initiative, and just this past Monday, at a performance of Othello - at the public high school in Jerome, Idaho.

While somewhat exhausting, my itinerary is far from exhaustive, but enough themes have been repeated at each of those visits that I am beginning to get a lay of the land.

So let me share with you my own personal arts-education education to date.

For the purposes of this talk, I am focusing only on pre-K-through-12th-grade public school students.

And it is the job of our public schools to provide every American child access to a complete, quality education. And the arts are an essential part of any quality education.

I believe that everyone can agree on one thing: the best arts education is one that is offered by a combination of classroom teachers, art specialists, teaching artists, and art and community organizations working together with students and families.

To effectively work together, we need a common language and shared expectations - or to translate into the language I am just learning: "a sequential, scaffolded, standards-based learning system."

Blueprints for Arts Education

Let me take New York City as my example. The NYC Department of Education has developed a set of curricular guidelines with milestones, and they did this working in close partnership with arts organizations like Ballet Hispanico, the New York Philharmonic, the Theatre Development Fund, and Studio in a School.

These guidelines (the Blueprints for Teaching and Learning in the Arts) have been written so that they can be used in school ... during out-of-school time ... and in conjunction with field trips.

This year, working with NYU, New York City added a quality rubric - inspired by Steve Seidel's The Qualities of Quality - that has been designed to be used by school leaders, classroom teachers, arts specialists, teaching artists, program officers, parents and funders even ... pretty much anyone who has a stake in arts education.

This is a model that deserves attention: First, the public schools have embraced arts education as one of their core responsibilities.

Second, the arts organizations working in and with the schools are working within a shared pedagogical framework. One they helped shape.

And now when organizations and teaching artists start working with students, they have a road map for what these students can and should be expected to know.

The point is that no true partnership can happen without an infrastructure in place - nonprofits can only effectively partner with schools that are ready to partner back. School-based staff and standards are essential. At that Idaho Othello performance I mentioned, the school's theater and English departments had prepared its students with Idaho Shakespeare's teachers' guides and tool kits.

Arts exposure is fine, but unless students are prepared for the art, unless teachers are integrating the art into the students' overall learning for the year, it remains exposure. Not education. Having a casual familiarity with something is not the same as being fully informed and knowledgeable about it.

For some reason, people feel that they can have an expert opinion about the arts, whether or not they have had a deep and substantial education. As my favorite S.J. Perlman quote goes, "I don't know a lot about medicine, but I know what I like."

So public schools need to provide the infrastructure for providing arts education, and the arts community needs to work within it to expand learning opportunities.

It is important work, and it is work that does not yet happen universally. So we could probably spend our time just focusing on getting more students more arts

education more often. And a cautious chairman would probably stop right there.

But I'm not, so I won't.

Turn on the Steam

I believe that there is another job that we need to take on. One that will actually help with the first.

The arts should be a model for education systems broadly writ.

Rather than just fighting for a place at the table, what if we actually helped build an entirely new table?

There is a huge focus at the moment on STEM - science, technology, engineering, and math. And arts advocates have been fighting to insert an "A" for "arts," making it "STEAM."

Yes, this needs to be done - "STEAM" is incrementally better than "STEM," but there is an opportunity to make another point.

So, for a moment, let us rearrange the same letters and have a discussion about "TEAMS."

Collaboration is essential to a 21st century education - no one works in silos anymore - and the arts provide that: from creating a stage production, to working as a seamless corps de ballet, to playing in an orchestra.

Collaboration is central to the arts, and we need more of both in our schools.

Solitary pupils sitting alone at desks is an outdated model, and one that doesn't begin to prepare students for the highly networked, constantly connected world they inhabit.

But what if we took a different lesson from the arts?

What if we took away the lesson of failure?

Productive Failure

I am not talking about the still too many public schools that fail our students. Or the students who fail out of school entirely. I am talking about

"productive failure," failure that stimulates adaptation and helps students find alternate pathways to success.

  • I am talking about IDEO, the leading design company in the world, which has as its motto "Fail often and succeed sooner."
  • I am talking about Charles Schwab, whose businesses experienced so many failures, mixed in with a few key successes, that his company coined the term "noble failures."
  • And I am talking about the video game designer who described his job as making it fun to fail. If you die on level four of "Scorpion King: Rise of the Akkadian," what is any child's reaction? To pick up the joy stick - or the Wii - and try to get to level five. You can have a blast failing.

Productive failure ... fail often and succeed sooner ... failure as inspiration and drive ... failure as permission to try again. Failure as fun.
These are the values of successful members of American industry. But we are not really talking about this in our schools. Many schools are not teaching the art of innovation, which is essentially the art of the productive, noble, fun failure.

And, ironically, if failure is fun, if it is productive and noble, and if it becomes little more than permission to try again, our students will succeed more.

Often times, it is just the affluent who have this luxury. If you are IDEO, or Charles Schwab, or even one of my brothers (my Uncle Jay used to give us a dollar for every "F" we brought home), it is safe to take risks.

But often the typical public student can't take risks, can't innovate, can't perform radical adaptations because failure is an end, not a beginning.

If I go to the gym and experience muscle failure at 100 reps ... (or, in my case, 10) ... does that mean that I didn't have a good workout? No, it means that I had the best workout possible for me at that moment. I pushed myself as far as I could, and tomorrow, I will see if I can get to 101 ... (or 11, as the case may be).

Failure can be a beginning.

And I think that we can use the arts to give the luxury of failure to our students. The arts allow for experiment, for risk. The arts often engage students who are not succeeding in other arenas, those who know what failure is, and who navigate it every day.

And, therefore, the arts might be the key to moving student learning in this country to a new place, a place that might prepare them to be innovators and entrepreneurs. And maybe even great artists.

How many water lilies did Monet paint, trying to get them just right? How many times did we workshop "Angels in America"? How many times did Kurt practice hitting that high note in "Defying Gravity" on "Glee"?

Yes, it happens in other subjects, too: if Columbus hadn't failed in sailing to India, I probably wouldn't be here today. If Alexander Fleming hadn't failed to clean up his lab before an August holiday, we wouldn't have penicillin.

We underestimate the role of chance, of luck, and of perseverance through failure.

So let me turn to Elizabeth Streb. If she hadn't failed at using the traditional vocabulary of dance, she wouldn't have a MacArthur. For those who don't know her, Elizabeth Streb is a brilliant choreographer who runs what is most often described as a trapeze studio in Brooklyn.

Early in her career, she attempted to use the traditional vocabulary of dance to express herself. She failed at that, persevered through it, and invented her own vocabulary of movement, creating the language of "action mechanics" and going on to create performances without precedent.

Her company now regularly "fails" at its home in Brooklyn. They fail while trying to do things like fall upward, dance with elephants, and generally attempt the pretty much impossible.

Every once in awhile, they succeed. But most often they fail. And both the failures and the successes make wonderful performances.

This is exactly the kind of environment for learning that I would like to see recreated for our children. I think that the Streb Lab for Action Mechanics might very well be the classroom of the future. So whether it's STEM, STEAM, TEAMS, or STREB, let's make sure that we remain in conversation - the preachers, the choirs, and especially the unconverted.

Let's make sure the arts are in our schools: every child / every day. And most important, let's make sure that we use the arts to inform every aspect of education.

This article is condensed from a speech given earlier this month by Rocco Landesman at the opening session of the Arts Education Partnership in Washington. Landesman heads the National Endowment for the Arts.