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Thinking Critically and Finding Answers: The Benefits of Arts Education

In Sunday's New York Times Magazine, Ann Hulbert warned against the problem with advocating for arts education by citing its ability to help kids perform well in other areas, particularly on the "testable" areas of education. A recent study released by the Dana Foundation explored the connections between arts education and coginition. Here, we've invited Mark Cooper, co-author of Making Art Together: How Collaborative Art-Making Can Transform Kids, Classrooms, and Communities, to discuss how he feels an education in the visual arts benefits students.

Cooper In my experience, arts education provides a format for students to think critically, ask questions, and ultimately, find their own answers. This is especially true for students with little or no art making background in that much of their education revolves around the acquisition of other skills, retention of facts, and meeting specific expectations. Arts education provides a different model and when it succeeds, an ability to "think outside of the box." 

A principal component to succeeding in the creation of an art object is the process of developing an idea about what is desired to be communicated and how best to do so. There are generalities that often hold true; but, the minute a rule is made, someone breaks it in an interesting way. I always encourage students to look at how other artists, from the past and from their moment, problem solve and articulate their ideas. I encourage them to study history, learn from it, and expand upon it, to become "masters of their media," able to make educated decisions and trust their instincts. I help them look to the past as well as the present for ways to enter the dialogue that mirrors their own interests. 

There is a large component of critical thinking involved in studying art, beginning with evaluating art made by others at different times and within different cultural frameworks, that results in the student's ability to be objective in making decisions about their own creative efforts. The process of looking and learning allows them to evaluate the success and failures of others and apply these observations to the path they may wish to pursue. The idea of objectively learning from history is obvious and overlooked in much of what we do.

Making art is about coming up with visual solutions that allow viewers the opportunity to see the world a little differently than they might have before. I have often felt that if there were only one thing I could accomplish in teaching art it would be to help the students along the path of learning how to trust themselves, their decisions, and their ability to think through problems. This involves the collaborative process of interacting with a public, real or perceived, and understanding the success and failures of their creative endeavors. With enough time spent, art education can provide students with a sense of mastery and the experience of having succeeded, both of which are highly and easily transferable to other aspects of their lives.

The process of learning about the clarity of form required to succeed through making art supports the students in understanding what is necessary to succeed in non-art related endeavors. The experience of learning about how to "frame" and present their ideas is transferable to other endeavors. Most importantly, the confidence that comes from succeeding at an activity with a history that goes back to the cave paintings is incredibly empowering. Having succeeded at their artistic endeavors and developed a sense of being a master in one pursuit is a tremendous life lesson.

Blog posts elsewhere on this subject: Philly Drama Queen, Alexander Russo's This Week in Education, PREA Prez (these links are not affiliated with Beacon Broadside).