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The Arts At the Heart of Learning

(this article originally appeared in Stagebill Magazine)

by Harriet Mayor Fulbright


I realize that I'm preaching to the choir here.

You are sitting in a theater or a concert hall. You wouldn't be reading a Stagebill article if you weren't a lover of the arts.

But we art lovers need to raise our voices a few decibels. Maybe more than a few decibels - because just a few weeks ago millions of American children started back to schools that offer no arts in their curricula. Not even band, an "arts" class," or a choral practice once a week. Not even a home room teacher trained and willing to use the arts as an important teaching tool. And without the arts, we are failing them because we are blocking their abilities to learn.

It is time all our voices were added to those few soloists who have been making the case for arts in education recently. Thanks to such leaders as James Wolfensohn of the Kennedy Center, Harold Williams of Los Angeles' Center for the Arts, Graham Down of the Center for Basic Education, John Mahlmann of the Music Educators National Conference, and my colleague and chairman of the Center for Arts in the Basic Curriculum (CABC), Eric Oddleifson, the case for the arts is being heard on a national level. It is particularly encouraging that former Secretary of Education of Education Lamar Alexander became a convert to the cause and that the present Secretary of Education Richard Riley has long been a champion.

The arts, they have proclaimed, are not a "frill", a "luxury" for those whose parents or community can afford the enhancements of ballet classes, painting lessons, musical concerts, field trips to the community arts center. Rather, they are a fundamental part of a child's life, vital in building self esteem, an essential element in a complete education.

The Arts Are Among the Basic Multiple Intelligences

CABC is determined to increase public awareness of recently acquired knowledge in support of the national case - knowledge that we have been gaining from intensive studies of classrooms where teachers meet students and learning happens. After reviewing their findings, some of the nation's top cognitive scientists are concluding that our nation must include the arts at the heart of the curriculum - and the sooner the better. Study after study supports cognitive psychologist Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences, which places the arts firmly in the cognitive domain.

About a decade ago, Dr. Howard Gardner wrote in his groundbreaking book, "Frames of Mind," that we learn not just through the linguistic and mathematical methods of traditional schooling but through seven intelligences: logical/mathematical, verba-linguistic, visual-spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical-rhythmic, intrapersonal, and interpersonal. Along with others from Yale and Stanford, Dr. Gardner determined that children do not merely "absorb" or "memorize" knowledge; they "construct" it through one or more of their multiple intelligences.

This thesis is reinforced by the scientific findings of neurologists, now able to watch the mind at work through the use of new highly sophisticated equipment. They have found that vision and hearing are direct forms of understanding, not subservient to reason or the intellect. Indeed, they have found that the emotions occupy discrete areas of the brain and operate through their own hardwired circuitry.

The Implications Are Enormous

Thus we now understand that our perceptive, sense-based capacities have as much - if not more - to do with learning as our intellectual or rational capacities. This being the case, it is clear that we must move beyond our emphasis on developing solely the intellect and our logical capabilities. We must move toward developing the integration of the rational with the perceptive mind in order to achieve a higher literacy and a greater capacity for critical thinking. Because of the variety in learning styles, schools must teach students through all forms of intelligence, and the implications are indeed enormous.

CABC just finished an intensive teacher training seminar for teachers at the Fletcher Johnson School in the District [of Columbia]'s Ward 7 and found the results exciting. Elementary school teachers were taught the basics of the multiple intelligences, differing learning modalities, critical thinking and creativity techniques, all through the arts and multiple intelligences. My colleague Dr. Fran Prolman and I could hardly believe the enthusiasm and excitement generated and marvelled at the art created by this class, most of whom insisted in the beginning that they "had no talent."

Schools already educating all children in and through the arts demonstrate that this teacher enthusiasm was well founded. Those schools produce motivated students who think critically and creatively. Test results from coast to coast, from Charleston, South Carolina, to Chula Vista, California show that the students' academic performance improves. And experience shows that the students are also able to think imaginatively, to work well in groups, and to gain respect for themselves and for others.

Most importantly, like the teachers of Ward 7, they become excited about learning. School standards improve, and teachers are energized. The school environment becomes both welcoming and supportive. In such schools we see an explosion in verbal and logicaVsequential intelligences. We call this "exponential" learning or "high-yield" education.

Question Posers, not Answer Dispensers

High-yield education is an achievable goal for America, but we are finding that it requires two interrelated elements:

  1. an "arts-integrated" multiple intelligence education, and
  2. schools that operate as "learning centers." And the key to it all is a school culture which fosters collegiality and cooperation and teacher development that reframes the traditional teacher role into that of constant learner and question poser from omniscient answer dispenser.

Linda Williams, author of Teaching for the Two-Sided Mind, points out, "Children come to school as integrated creative beings. They are intensely curious about the world. They are natural scientists, musicians, historians, dancers and runners, tellers of stories and mathematicians." By the time they reach the ninth grade, much of the curiosity and creativity has been stifled. We have the knowledge to reverse the process, and we cannot in this competitive climate afford to do otherwise.

Learning through the multiple intelligences does not happen without teachers, both home room and art teachers - who work together and are trained to integrate the arts into the daily fabric of the school. It requires a real change in the school's culture, an embrace of cooperation and communication among both teachers and students. And as my colleagues and I have found in the schools we have come to know best, the nature of change itself is messy.

Moving from one state or system to another involves a certain amount of uncertainty, ambiguity, and outright chaos. There are the inevitable "lows", the predictable frustrations. But the payoff of hanging in there and seeing it through is huge.

A Real-World Success Story

The John Eliot School in Needham, Massachusetts, is a case in point. With the same budget as that of other schools in Needham and the same professional staffing - 13 full-time teachers and 13 part-time professionals for 306 students - it has half-dine music and art teachers. In addition, Principal Miriam Kronish makes good use of artists-in-residence: two years ago the poet was so effective in training the teachers that everyone is still writing poetry. Three- quarters of the students take instrumental lessons; all of them sing in the fourth and fifth grades. "The arts," said the principal, "make everything personal," and students are not afraid of faking risks.

The secret, she adds, is finding teachers who are willing to explore their own arts potential, who are open to the idea that the arts are an essential element in the curriculum because it is they who continue their professional development and strengthen the program. Parents are also an important part of the support system; at John Eliot they banded together and raised $2,000 for arts supplies.

"But has it made a difference in outcomes?" you ask.

Last year the Commonwealth of Massachusetts tested all fourth graders not only for basic skills but also for critical thinking skills. The school that finished on top was John Eliot.

There are a growing number of such real-world success stories in this country, and valuable information on the process of creating a learning center that addresses all of our children's intelligences is available.

Add Your Voice to the Choir

If you would like to help expand the audience for our growing choir, please let Stagebill know or write us directly:
Carol Evans
President and Publisher
Stagebill, Inc.
144 East 44th Street
New York, NY 10017

Harriet M. Fulbright
Center for Arts in the Basic Curriculum
1319 F Street, NW Suite 900
Washington, DC 20004-1152

We can send you added information on how the arts improve learning and how to effect change in your own school or school system. Without your involvement it will continue to be "business as usual." With your voice added, we can make a loud and joyous noise - together.


About the author

Harriet Mayor Fulbright, former Executive Director of the Fulbright Association and wife of former Senator J. William Fulbright, is President of the Center for Arts in the Basic Curriculum, which was established with private resources in 1989. This article draws upon the findings of a forthcoming report by Ms. Fulbright, Dr. Fran Prolman and CABC Chairman Eric Oddleifson for the MacArthur Foundation. The report first appeared in Playbill, and was presented at a conference in Chicago, "Science and Art: Creativity, Motivation, and the Joy of Learning" CABC is grateful for the continuing generous support and encouragement from the Bauman Foundation.


Copyright © 1997 CABC
Center for Arts in the Basic Curriculum

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