Jenna Smith | October 2013

Teaching the Arts Teaches Communication

Editor’s Note: today’s article comes to us from regular guest contributor Jenna Smith.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that the arts were not included in Common Core. This new national set of education standards–slowly working its way into state curriculums–includes two categories: “English & Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects” and “Mathematics.”

Never mind that they seem to have smushed an entire legacy of liberal arts into that initial category — look at what’s missing. Music, dancing, visual arts, storytelling, performing, drama, even creative writing. Instead, students are expected to have a basic literacy of history and social studies: that is, to be able to fill out the correct multiple-choice bubble stating that in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

However, as all arts educators know, it takes the arts to effectively communicate this type of historical literacy. “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue” means very little. Webcomic artist Matthew Inman’s recent piece of art about Columbus’ legacy told us more about the story of Christopher Columbus, in a much more memorable way, than any textbook I ever remember reading.

The truth is that you can’t teach communication without teaching the arts. Even the writers of the Common Core understand this: they know that students learn through textbook illustrations and story problems, and they specifically have included appendices with rich visual arts and media arts examples to help communicate these elements to students. We need more of these examples from people who are artists. The people who gave us Schoolhouse Rock, which is still used in classrooms 40 years after it was originally produced — those people are artists.

While included in the appendices, it seems unfair to exclude the arts from the “core” of Common Core, especially as they are so integral to society. Arts objectionists argue that the arts are frivolous, that learning to play the recorder takes precious time away from learning the math and science skills needed for high-demand careers in engineering or healthcare.

However, the arts are so much more than a group of kids playing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” on plastic recorders — and even that teaches discipline, coordination, spatial reasoning, and self-mastery. The arts help us share complex ideas through story and image, develop arguments through reason and rhetoric, and yes, even help us create STEM-related innovations like the smartphone.

You also have to start teaching the arts early. You can’t wait until college. As Malcolm Gladwell has told us all, it takes 10,000 hours to become good at something, whether it’s understanding how to solve mathematical equations or understanding how to create an infographic that effectively communicates a message.

This is an argument I recently pointed out to a friend, who told me how glad she was that her son was taking online paramedic to RN training. She thought that career was a better choice, compared to his previous interests in the arts. I agree that nursing is essential, and that we are facing a nursing shortage that needs to be filled, which is no doubt what Common Core education supporters have in mind when they aim to restructure a curriculum.

And then I pointed out the infographic on the online paramedic to RN training page. “That,” I told her, “was designed by a graphic artist. And the website chose to use an infographic in that space because there was no more effective way to communicate that information than through the visual arts.”

The truth is that education needs to prepare our students for all options: nursing, engineering, business, and graphic design alike. Eliminating the arts from Common Core means we’ve eliminated one huge avenue of learning from our students, and have failed to teach them essential communication skills that they could have used in future careers.

Teaching the arts isn’t frivolous. Teaching the arts is teaching communication. And that should be part of anyone’s core curriculum.

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