Schools are beginning to recognize that arts education is not merely a nice addition to the learning experience, but rather an important vehicle for kids to learn skills that can also be applied to their other academic studies. Arts integration has become increasingly popular because educators are finding that when art is meshed with content learning, students are more engaged and interested. However, some schools have used arts integration as an excuse to sideline trained arts teachers, a mistake if the program is truly going to uphold rigorous artistic standards alongside academic ones.
The New Mexico School for the Arts (NMSA), a state-wide charter school for students who want to pursue a particular artistic discipline, provides a good example of how rigorous arts instruction builds the character and academic fortitude of students. The students admitted to NMSA come from all over the state and arrive at varying levels of readiness. Since the school is focused on helping young people craft their artistic expression the admissions process is selective, but students are very clear about what they learn from an environment focused on critique, self-reflection and learning from failure.
An Edutopia series on NMSA highlights how students learn from their fumbles, their mistakes and come to realize that it’s fine to “make bad work,” because that’s the only way to eventually make “good work.” Teachers and students alike are clear that critical feedback is essential to improvement, and that while practice is important, it only harms a student to practice the same error over and over because “practice makes permanent.” The artistic training students receive is fundamentally one based on a growth mindset, which they then apply to all their learning.
These student artists not only learn to take and value critique from peers and teachers, but they are gradually learning how to evaluate their own work. This skill is intentionally taught by teachers, broken down into steps that every student knows and routinely practices with each new assignment or piece of work. First the teacher shows examples of exceptional work. Then students work to expand their vocabulary to make critique more specific. In the third step students critique one another, and finally apply their assessment skills in a self-critique. In the peer reviews students learn how to give constructive feedback, but they also begin to notice patterns in the art that works and those pieces that are less successful.
“The power of arts education is the student and teacher begin to recognize that every student artist is unique and cultivate that student voice. I think it’s a very powerful tool for learning,” said Cristina Gonzalez, visual arts department chair at NMSA.
While art is a focus for students at this unique high school, they also must take traditional academic classes to get diplomas and move on to post-secondary education, sometimes at conservatories. Educators at the school are intentional about teaching incoming ninth graders how to be high school students. The first year seminar helps them learn how to read their schedule and find their way around the building, but also gives them tips on study habits, time management and other key parts of success. In their senior year, a similarly intense focus is put on the college application process so that all students have a chance to go where they want and understand their financial choices along the way.