Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Art of Learning

Never in our history has it been more important to look forward. Children that started school this year will graduate from high school in 2025. While no one can accurately predict all of the changes that will take place between then and now, there seems to be a trend that one can easily extrapolate from a growing problem to a full-blown crises of culture.

We need a fundamental shift in thinking about how we teach our children. For many politicians, educators and pundits embroiled in the education debate, the whole of the issue begins and ends with testing. School districts want to lower costs? Cut teacher salaries. But how do we define where and upon whom those cuts are levied? We are told that standardized tests will evaluate a teacher's abilities to instill the curriculum into the students' heads. So, the logic goes, failing test scores mean failing teachers. Cut them. Simple, right? Not even close.

Any teacher will tell you that educating a child is to "teaching the test" like shooting a bullet is to throwing it. Yes, both bullets move forward, but with very different results.

The availabilty of raw data has created a clamor to put it to use, but, as often happens with a clamor of any kind, the noise it makes soon outdistances the logic that spawned it. The underlying danger of teaching to the test is one that the afore-mentioned experts seem often to avoid. By relying on test scores to determine the value of our children's education we, as parents, allow our kids to be literally saturated for twelve or thirteen years with the notion that the very worst thing they could ever be is wrong. This mindset virtually guarantees that we, as a culture, will produce citizens unable to create anything, adapt to anything or innovate in any meaningful way, ever.

It will be left to those few, those creative few, who have refused to let the innate creativity that all children possess be drummed out of them. Of course, they will be ostracized, ridiculed and marginalized throughout their school years. Only when they deliver some new innovation will they be lionized as free thinkers and rebels. Until then, they are the incorrigibles, sitting in the back, bored out of their minds.

The fix is nothing short of a cataclysmic overhaul of what we believe to be important. The recent shift in importance of science and mathematics in public education is a welcome relief, but it's only half of the story. A clear-headed view of the natural world as depicted by science and a grasp of the concepts of higher mathematics provide the building blocks for a strong, rational mind,but it is the creative arts that provide the mortar. Not only do school districts need to support the arts programs in their schools, but they must promote their importance to be on level with the hard realities of math and science, for only then can those abstract concepts and real world examples be fully understood through the prism of personal experience. That is, after all, how we as humans grasp any concept... through its reflection on our own experiences.

The freedom to explore color, to sound a sour note, to be simply wrong and to be encouraged to try again are essential parts of the learning process. In this case, our leaders must be forced to follow us, as parents must demand that the creative arts be seen as equally important in a child's education. Not simply programs to weather the austerity axe when it falls every other decade, but absolutely necessary to our nation's ability to move forward. They must be seen as no less important than biology, calculus and physics and in many ways essential for proper learning of those subjects. Math, science, history, (real history, not the whitewashed version... but that's another essay),literature, visual art, music. Every day. Equally important. Anything less is simply that... less. Less than our children need and deserve.

The end result is not to churn out a nation full of Andy Warhol wannabees or Diddy clones. The end result has to be a generation of innovative thinkers, who aren't afraid to be wrong a few times in order to get it right. In order to lead, in any capacity, as a nation in the 21st century, we need to change our perceptions of the importance of the arts in education.