HED:Gail Morton: Art enables students to think beyond convention
A few years ago the state of Mississippi required that students have an art credit in order to graduate from high school. This credit could be music, drama, creative writing or visual art. But why? How does art benefit a student?
Well, to answer that we need some kind of definition of art. Art is a form of communication, a kind of “language” that involves the use of complex symbols to communicate. Some forms of art, like music and painting, use non-verbal symbols; others, like poetry and song, use language in particular ways. The arts foster understanding of other cultures, their history, symbols, myths, values and beliefs. The arts challenge students to respond to the world, to look beyond themselves and make a connection to human society.
Art is an activity of the mind. Students do activities which require use of higher-order thinking skills such as analysis, synthesis and evaluation. Because the arts are closely associated with important ideas and events in history, students who have a good background in the arts are likely to have a richer source of information and insight to draw upon compared to those who do not study the arts (“Eloquent Evidence: Arts at the Core of Learning”).
Art can add verbal, mathematical and logical meaning that is both integral and complimentary to other subjects studied in school. Educators work to give students a more well-rounded education. For instance, a history teacher will find ways to integrate other subjects into the history lesson whenever possible. In art, we start the class with a short writing assignment. We discuss the fact that art is a reflection of society and that art communicates, shapes and challenges a culture’s social values. Our relationship to nature and other culture is part of art. Students also need to know how to measure, add and subtract fractions, and come to conclusions about how to physically build art in a logical way. Art teachers try to give students a brick-by-brick education, helping support and build on information learned in other classes.
Art students learn that there is more than one way to solve a problem. They are encouraged to look at problems from all angles before deciding on the best solution. Part of what they learn is based on imagination and judgment which teaches them to think, instead of recite information. The arts teach students self-control, self-discipline and patience which are all skills that will benefit them in school and in life.
As an art teacher, I encourage students to “think outside the box” by thinking past their safe, invisible boundaries and consider unconventional ideas and be more creative. For example, I gave students each the same materials in which to build a tower: a 1-inch piece of tape, a rubber band, a 2-by-6-inch piece of paper, a 3-inch square of aluminum foil, a drinking straw and a pair of scissors. The students were instructed to build the tallest tower they could. The winner did the conventional things first by cutting the paper into strips and taping the pieces together to add height, reinforcing them with the cut straw using a cut rubber band when the tape ran out, but she won by forming a base out of the aluminum foil to help the scissors stand upright to hold the tower 7 inches higher. That is thinking past convention.
Albert Einstein said, “When I examine myself and my method of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing knowledge.” Knowledge is just knowledge without the imagination to create something new from it.
Students of the arts continue to do well on the Scholastic Assessment Test, according to the College Entrance Examination Board. In 1995 SAT scores for students who studied the arts more than four years were 59 points higher on the verbal and 44 points higher on the math portion than students with no course work or experience in the arts (“The College Board, Profile of SAT and Achievement Test Takers, 1995″).
After reading this, I tested my group of Art II students. I compared their GPAs before Art I to their GPAs after Art II to see if there was a difference in overall scores after two years. All of the students except one improved their GPAs.
Art can enrich students’ lives. Art helps them to think more clearly and to express ideas more powerfully. My goal as an educator is to give students the tools that they need to show who they are, what their ideas are, and to make them aware of their own potential and how they can use that potential to relate to the world around them.
Gail Morton is an art instructor at the North Pontotoc Attendance Center.