Sunday, December 08, 2013

What If They All Took Art?

It's interesting. Over the last several months I've been involved in several conversations around the idea of giving students more control over their own learning, letting them choose to pursue things they are interested in, pursue their passions, create a more "personal" curriculum and perhaps not take a full-blown, "comprehensive" schedule of classes in high school. At some point in each of these conversations, someone always objects with a statement along the lines of, "Well, they'd all choose just to take Art." (In fairness, sometimes it's PE.) That question kinda bugs me, so I thought I'd take a few minutes and explore it a bit.

First, what if they all did take Art, would that be so bad? I mean if everyone had a greater appreciation for art, and beauty, and creativity, as well as perhaps had more opportunity to be creative themselves, would that be so bad? I can imagine a lot worse things than a world full of folks who create and appreciate art.

But I know the real objection is often along the lines of a more practical nature: employment. Where would all these artists work? Don't they need math, and science, and language arts, and social studies in order to be prepared to enter the workforce? Well, maybe. But don't they need Art just as much? As Daniel Pink said in A Whole New Mind, the MFA is the new MBA. Whether it's high profile folks like Jonathan Ive at Apple or Michael Graves at Target, or under-the-radar folks like the person that's creating websites or the latest app, design is huge in today's workforce. Both beauty and functionality is prized in products today (at least in the so-called developed world). People who can design things that work well and look good, and especially if they can do it with a minimal environmental and energy footprint, are in high demand (coincidentally, this came across my Twitter feed as I was composing this.) So perhaps we should be asking, "What if they all took Math" instead. Or what if they all took a "comprehensive" curriculum that was often devoid of relevance and meaning, and only allowed them to explore many different areas at a superficial level. What about that?

The second piece I want to explore is the assumption that our students will take the "easy" way out. That's typically part of the conversation as well, students will just take Art (or P.E.) because it's easy and they don't want to work or think hard. But let's examine the assumptions behind that. First, the "easy" way out assumes a culture of required courses and the all-important grade. Whereas the idea many of us are exploring is students pursuing their own interests, and grades are nowhere to be found. If you remove the artificial constraints of grades and transcripts, required courses and required credits in certain areas, the whole idea of "the easy way out" doesn't really apply anymore. There is no "out," there is only learning more about what you're interested in.

The second underlying assumption is that students are lazy. There's an incredible lack of respect shown to our students in this attitude. Imagine the entire four years of high school was built around the students' interests and passions, with guidance from caring adults. Do you really think that students, looking at four years of that, would just completely blow it off? Some folks argue, "Well, 14-year olds don't know what they're passionate about." That's true to some extent, but what if the four years of high school was helping them find and develop that passion? Would that perhaps be a better use of their (and our) time?

The next objection is often, "But what if some kids don't find their passion" or perhaps "some kids still won't care?" That's certainly possible. But what do you think is happening to those kids right now in our current system? Do you really think they are being successful now? I would bet that many more students would be successfully served by a passion-based education than our current system, even if I won't guarantee 100% success.

The third piece I want to explore is the idea of a "comprehensive" high school. This argument revolves around the idea that if students are allowed to pursue their passions, they won't be well-rounded and won't be functional citizens and community members. I share this concern, and believe there is some merit to this argument, but again I think there are two big assumptions being made here. First, that our current system is being successful in this area, and second that a passion-based system would not be.

We read every day about what a horrible job we're doing in schools. Whether it's state testing, or PISA, or some other measure, clearly we are "failing" in our job of creating well-prepared, well-rounded citizens and employees. Yet all of the mainstream education reform efforts are built-around doubling-down on the existing system. "Let's have more, and higher standards. Let's increase graduation requirements and the number of days of school. Let's hold students and teachers more accountable." If the current system isn't working, getting better at it isn't going to help, it's just going to more efficiently not work.

But what about the other side of this, that if students are pursuing their passion, say, taking all Art classes, that they can't possibly get a well-rounded education? I find this so interesting, because the argument is essentially that as an Art teacher, or a Math teacher, or a whatever teacher, I'm not capable of helping students learn about the world around them in these other areas. How often have you heard a teacher say, "Well, I'm a math teacher, so I can't really help you with that. Go see so-and-so." So we don't expect ourselves as teachers to be well-rounded, but that's exactly what we're asking our students to be. "Well, I can't help you with that, but you sure as heck ought to be an expert in all these areas all at the same time." Double-standard much?

If we truly expect our students to be well-rounded, shouldn't we have the same expectations for ourselves? Shouldn't an art teacher, or a math teacher, or a whatever teacher be able to help students learn more about the civil war in Syria, or Nelson Mandela, or climate change? Shouldn't a Language Arts teacher be able to help their students with the scientific method or understanding social security? If we expect our students to master 8-9 classes at a time (in my school), and pass comprehensive final exams, shouldn't we be able to as well? So go ahead, I dare you, take all the final exams that a representative high school student in your school is going to be taking in about two weeks. See how you do. Now convince me that all those topics you just tested on were "essential." Paraphrasing Yong Zhao, if things are really essential, then it's awfully hard to avoid them even if you are pursuing your interests and passions.

So, if we're going to have a real conversation about this, let's at least be upfront about our assumptions, and then let's examine them to see if they really hold water. I'm not arguing that students shouldn't be exposed to many different areas, that they should narrowly focus and "major" in a subject in high school. What I'm suggesting is that pursuing your passion and discussing the wider world of knowledge are not mutually exclusive and, in fact, might better achieve that "well-rounded, comprehensive education, liberal arts" ideal that we claim to value.

What if they all did take Art? I think that might be a good thing.

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