Monday, October 29, 2007

A Recentering of Arts Advocacy?

Why is it that recent arts advocacy has focused on the benefits of arts education in other subject areas? Why do we insist on rationalizing arts participation through the lens of other disciplines and higher math/verbal scores? While this tactic draws in the interest of non-arts participants with the issue of translatability, it is difficult to measure and simultaneously diminishes the arts by defining its place in our society as a supplement in relation to other, more essential, academic areas.

Project Zero researchers Ellen Winner and Lois Hetland try to move away from that and argue for "arts for our sake." (Their ideas are more spelled-out in their book, "Studio Thinking: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education.") I'm not trying to deride their research or their idea by any means, but this idea does not exactly inspire policy makers to run for The Hill and tear down No Child Left Behind. In order to effect change, a more detailed feature of the arts must be found in order resonate with arts participants and non-arts participants alike and forge an independent valuation of the arts.

Perhaps the best way to go about it is to quantify the under-served in our educational system. In many instances, the US has demonstrated a reputation and a ingrained moral obligation to fight for the underrepresented and oppressed. While there are certainly other area of educational reform that need attention, Americans can rally against the current educational system that restricts different types of learning. Despite the research on multiple intelligences, first published in 1983, the way teachers are trained and the practice in the classroom has changed little to better address the research. The godfather of the multiple intelligence theory, Howard Gardner states:

"Students with strengths in the spatial, musical or personal spheres may find school far more demanding than students who happen to possess the 'text-friendly' blend of linguistic and logical intelligences." (Gardner, "The Unschooled Mind: How Children Think and How Schools Should Teach," pg. 149)

While, admittedly, addressing multiple intelligence in the classroom is not a terribly urgent item in the massive realm of educational reform, it may just resonate with the populace like the standards-based reform movement that culminated in the NCLB legislation. In fact, the imbalance of multiple intelligence teaching in public schools may give better focus to the anti-NCLB movement.

If anyone can point me in the direction of research quantifying multiple intelligences displayed in the public school classroom, I would be very interested to read it. Here at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, we are fond of saying that we operate at the nexus of research, policy, and practice. I want to see how policy and practice align with the theory of multiple intelligences, and if it doesn't, could this be the proper lens to more effectively advocate for the arts?

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Missing the Beat

In today's (Oct 11) Boston Globe, there's an article entitled "Harried schools trumpet digital music teacher." It's about a music software program called SmartMusic. Unfortunately, the author (and definitely the headline writer!) misses the point of the software entirely. Strangely, I've met with a senior staff member from SmartMusic and they certainly don't push it or even come close to characterizing it as a "virtual teacher." Briefly, SmartMusic helps students develop their technical ability by recording what they play and comparing it against the on-screen print music with the student performing as alone or with computer-generated accompaniment. That is, the software gives students the printed music on screen, records what a student plays through a microphone, and tells them (and/or the teachers) the errors that they made. (There are other features to it which are pretty neat, but no need to get into it here.) I think of it as a really interesting and well-designed tool to facilitate practice.

But no music teacher would ever say that it's a virtual teacher and I think that author Keith O'Brien is clearly overstepping to even suggest that. First of all, it would argue against the necessity of instrumental music teachers, but also it negates the other aspects of creating this form of art: the value of working in an ensemble, the nuance of personal expression, etc. Clearly, music education is more than just playing right notes at the right time. (O'Brien does mention "face-to-face" time and "bonding," but the it's so much more than that!) To suggest that a computer can replace a teacher and the classroom or teaching studio experience, O'Brien denigrates the role of a music teacher and indeed the art form itself.

But prompted by this albeit flawed article, I'm drawn to two big issues.

(1) How do we assess progress in the arts? In this article, middle school teacher Bob Mealy is interested in looking at the number of technical errors of his students. Certainly technique is a huge roadblock for music students at that age, but is that how we should measure progress in the arts? And at higher levels of arts teaching where technical ability is less of a concern, is there a way to evaluate student progress when art is so subjective?

(2) How do advancements in technology help or hurt arts educators and arts education? This is definitely an interest of mine with the quickly-progressing digitally-oriented culture that we are living in now. For example, there are certainly more opportunities for amateur writers/journalists out there to experiment and hone their craft with the the proliferation of electronic media outlets, but is that good for the art of writing/journalism? Can we find really great electronic journalism, celebrate it, and aspire for it when everyone and their mothers all have blogs? (And where somebody like me--who is a sub-par writer at best!--is allowed to publish something like this into cyberspace?) In this case, are the tools of technology creating an atmosphere where there's too much art of questionable value? Is there even such a thing as too much art?