Saturday, February 23, 2008

Response to "a Serious Problem"

This entry is in response to a great thought-provoking post entitled "A Serious Problem" by blogger Greg Sandow and it nicely gets to the heart of a lot of issues that I've been trying to work with...

Greg, I too think this post is very important and I appreciate your detailed thoughts on the subject and the seriousness of your tone. I’ll try to be brief and I hope that my thoughts don’t get too discombobulated because I’ve been working on some of these ideas for years…

Education, in general, has traditionally been, and almost exclusively continues to be, a top-down information exchange. Adults lead classrooms as experts disseminating information. Adults create these “cover the history of the world in 300 pages with illustrations” types of textbooks that are often the only resource used in classrooms. Adults set up standards of achievement for certain grade levels and then take away resources when these standards are not met. Children are powerless in this educational exchange. They are merely objects in the process and it’s been that way for a very long time, but I don’t think that it can stay this way for much longer.

I don’t think see it as much about classical music culture vs. popular culture, but at a larger level, it’s more about an increasing disconnection with the actual experience of growing up in America today. It is an increasingly media-centric world where 6.5 hours of actual media consumption (8.5 if simultaneous media use is separated) is the average for young people! (Stats are from the ubiquitous Generation M report.) Young people have much more access and exposure to information from an increasingly wide variety of sources than in the past. Tastes and sensibilities are increasingly under the influence of peer groups and what is found in the general media than by what adult/authoritative figures say are important.

So, basically, what I’m trying to say is that the balance of power has shifted. In-person consumption of the arts (performances or attendance at exhibitions of visual arts) is not a given for people who have so many ways to spend their time. In order to maintain relevance to our current, and hopefully future, audiences, arts organizations must better define what it is what makes their art form compelling, but most of all, inculcate a sense of curiosity—a sense of why the art form is worthy of further exploration.

I agree, it’s not just about one authoritative person explaining how wonderful a Puccini aria is. But my personal approach would perhaps be to engage in an actual discussion of why it might be wonderful. Through skilled facilitation of this discussion (without the often divisive use of terminology that would separate those with more classical musical experience from those with little), I think that, without switching the choice of repertoire, one could bring about the complexity and the layers that seem to be desired.

Once again, I don’t quite think it’s about classical music culture vs. popular culture, but I think it’s more about building educational programs that actually engage an audience in the taste- and meaning-making process. I think we often sell audiences short: we provide them with a product and then they go home and often forget about it before they hit their driveway. But I do think they want more out of the experience and depth of understanding is one way of addressing this and it’s a gift that keeps giving. It’s not about disseminating information, but about allowing an audience to develop it’s own conclusions. Development of a deeply engaged audience member is the ideal method to increase the arts audience—they will not only attend more events, but an inspired audience member can also serve as the most effective advocate for the art form.

Monday, February 11, 2008

How Can We Create an Imagine Nation?

How about a little stream-of-consciousness blogging? Let's start with this:
  1. Implement innovative teaching styles and instruction to build capacities of the imagination.
  2. Build capacities of the imagination by supporting time and resources for an education in and through the arts.
  3. Support integrated and interdisciplinary processes and approaches. Save money and time by organizing discrete subjects around a thematic interdisciplinary process.
  4. Relate to learner lifestyles. Know your learner audiences and adjust to contemporary methods.
  5. Teach beyond assessment. Move beyond average and scoring that focuses on the minimum, which ultimately stifles students and educators alike.

These are the five recommendations for educators and policy-makers made in the executive summary of The Imagine Nation report. They seem to make sense for me on a very general level but, at the same time, they seem to ring hollow. Perhaps it wasn't the purpose of the report to provide specific recommendations, but the language is so vague that it undercuts the overall message. What is an "innovative teaching style" and what are "contemporary methods"? How do we "teach beyond assessment"?

Moving beyond the vague language, it seems like these suggestions aren't revolutionary. Innovative education styles, arts education, interdisciplinary learning, addressing different learning styles, and teaching beyond assessment are all ideas that have been around for years and ones that are widely accepted as good educational practice (well, except maybe for arts education!). But, for some reason, we don't do these things in our educational system. It reminds me of Paulo Freire when he states, "An educational practice in which there is no coherent relationship between what educators say and what they do is a disaster."

Hmm... Well, where does this disconnect come from? I'd assume (and maybe that's a bad assumption!) that the vast majority of teachers learn this stuff (well, once again, maybe not arts education!), but the report seems to indicate that teachers don't already practice this otherwise they wouldn't report it. Why doesn't this happen? Is it about the need to demonstrate a learning process in this standards-based environment? (Isn't being able to demonstrate knowledge the goal of the teaching/learning process?) Is it about the system? Is it about teachers and the lack of training in "building the capacities of imagination" of our students? How can we expect imagination in our classrooms when the way we train teachers seldom--if ever at all!!--does not foster imagination?

You know, I find myself even more confused than usual at the moment. We talk about imagination in class and even a class of 40 people who are supposed to value "imagination" can't define what it is or how it can be carried out in the classroom. We may have some ideas, but how do we build these activities to scale and create the change that The Imagine Nation advocates for? Is that even possible? I'd like to "Implement innovative teaching styles and instruction to build capacities of the imagination" or follow through with any of the other vague goals of The Imagine Nation, but I'm having a very difficult time--and perhaps I'm showing my impatience--but I'm anxious to move away from the theoretical and experimental and start to get to the somewhat more concrete.

In the arts, we often locate ourselves in the process; we often savor the experimentation phase and I think that is a big strength of the arts. But sometimes, I also think we get stuck there and that can be our downfall. For a federal, state, or even a local policy-maker, I doubt that the findings of The Imagine Nation report would create much action. I'm certainly not an expert on surveys but I found the phrasing of their questions to be somewhat manipulative. How can you disagree with the following statements? "Using imagination is important to innovation and one's success in a global, knowledge-based economy." "Imagination is essential to success in the 21st century." It's not surprising that nearly 90% said yes given the choice between yes and no. But it's when you weigh imagination vs. other curricular goals (that may be more demonstratable) like minimal competency for all students, equality of educational opportunity, math skills, and knowledge of history that imagination falls by the wayside. How do we ensure that it doesn't? Or how do we create educational opportunities that suggest that all of this and more can be done with our students and our society?

It's not that I hate "process" or don't find the work enjoyable or valuable, but I have a fear that I will find myself stuck in the experimental and questioning stage. In essence, I don't want to be so immersed in the theoretical that I neglect the practical. If we aren't satisfied with the educational practice, how do make it better match what we say it should be? What have people done with imagination that have worked? What was successful about them? Is that transferable and/or scalable?

S-301 is dedicated to the research, policy and practice. I'm not under any sort of illusion that anything will be solved by studying these aspects of arts in education, but I am excited to see what happens as we shift our focus. Onwards and upwards!