Collective Impact is Possible with Show of Support, Not Defensiveness
Victoria’s post asks what it would mean for arts educators to “share an agenda.” As she points out, arts education is typically not “at the table” for broader discussions of education reform. Why is this the case?
Two common explanations spring to my mind. The first is that the other people sitting around the table—those in the broader “edusphere”—don’t “get it.” They don’t understand or value what we do.
An undercurrent of this explanation is that we are enlightened (we alone understand what children need to learn and experience to function as healthy, happy members of society) and they are not.
The second explanation is that we are so busy feeling slighted by the first explanation (which a regional study in LA County did not show to be true) that we approach those other people at the table with mindset of defensiveness rather than of support.
We try to convince them of the value of the arts rather than listening to what they are trying to accomplish—acknowledging that they too care about students—and demonstrating how we can be of service.
I clung to the first explanation for a long time but admit the second explanation now resonates more with me.
I’ve attended many conferences in which I’ve heard arts educators go in circles vilifying No Child Left Behind, with comparably little energy spent exploring how arts education curricula and assessment systems could support the teachers and school leaders saddled with raising reading and math scores across student subgroups.
Those teachers and school leaders probably weren’t big fans of No Child Left Behind, but they didn’t have much of a choice but focus on reading and math. If they didn’t invite us to the table, it may be because we didn’t give them a concrete reason to.
How, then, can we take steps toward the “collective impact” that Victoria describes?
A few thoughts:
1). We need to pay attention. Federal and state education policies aren’t necessarily sexy topics, but they are important and affect our work even if they don’t explicitly mention the arts. We won’t be taken seriously by other educators if we don’t understand the contexts in which they operate. Many of us came to the standards-and-assessment party late and spent years playing catch-up. The Common Core State Standards are coming next, with big implications for the future of cross-disciplinary instruction and even bigger implications for how students will be asked to demonstrate their learning. School and district leaders across 48 states are going to be focused on Common Core for the foreseeable future. Are we ready to support them?
2). We need to exert less energy talking about why we matter and more energy listening to what matters to others. We are not the only people who feel frustrated by the state of our education system. We are also not the only people who care about providing students with well-rounded, engaging school experiences. I’ve heard science, history, and yes, even math teachers bemoan the narrowing of the curriculum. Are we hopelessly divided by our disciplines, or might we be allies?
3). We need to focus on what we value as a collective above what we individually would like to see. When we get stuck in false dichotomies (arts integration vs. discrete instruction, for example), our individual agendas trump our ultimate aims. If we can all agree that we value powerful learning experiences that engage students, and allow ourselves to be guided by that value, we can truly be of service rather than beholden to our own interests. As I mentioned in my earlier post, conversations about quality can clarify the value and keep it front and center.
Any other ideas?