Helping Students Find Their Own Voices in the Arts

Posted by Mark Slavkin, Sep 12, 2011 5 comments

Mark Slavkin

As advocates for arts education, we try to stay flexible and timely in our rationale and arguments. We want to be current and relevant about the latest studies and trends.

If “21st century skills” are in vogue, we can show the relevance of arts learning. If the talk is about the primacy of science, technology, engineering, and math, we are quick to suggest we add the arts and make STEM become STEAM. And if the focus is on the economy and jobs, we stand ready to make the case for how learning in the arts prepares young people for a wealth of future job opportunities.

I worry that our advocacy and rhetoric may get ahead of the reality of our practice. Are we really delivering on all the benefits we promise?

While advocacy is essential, I wish we devoted as much time to sharing with each other about the nuts and bolts of classroom practice. Perhaps we could even display some humility about what we can deliver and what is not quite ready for prime time.

This brings me to the topic of careers in the arts. Our advocacy often refers to an economic imperative for arts education. Here in California we talk about the direct application of skills learned in arts education to jobs in the arts and the broader creative economy.

We also suggest that arts education cultivates a range of skills that will be valuable across all economic sectors, such as creativity, collaboration, and innovation.

We need to look at our own practice and make sure we are consistently cultivating the benefits we claim for arts education. Are we giving kids license to be truly creative?

For example, in the performing arts, how often are students provided opportunities to compose original music or choreograph a new dance piece? How often are students encouraged to pursue their own ideas in the arts, as opposed to following the very explicit rules and directions from the teacher?

Since the rewards system for arts teachers gives enormous weight to the final show/performance, it is no surprise to see teachers focus their limited hours with students on rehearsing for the coming show or festival. Such events help garner support from parents and principals and serve as a source of pride for the school community.

The hard work, discipline, and teamwork on display are often quite impressive. But what about our claims concerning creativity and innovation? When do the band kids get to explore their own interests and ideas in music? Of course, the same pressures and patterns are also evident in the dance studio or theater stage. Contrary to our rhetoric, I worry we may be cultivating more "rule followers" in the arts classroom.

Clearly, there is an important part of arts education that involves honing basic technique and learning the work of great masters in each discipline.

I am simply suggesting we make more space for students to explore and find their own voice in the arts.

If we want to cultivate true artists, and not mere technicians, we need to start somewhere.

5 responses for Helping Students Find Their Own Voices in the Arts


September 15, 2011 at 9:38 am

Mark – Yes, the creative arts are essential to the human experience! I think that many of the challenges America is seeing today are a result of diminishing opportunities for young people to express themselves and grow creatively, and if we don’t start to turn that around we’re going to be in great trouble as a society.

What's challenging is that the purchasing public (parents, schools, business, etc.) wants a kind of proof that’s virtually impossible to provide: the intangible simply cannot be fully described tangibly. And when we attempt to answer those demands - in the same language in which they were made - we're defeated before we even open our mouths. Yet without support, how can arts educators provide more opportunity for students to create?

That's precisely the question that led us to develop our evaluation software - because by tracking and assessing the specific qualities and abilities that are essential for learning and creativity, educators are able to tangibly demonstrate the value of their work in a language the public is able to hear.

I’m by no means suggesting we hitch our train to any demand that takes away from our center … just that we prove the arts’ value more precisely and decisively in terms that can be better understood by all.

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September 13, 2011 at 9:51 pm

Well said. In a world of pressure to achieve on high stakes tests, the equivalent for arts teachers is to deliver the big show or win a trophy at a Festival. This competitive process rarely makes space for kids to present original work. So I worry high school arts programs are becoming an extension of the "win at any cost" sports mentality, as opposed to an outlet for kids to find their own creative voices.

Arts teachers cannot change this on their own. With budgets tight and programs at risk, it is hard to rock the boat. So we need more voices to participate at the school and district level and challenge leaders to deliver on the true promise of cultivating creativity in our kids.

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September 14, 2011 at 1:25 pm

Eric Booth and I had an interesting interchange today regarding his posted response to yours ( in which Eric suggested that perhaps we need to re-frame the dialogue about the value of the arts to one that highlights how the arts develop the fundamental skills which are prerequisites to creative learning (such as ability to concentrate, level of motivation, self-confidence to succeed … ability to listen to teacher and follow directions … respect of equipment and materials, willingness to try new steps, freedom of expression, etc.).

For that to happen, of course, artist teachers need to build that thinking into their work - using those skills as the architecture upon which they build their curricula. As I suggested in my recent post, (, creative pragmatism is necessary if we want to play in the realm of business or traditional education -- and how we go about that will depend upon how clear we are about just how powerfully effective the arts can be.

We at Merge Education ( have developed evaluation software that tracks not only those skills, it helps teachers refine their ability to develop them in their students. I like to think of it as a framework for the chaos that can be creativity. Merge has recently begun actively marketing both it and the educational approach on which it is based.

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September 13, 2011 at 2:42 pm

I couldn't agree more. Too often we're stressing the analytic aspects of music in our public schools. For example - the only Advanced Placement music course I've encountered in our area is AP Music Theory. The unfortunate fact is that the results-oriented nature of our public school system (or society at large, for that matter) only recognizes performance quality and polish as a barometer for the success of music and performing arts programs. There is no standardized gauge for the teaching of creativity or innovation. Arts teachers are therefore compelled to teach to the concert, much like STEM teachers feel compelled to teach to the test. It is, unfortunately, a cultural issue more than a systemic education issue.

As a side note: it's troubling to me to see the amount of money being spent by schools on outside vendors for their musical theater productions. There was a time when students were engaged in every aspect of the production from onstage to backstage, set building and painting, wardrobe, make-up, lighting, sound, orchestra, selling programs and lobby display. Those days are, in the vast majority of situations, long gone, as districts spend more and more on outside professionals to try to win local awards and recognition. So many students are missing out on the opportunity to add their own unique, creative stamp to a school production. Why have we let the polish and professionalism of the performance become so important?

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September 14, 2011 at 5:27 pm

Thanks for sharing this work, Mary-Helen. I think we can say that arts education sometimes fosters student creativity and sometimes it does not. I would argue that a deep understanding and appreciation of all that is transmitted in and through the arts is incredibly valuable and essential to the human experience. We should be more assertive on the value of the arts as part of a well-rounded education. We should resist the need to hitch our train to every demand or fad in education.

Having said that, I would still like to see arts educators provide more opportunity for students to create original work and address open-ended problems. Creativity is born through these opportunities that seem all too rare in schools today.

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