Brian D. Cohen

Learning by Doing: What We Can Learn from the Arts

Posted by Brian D. Cohen, Jan 11, 2012 5 comments

Brian D. Cohen

Brian Cohen

Brian D. Cohen

“For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” (Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics).

The educational model of learning by doing is nowhere better exemplified than in arts education. Teachers in every discipline increasingly recognize the value of not only what students know, but what they do with what they know.

Educators are talking a lot about assessment these days, but education is too complex an enterprise to measure in one dimension. Measurement in education is too often instantaneous and linear; a momentary capture of what we already know we're looking for. At one moment, a student shows that he or she knows a certain amount about one thing, and then the class moves on.

Say you’re learning about cell division.

Your class takes a week to study it, at the end of which you have a test. You get 36 of 50 right and you get a C – and you may never learn why you got 14 wrong or how to get them all right. And, by the way, you learn that you’re bad at science (which nobody told you involves observation and experimentation – just like art). 

A math teacher colleague created a rubric of skills and content he wanted his students to master. He made sure that these skills were essential (necessary to learn), cumulative (you needed to learn them to move on in the subject), and useful (kids could apply skills right away in context). He gave the kids the year to master them, and (because he was a math teacher) he kept a chart of when each student showed he/she could apply the skill. He approached each student and each topic in a different way.

As long as they got there, he felt – rightly – that he had done his job.

Performance in the arts involves a complex layering and interrelationship of knowledge, understanding, and interpretation. What do kids learn in an arts class? Not only the rules and language of their medium, but – importantly – to develop their own habits of mind and imagination and to acquire the discipline of continuing to work in the face of not being able to get the answers right away. And, they often learn that there is more than one way to get to an answer, and sometimes more than one answer.

What you measure is what you teach for. When we assess students in art we hope to find something we may not already know – what the student has discovered and shown us, if we are open to seeing and hearing it. Not just “is this good?” – but “what did this student intend, what has this student accomplished, how did they get there, what have they told me, what have they taught me, what have they made me feel?”

Can we teach and assess art – or science, math, history or literature – as an active and meaningful process of observation, participation, exploration ,and application?

Can we teach for and assess curiosity, determination, resolve, and imagination?

Can we help students develop a tolerance for struggle and frustration, for occasional failure, for uncertainty, for sometimes being wrong, and for trusting in their own courage, intuition, stamina and daring?

5 responses for Learning by Doing: What We Can Learn from the Arts


January 12, 2012 at 5:25 pm

You are speaking of the teacher as mentor and guide, one who must strive for an active state of personal inquiry at all times to be truly effective. Where are the ears to hear? That sort of adult is rare today. We've replaced healthy individuality with a bleached-out me-first sameness that's felt pretty oppressive for a long time now.

I am hopeful that it's nearing the end of its reign.

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January 12, 2012 at 5:52 pm

I meant to add: this and your recent Huffington Post piece give me cause to believe my optimism for a paradigm shift might be well founded! Your work aligns with ours (at Merge) and some widely scattered others - perhaps we'll be able to develop the critical mass that's needed.

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Jill says
January 12, 2012 at 7:25 pm


Another quality of arts education and its ability to integrate with all core subjects is the learning that can be experienced by diverse learners. For the past eight years my high school drama class has collaborated with the school's special needs Life Skills class to perform student written and produced short adaptations of popular written stories and movie scripts. Students who, up to their young adult lives, rarely engaged in any kind of learning experience that could be assessed through understandable (norm-based) systems became observably engaged and motivated as apparent understanding of both the creative and technical took place. These surfaced as apparent learning experiences of understanding to all involved in the project - including the audience.

When the project began, there were no predetermined academic outcomes. These were discovered through actions. Yes, some outcomes took several years to surface, however the learning epiphanies became "wow" moments for all. Some students related what was read to spoken words. Others remembered both spoken and spatial cues. There were two students who read for the first time and one announced that she could not only read, but that she understood the stage directions. Many students took the text and made it their own through characterizations that included costume choices, movement, and emotional detail. Isn't this what education is all about? Shouldn't schooling be about discovery? I often wonder whose discovery is relevant to outcomes in a standardized-based,accountability driven philosophy of education.

I have blogged about this project and experiences are being qualitatively collected and will evolve into articles, an extensive study, and ultimately, a dissertation. Art as a part of education is too important to ignore.

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January 15, 2012 at 10:32 pm

Hi Jill,

The project you describe is truly extraordinary, and quite exceptional. I agree that learning is enhanced within an environment of diverse learners. How can I find out more?


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Jill says
January 16, 2012 at 9:19 am


The eight year project is naturally evolving into research for my dissertation. Just yesterday I was contacted by a student who was the first writer/director. She is about to interview for a position in special education and is requesting a letter of reference that ties into the project. On November 15th, 2011 I posted a story about the project in "Communication For All" and am currently focusing on specific elements of what has been observed, reflected, and documented with regards to social, academic, and creative development. The levels are many as the students involved are truly diverse. Add to this what young adult audiences realize in the experience of watching a production and the possibilities keep emerging. This year's production is an adaptation of "Peter Pan." "Wow" moments have included the first-time vocalization on stage of an autistic student, drawings for publicity purposes from a young man diagnosed with Aspergers, and improvisational inclusion by a young mentally impaired woman, who is also one of my student aides and is embarking on a semester of journal writing. I am in the process of gathering stories, which is exciting as I continually attempting to understand importance, possibilities, and anything else that may be result in discovery.

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