The Skills Connection Between the Arts and 21st-Century Learning
Arts Education and 21st-Century Skills
conceptual, and globalized 21st-century society and economy. Students have to acquire so-called “habits of mind” that
will enable them to develop the skills of creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving.
In addition, they must be able to communicate effectively, collaborate with people different from themselves, exercise initiative, and be self-directed.
The primary purpose of education is to enable students to make a living as adults; without this capability,
everything else falls away. Yet we still teach within a basic framework established in the 19th century.
In today’s education environment, we seem to be slipping back from the future into the 19th century’s
contextual emphasis on reading, writing, and math. The consequences could be dire, even propelling us
back to a two-tiered education system: just reading, writing, and math for the disadvantaged in underresourced schools,
alongside a richer 21st-century curriculum for the country’s productive employees and future decisionmakers.
Now, stay with me here: First, we need to recognize that the very same valuable skills routinely employed
by artists and arts educators can be integrated curriculum-wide in ways that are not arts-dependent.
If this seems a revolutionary notion, it is because for more than 30 years, the well-meaning mandarins
of arts education have promoted practitioner development above all else.
versions of a hard drive?
but the young people we supposedly reached 10, 15, even 20 years ago became parents of kids in schools
where the arts were cut. Bear in mind that these cuts were not the work of educators, but of school boards
ostensibly representing the parental community. The irony is rich, since the very skills their children will need
to be capable adults can result from arts practice.
who want to be artists—“Glee” wannabes. If we applied this mindset to science, we would teach science
only to students who aspired to be chemists, biologists, or astronomers.
The fact is, we too often teach students to perform without their actually learning anything.
Most of the time, students are simply remembering lines, notes, steps, terminology, and so on.
To be fair, the cumulative amount of instructional time an elementary music teacher has in the school
year is approximately 32 hours. This is less than the equivalent of a standard workweek to produce two
concerts with 200 or more kids. Given this time constraint, perhaps all that can be accomplished is
replication—not learning, much less understanding.
our approach to arts education. I propose that the critical skills of creativity, critical thinking, and
problem-solving can be developed by design—not acquired by accident or as a byproduct—
using the arts as tools. For example, teaching artists, along with arts specialists in schools,
can be rich resources for the integration of 21st-century teaching and learning into the
19th-century paradigm to which we seem to be wedded. After all, to be “creative” is to be,
by definition, artistic.
human beings think.
that are contained in the 1 percent of our DNA that distinguishes us from our nearest primate relative, the chimp.
catalyst of modest content. Think Beethoven’s four-note theme, which he spun into the Fifth Symphony.
relationships, techniques, and technologies. Think of a recipe that combines the chemistry of ingredients with
knowledge of temperature and time, along with taste, feel, and smell.
Think metaphor or analogy.
all day. Artistic products envelop our daily lives, particularly those of children. They are what we listen to, watch and read,
wear, put up on our walls—they are everywhere. Artists have employed for millennia the inherently human abilities that
Hauser describes, transcending cultural and historical boundaries; now, these qualities have become crucial capabilities
for success in the 21st century.So we must ask ourselves, are we preparing students to function as human beings,
or just as flesh-and-blood versions of a hard drive?
They touch us, resonate with us. Now, what is the one adjective all dropouts use to describe school?
Boring! To be bored is to be emotionally disengaged. Do our children go to school only to prep for tests
that are limited in scope and focus to the three R’s of retention, recall, and replication? Is there a difference between
“to know” and “to think?”
them to “know.” But how do you “test” thinking? And shouldn’t teachers be asked, “What do you think?”
The key disconnect with so-called teacher reform is that teachers are not urged—not permitted—to think.
The demand is that teachers limit themselves to following prescriptions generated by people far removed
from the classroom and the school, sometimes hundreds of miles away, both literally and figuratively.
a variety of circumstances, cultural frameworks, and emotional conditions, to have the flexibility to shift gears,
to create (there’s that word again) alternative methods, and to inspire in their students an emotional commitment
to attaining mastery.
Bruce D. Taylor is the director of education for the Washington National Opera, in Washington, D.C.
Vol. 30, Issue 19, Pages 22,26
Taylor, Bruce D. "The Skills Connection Between the Arts and 21st-Century Learning." Education Week. Education Week, 1 Feb. 2011. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.