Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Arts Education Completes the Picture of the Future

I read with great interest two essays in the September 19, 2010, Education Issue of the New York Times Magazine. They were Sara Corbett’s article entitled “Games Theory” about a New York City middle school which asks students to design and play video games (truly the definition of 21st century learning), and, surprisingly, Gretchen Reynolds' essay on physical education: “The Fittest Brains.”

Corbett’s essay followed a class of middle school students as they played and developed video games. The school feels that this is the wave of the future, supplying these students with the necessary tools to succeed and teaching them concepts such as creative problem solving, critical thinking skills and team building. It struck me of course, that all of these skills are also addressed by participation in that ancient 20th century learning tool called “the arts”. As I read this article I kept thinking to myself “Hey, that’s what we do in the arts!”

Just as students who are engaged in playing video games are completely focused, learning from their failures, and, as they succeed, the challenges get harder and harder; students in the arts have the same exact experience. For example, when we teach playwriting we start out with the basics: we teach either conflict or character first. Students are completely engaged because they are at play. They physicalize the characters, go back and forth between developing the character and playing the character, find out what works about what they created and what doesn’t. Or, they learn conflict by acting it out in a controlled environment. Again, they develop as they play the conflict out. As the lessons are learned we add more challenges like adding dialogue, setting, inner-conflict, conflict resolution, etc. When they become proficient at all of these things, we add dramatic arc, rising and falling action, subtlety and other components to create a fully realized play.

The other article in the New York Times Magazine, by Gretchen Reynolds, made me realize that arts education takes the process a step further than the video gaming class does. Reynolds’ article is a study in how exercise and fitness affects kids’ intelligence. Reynolds states that kids who took even a 20 minute walk before taking a test did better than the kids who stayed sedentary. The last sentence in the article was an “Aha!” moment for me: “Running improved test scores immediately after. Playing the video games did not.” Reynolds’ article had nothing to do with Corbett’s other than it was in the same issue. Corbett does point out that the students who study technology have shown only incremental improvement in their test scores over students who do not.

As I stated, when we teach kids playwriting, or any arts activity it always involves doing that activity. This year, The New Victory Theater is presenting many physical theater, circus and new vaudeville shows. Our in-classroom work is all about getting students to understand the shows by learning various aspects of the show. For instance, in our ZooZoo classroom workshops one of our objectives is to have students understand how to imitate animal behavior physically and then to add human activities to mirror the ZooZoo creators’ experience.Students begin by choosing a favorite animal and moving around the space like that animal paying particular attention to how the head, legs, arms and torso move. They might then add a human activity like eating an ice cream cone. How would an ostrich eat an ice cream cone?

This automatically makes students get up out of their chairs and actively engage in learning. As soon as they have mastered one skill, we challenge them to build on that skill. While there is time devoted to reflection, the main focus is teaching the kids an art form. Someone once asked me, “How can students learn if they are sitting all day? All their blood goes to their fannies not their brains!" I couldn’t agree more.

I am not saying that an arts education is in any way better than an education using new technology. Both methods get kids to think creatively, be unafraid of making mistakes (which is the only way we learn), problem solve, work in a team environment and a plethora of other things. What I am saying is that we need a combination of the two so that kids aren’t just sitting down looking at a screen all day. Kids need the opportunity to get up on their feet and create using their imaginations and their bodies.

Policy makers and funders need to understand that students need to learn using both their bodies and their minds. Once they understand and support this concept then, perhaps, we can make a positive change in education.

Joseph Giardina is the Director of Education at The New Victory Theater. From 2002-2010 he was the Education Director at Theatre for a New Audience (TFANA), an award-winning, classical off-Broadway theatre company. Their Education department is the largest to introduce Shakespeare and classic drama to New York City Public School children. Prior to his position at TFANA he was the Artistic/Education Director at Arts Horizons. From 1995-1998, Mr. Giardina directed and produced the New Jersey Young Playwrights Festival. He is the former Artistic Director of UPTCo and a Founding Member of Off World Theatre which was housed at the Puffin Cultural Forum in Teaneck, NJ.

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