Putting the Arts in the Picture

Reframing Education in the Twenty-first Century

Nick Rabkin and Robin Redmond, editors
Reviewed by Beth Feldman Brandt, Stockton Rush Bartol Foundation

2004, 152 pages, Center for Arts Policy at Columbia College Chicago

In this volume, the Center for Arts Policy at Columbia College, Chicago, has taken on the formidable task of examining the role of the arts in education, investigating the cognitive benefits of art as an integral part of learning, and identifying the challenges of making the arts an equal partner in school reform and school curriculum. Through five essays authored with a range of perspectives, Nick Rabkin and Robin Redmond pull together the most current thinking and research on arts education and cognition, specifically in the field of arts integration.

Arts integration, differentiated from conventional arts education, makes the arts an interdisciplinary partner with other subjects. The majority of these essays focus on arts integration as a method of teaching and learning that brings out the best in all students, especially those who can be considered disadvantaged learners. In fact, the case is made that arts integration is the most effective form of arts education.

The first essay, written by Dan Weissman a veteran education journalist, describes his observations in arts integrated programs in Chicago, Minneapolis, and Boston. These descriptions will ring true with those who have seen the powerful level of engagement that the arts can create, even in struggling schools. Clearly the arts bring "authentic intellectual work" to students in ways that are challenging and disciplined, yet somehow enable students who may be defeated by challenges in other settings to shine. This essay also touches on the work that must scaffold these efforts such as developing teacher leadership and professional development for teachers and artists.

Madeleine Grumet, a curriculum scholar, addresses the most current research on cognition and learning in her essay. Research on the neurological, experiential, and reflective components of cognition provides a clear link to the ways in which the arts provide unique learning tools for the active use of knowledge as well as for flexible and reflective thinking. At their best, arts-integrated schools become learning communities in which everyone is a communicator, problem solver, and learner within both an intellectual and aesthetic context.

In a more academic essay, historian Michael Wakeford traces the history of the arts in U.S. education. Those who have worked in the field of arts education for the past twenty years or so will nod at the more recent history that traces from John Dewey to Harvard's Project Zero to Getty's discipline-based arts education to the NEA CHART program to Arts Propel. The author highlights times in history in which a changing economy or social structure realigned education (for example, the years of Sputnik and the race to space resulting in the emphasis on the sciences and math in the 1950s and '60s.) Perhaps the twenty-first century economy, defined more by intellectual property than factories, demands skills that the arts can best provide.

Shirley Brice Heath and Sir Ken Robinson team up to provide an international perspective on youth arts especially in countries compromised by war and social need. While this essay diverges from the subject of arts integration, it points out examples in which youth themselves have turned to the arts to make sense of the changing and challenging world around them. Focusing on youth leadership and social responsibility, young people use the arts to become social entrepreneurs that can affect change.

Finally, Rabkin and Redmond pull together the essays with their own research that compiled twenty-three evaluations of arts education programs. Based on this research, they propose that arts integration is the strategy that maximizes the benefits of the arts for students. They address both the benefits of positive change through the arts for disadvantaged learners and the challenges of bringing this work to scale in the broader context of school reform. They also acknowledge critics who fear that arts integration diminishes the study of the arts for their own sake or has the potential to lead to the "outsourcing" of arts education, leaving arts specialists in a tenuous position. They argue, however, that both the quality and role of the arts are strengthened through arts integrated learning.

The strategies for moving forward with an arts integration approach include a significant role for private philanthropy. Even the most successful arts integration efforts have not drawn full financial support from public funding. Expanded initiatives would require both leadership and substantial dollars from the philanthropic sector. For those contemplating such a role for their own foundations, this publication will be the logical place to start.