An Artist’s Statement, via Autobiography, Part Five
*You ought to start reading this five-part series with “An Artist’s Statement, via Autobiography, Part One.”
In this final installment, after discussing what I see and what my work means to me, the final feature is arts education. I have taught at an arts magnet high school for seven years now, and I have seen the transformative power of teaching young people to think creatively.
Too much of modern educational practice is geared toward objective testing, which usually comes in the form of multiple choice. These kinds of tests rank high on measures of “validity” because the answering process is not open-ended and the scoring process is not subjective. Thus, the rationale is that students (the test-takers) can be compared more accurately to each other through a surety of the correct answers to each question on the test. That may sound wonderful — no personal opinions or leeway in scoring, and high “validity” — but this type of assessment measures the weakest skills of the human mind: recognizing one correct answer among four, or at least weeding out wrong answers and narrowing the field before guessing. These types of objective testing are only really capable of measuring how well a student may have memorized facts, because the truth is that the student may have guessed. Also, because questions are not connected or linked in anyway, there is no indication of how well students are linking bits of information together to understand the big picture, as they should in a subject like history.
Arts education is nearly the other end of the spectrum. Teachers ask students to take a set of instructions, lessons, or rules and interpret them freely, rather than simply regurgitating them, to create something previously nonexistent. Assessment is much more subjective, though not totally so. This type of education requires critical thinking, problem-solving, and making connections between bits of information; and the result is not darkened bubbles on a Scantron, but an actual utilization of what is learned — a real, tangible product.
There are widespread efforts to use the scientific method to improve education. Education experts and policy makers, like legislators, want data to use in decision-making. The major problem is that objective standardized testing provides that data, while arts education cannot. So legislators can stand up in front of their constituents and proclaim, “We have proof that this is the right decision!” or “We have proof that our decisions improved our schools!” It is all political rhetoric, and improved test scores don’t necessarily mean improved schools. Improved scores on objective tests only prove that students either learned more facts or guessed right in a one-out-of-four situation more often. Those results don’t prove that the education they got was any better, because the purpose of education is to learn things for future use. The standardized tests provide little or no evidence that the children learned the lessons of history, only the facts of history. Anyone could memorize that Hester Prynn wore a letter A in The Scarlet Letter, but does that mean that the person understood the novel?
I am advocate for arts education because I am more interested in student learning than I am providing data to administrators and legislators. Now, the trend seems to be to add these kinds of assessment methods to teachers, to determine whether or not that teacher is doing a good job. And those methods will fail at assessing teacher quality just like it fails in assessing student learning. If the purpose of education is to prepare children for their futures as adults, then objective testing only measures whether or not they will be able to sit in a cubicle somewhere and do exactly what they are told — no critical thinking, no creativity, no deviation, just memorize the facts and do what you’re told.
In addition to being an advocate for small class sizes and adequate funding for resources, I am also an advocate for arts education, because if our children are not the creative critical thinkers of tomorrow, then they will be the drone workers of tomorrow. I don’t advocate for arts education, because I want all children to be artists. Some will be, while others will not. But arts education — teaching through methods like Discipline Based Arts Education (DBAE) — employs far better methods to achieve sustained student attention and real learning than teaching in ways that require inflexibility, rote memorization, and constant objective assessment.
In short, to end this five-part statement, I work, using within the fields of writing and education, for the improvement of American society, particularly in the South, through three things: promoting a public recognition of the damaging effects of the Southern ideals of the past, utilizing a multicultural point-of-view that emphasizes openness and cooperation among diverse groups of people, and teaching young people to be creative thinkers who expect more from life than drone jobs and petty materialism.