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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Visual Art as Critical Thinking

From the early age of kindergarten I was in musical theater. I eventually transitioned in music as a focus, and was a choir nerd in middle school and into college. In fact, my participation in Jazz Choir kept me in school, as I struggled with depression as a young adult. I kept singing into college, where I led the jazz and a cappella ensemble, and participated in a semiprofessional jazz ensemble the Seattle Jazz Singers. Although my schedule no longer allows me to sing on a regular basis, karaoke continually calls my name. I'm sure many of you had have had a similar experience, where art remains a crucial part of your being. These stories alone say "Yes!" to arts education.

Well, I have another argument to advocate for arts education. Visual arts (as well as other arts) are an excellent discipline to build and utilize critical thinking skills. I don't think we often give credit to the deep conceptual and interpretational thinking that goes into the creation of a piece of art, and this is often because art is treated as something separate from the core content areas. School does not need to be this way. In fact, I have recently seen two excellent ways that art can be used to wrestle with rigorous content from the core while allowing for creativity and expression.



I had the privilege of visiting High Tech High and Middle in San Diego, California. The first thing I noticed that art was vital to the culture of the school. Whether using physics content to create kinetic art with pulleys or to create 21st century resumes (see photo above), teachers embraced art as part of the culture of study.

Chris Uyeda was nice enough to sit down with me to talk about a recent chemistry project by his students. They were told that the common image of the atom was WRONG, and that they needed to create a pitch for a better representation of it. Chemistry and the study of the atom require deep conceptual thinking, some of which is hard to grasp. Chris saw art as an opportunity to have students critically think around the content to create a beautiful art piece. The student example below shows just one student's take on a more appropriate representation of the atom through the motif of bees and beehive. Art was a great way to familiarize students with critical content they would need later in the course.



A colleague of mine, Dayna Laur, a social studies teacher at Central High School in York, Pennsylvania, worked with her art teacher colleague Katlyn Wolfgang to ingrate the study of art and politics. Edutopia featured their story and advice, and you can use some of their resources. The driving question for the project was, "How can art reflect and inform the public about policy-making agendas?" In it, the students had to collaborate across classrooms to create an art piece that had a message.



More than just making connections, the art students had to use their critical thinking skills not only to understand all the information and nuances of their public policy issue, but also to synthesize it into an art piece that conveyed a message. Students researched legislation, background information and other pertinent content. Instead of simply creating artwork with a message (which is a natural function of art), they had to wrestle first with critical content of politics and social studies before creating the art piece. Student examples are pictured above and below.



Teachers, your mission is finding ways to integrate art into the core subjects. Use your students' creative impulses to bring a new purpose to interpreting, conceptualizing and critically thinking around content. This type of integration can work for ANY discipline. It will help to value art as not just a separate entity, but rather integral to the school culture. Art is important as a single subject, but also should be valued as core through rigorous integration. In addition to being a fulfilling part of your students' lives, it can engage them in the core content.

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Peter Pappas's picture
Peter Pappas
Exploring frontiers of teaching, jazz, yoga, Macs, film

A great post - so much truth in this statement "Teachers, your mission is finding ways to integrate art into the core subjects. Use your students' creative impulses to bring a new purpose to interpreting, conceptualizing and critically thinking around content. This type of integration can work for ANY discipline."

Here's my post that integrates art and historic interpretation - "How to Teach Summarizing: A Critical Learning Skill for Students" http://bit.ly/n8Fze4 A three step process I followed in a second grade classroom using a popular Currier and Ives print.

Summarizing is an essential skill for learning, but too often in school we simply ask students to "guess" what the teacher (or author) thinks is important. If students are going to learn to summarize they need to be given a chance to genuinely share what they think is important for an audience other than the teacher.

Joan Rosen's picture

Arts specialists know that students learn in and through art; and that a well-crafted integrated program requires certified arts educators. All educators and decision makers should be mindful though, that for integration to work properly and effectively, the integrity of the art form must be upheld. The arts should not be used as an add-on but rather as another avenue in the process of integration for student skills and knowledge. Unfortunately in many schools due to budget cuts, arts teachers have been sacrificed. School districts promote the arts as a component of their curriculum through integration, but often, certified arts teachers are not part of that educational landscape. As arts advocates we must promote the necessity for arts specialists in all our schools and in every grade level working collaboratively with other classroom and subject area teachers to establish the arts as a crucial component to the educational environment.

Jordan's picture
Jordan
Seventh and Eighth grade band and chorus director in South Carolina

Wow! As a teacher of the arts, I am extremely proud to read this. Many times, elective teachers do not feel appreciated for what they do. I am among this crowd at times, because the core subjects in our school get so much attention, as they should, but we get pushed aside most of the time. I was so excited to read about how Jazz Choir is what kept you in grade school. I teach choir and have been wanting to start a jazz choir, and your blog may have just given me the motivation to do so. Thanks!

Trish's picture

I was very excited to see the picture of the bee-hive to represent an atom! I think my students would really enjoy having the opportunity to use art supplies to create their representation of the atoms. I can see some students choosing to take photographs or creating a collage as well. Furthermore, I think it would be neat to just bring in a bunch of watercolor paints and see what the students create.

I am planning on trying a similar idea I found while researching about art integration. I am going to have my students pick an ionic compound and create a piece of artwork to represent their compound. The students will need to include the Lewis structure of the compound somewhere in their work. I am hoping that my students find this exciting and engaging, as I have not tried this type of project before in my classroom.

Alayna Wagner's picture
Alayna Wagner
First grade teacher from Ada, MN

I really enjoyed reading your blog. I'm taking a master's class right now on integrating arts into curriculum. After taking this class and reading your blog, I'm realizing the importance and positive impact arts can have on a child. I agree that when a school is lacking money or making cuts, the arts are the first thing to go. This way of thinking needs to change. It's so interesting to realize the impact the arts can have on critical thinking skills. I personally have thought as art as a separate class, but now I'm realizing that it shouldn't be. We need to work to incorporate art into our everyday teaching of core subjects. I love your examples of different ways to integrate art into the classroom. It was really amazing how the students not only had to use their critical thinking skills, but they also had to express it through art to convey a message. I'm going to take on your mission and try to incorporate art into my first grade curriculum. Thanks so much for writing this blog, and inspiring me to start putting more emphasis on art in my own classroom.

Stacey's picture
Stacey
Middle School Social Studies teacher, Bismarck, ND

I teach North Dakota Studies in Bismarck, ND. With the legislative session fast approaching (January 2013), I am really excited about incorporating pieces that integrate arts and politics to engage my students in critical thinking about their government at work. I love the idea of picking apart policies to really get at the "meat" in the bills that are being proposed into law, so that students realize that the law making process politicians partake in is incredibly complex. Once students examine legislation, I am going to have them focus on the question the teachers suggested, "How can art reflect and inform the public about policy-making agendas?" I am just wondering if I should limit the forms of art in which students can express themselves to one or two types or just let their creativity run wild? I would definitely be open to some suggestions.
Thanks for the great information.

Heather's picture

Art integration always sounds good, but the how to is where I get blocked. This article gave some good examples of how to make that integration happen. It's very helpful when I am able to see concrete examples of art integration. I was especially impressed with rethinking of the image of the atom. I think activities like this will help students think critically, yes, but also help make the learning of the concept stick.

Denise M. Cassano's picture
Denise M. Cassano
Artist, Educator, Dog Lover

Art can teach so much more than how to make a pretty picture. I have seen this happen in my middle school art class for over twenty years. Personally, I integrate as much writing and culture into my art lessons as possible, and believe art is the foundation for teaching critical thinking skills. You can get more interdisciplinary examples at my blog http://corndogart.com/blog/. When art is used correctly in school, it should provoke children to think and ask questions.

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