It was an unexpected call.
A group of teachers and administrators from Singapore contacted me to see if they could visit our school. I was the principal of a small arts integrated elementary charter school at the time. We were only in our second year and were struggling academically. The majority of our students had come to us significantly below grade level. Balancing our unique mission and vision with the performance demands of the district was a huge challenge.
The Singapore group was attending the National Art Education Association Conference in New Orleans that year and wanted to come early to see a few “innovative” schools. In addition to us, they would visit Isidore Newman, an elite private school with a stellar reputation, and The New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, a conservatory that has produced some of the city’s greatest artists. I was honored (and, understandably, a bit miffed) to be in their company.
About twelve educators came to our school. They sat in on classes, reviewed arts-integrated lessons and projects, spoke to our “creative learners,” and interviewed teachers and teaching artists. They asked a litany of questions, took copious notes and snapped lots and lots of pictures. They were hungry for knowledge. At the end of the day, they sat down with me and asked a bevvy of questions, both practical and philosophical.
Before they left, I finally asked the question that had been nagging me ever since that unexpected call. “Y’all are from a country that’s known for education,” I said. “In world rankings, Singapore is almost always at the top of the heap. You even invented your own, very successful approach to math. So, why are you here?"
“It’s true,” a teacher admitted, “our kids definitely know how to pass tests. We can fill in bubbles with the best of them. That’s not the problem. No, our problem is thinking outside the box. We want to produce kids who not only know the answers, but who can also use those answers to generate new ideas, new products, and new businesses. And, of course, original works of art."
“We live in a world where Siri, Alexa and Watson already have all the answers,” another teacher added. “It’s less important to recall information than it is to use it. We’re talking about 21st Century skills, things like collaboration, critical thinking and creativity. They may not be on the test yet, but I’m sure they will be. We believe the way to them is through the arts.”
“Eventually,” they said, “we’d like to be known as much for the arts as we are for math. That’s why we’re here.”
“I’m sure you’ll be successful,” I said. “We’ll be sending educators to the South Pacific to study Singapore art…”
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