George Lucas Educational Foundation

The Four-legged Chair of Arts Education

The Four-legged Chair of Arts Education

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Maybe the name isn't right yet... do we want to talk about arts education in the metaphor of a chair? Maybe, but the idea is what I'd like to explore is this posting. When arts education advocates get together to talk about arts education, they use the phrase loosely. The field has not yet defined thoroughly what arts education looks like. In our minds we believe we are talking about the same thing, but when we dig more deeply, we find that we're not always talking about the same thing at all. So, for discussion, I'd like to present my definition of what arts education should look like in schools. There are four important elements that create a comprehensive arts education. In future discussions, I look forward to discussing "how" we get there. This discussion group has already had good discussions about "why" we do it. For now, we'll look at "what" it looks like. 1. Certified Arts Specialists in every school building. Specialists are the most critical component of comprehensive arts education. They are in regular contact with students and have access to the non-arts teachers. They are familiar with the local arts community and may already have contacts. The job of the certified arts specialist is to teach arts skills to students in a well-defined scope and sequence. They are also the coordinators of the other three "legs." 2. Arts integration in non-arts classrooms. It has been proven again and again that when there is a good match between an art form and a non-arts content area, kids have more fun and learn more through arts integration. Schools that integrate the arts across the curriculum in meaningful ways are successful schools. The key to meaningful arts integration lies in comprehensive training and in-school planning time on regular basis for arts specialists and non-arts teachers. Without that, the arts integration experience could be counter-productive. 3. Visiting artists in the community. There are at least two benefits to putting kids on buses and taking them to where professional art is being made. It's important to the civic health of communities for artists and arts organizations to interact with and train their future audiences. And, secondly, it is important for students to see what really good art looks like. It is worth a journey of several hours, if necessary. This is how students build the skills of aesthetic judgment. 4. Bringing artists into the building. Though every community may not have a world-class orchestra or museum, every community has artists. These artists may perform for the school or they may work as teaching artists in the classrooms. They may integrate the arts to the non-arts curriculum or they may teach arts skills. This is a time for students to have direct interaction and communication with working artists who have been trained to work with students. It is also an effective way for students to understand the habits of mind that artists use in the creation of their work. Students learn that talent alone does nothing, but that practice, failure, self-evaluation and adaptivity is what creates art. In my view, these are the necessary components to a comprehensive arts education program in schools. I have many ideas about how to reach this goal, but will start a new post for that. Please let me know what you think about this idea. Have you ever been a part of a school that had all four components? Find me on Twitter @creativityassoc or on Facebook @#artsed Chat.

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Gina Harrison's picture
Gina Harrison
president, NHS Arts Education Foundation

In NC, legislation has just passed directing the DOE to establish a task force to create a comprehensive K-12 arts education development plan for the public schools. The Task Force will consider policies, recommend appropriate action and implementation strategies, and assess funding needs and report to the Education Committees of the House and Senate no later than December 1, 2010. We are anticipating vibrant discussions and significant contributions by the arts and education communities on these very topics in the next few weeks.

Lisa Annelouise Rentz's picture
Lisa Annelouise Rentz
teaching artist in sc

perhaps the four branches of the arts edu tree?
the four hemispheres of the arts edu globe?

The Artists' "habits of mind" that you mentioned could be the guiding force to get all four of these components working in one school. It's very tough to do, in my schools at least. We have at least three from your list-- but I think our art teachers are trained and specialized enough to cover #1 as well, and they certainly fit the description here.

The main obstacle to fully implementing arts edu where I am-- Beaufort SC-- has been largely external: very high rate of staff turnover, an administration that mandates too many "priorities", and a general atmosphere where learning comes last-- there's lots of slogans about learning, but even more daily interruptions when we're in the middle of batiking with indigo to learn about local history and writing about what student-designed symbols mean. But, after 8 years, the effect is gelling-- one school has decided it wants to become an official arts school! The teachers voted so, and that kind of consensus is what it takes.

Toni at YA's picture

I think this is a great start to the conversation about "what is arts education." I most often use arts education, but folks I know also talk about arts-in-education and arts integration. I think I get stuck sometimes because I certainly want to advocate for "arts education," but what I actually want to advocate for is great, creative teaching in all core areas - including reading, writing, math, science, social studies, arts and humanities, physical education. Arts Education = Quality Education.

Kira Campo's picture

I find your description of these four elements to be a very useful working description of arts education. (Thank you for that!) I often find myself thinking about 'The Seat'...that is, the larger element of the chair which relies on, and is supported by, these four legs.

I envision 'The Seat' to be comprised of the collective experiences, goals and outcomes which are part and parcel of a robust arts education experience. To me, 'The Seat' embodies the collective qualitative examples we use to describe the intrinsic and instrumental benefits that exemplify arts education.
I envision a VERY LARGE SEAT, with ample room for myriad arts participation experiences.

Experiences that are numerous and sufficiently varied: some that provide Art for arts' sake; others that instill and reinforce habits of mind; others which sharpen students' technical acumen; and others which can serve as a vantage point from which to observe the highest cultural achievements. I envision 'The Seat' to begin with a sturdy base (students' imagination and capacities to think creatively) and a firm cushion (educators' ability to cultivate their students' imagination and creativity) which is covered in a boldly patterned fabric (originality). Experiences not unlike what Toni and Lisa describe in the posts above.

No doubt the shape of 'The Seat' will vary widely from district to district, depending on resources, curriculum goals, the input of parents, educators, administrators, and Boards of Ed. But, in the end, each and every Seat clearly dependent upon the strength of its legs.

Carol Parker's picture
Carol Parker
7/8 Drama, Film, Honors & Regular Language Arts

Totally agree with all of you. Will present this to my principal. I am very qualified to integrate the arts into all the non-arts classrooms, except music. Totally doubt any teacher will want this. There is amamzing apathy nor stimulation for the arts. As I have stated many times before here, that I fight fiercely for my students to go to museums.....I continue to teach all my students the arts in my courses. I know the joy and rewards for the students lives now and forever. It is a joy for me also, to watch their eyes open, and see them happy to come to school every day and paint, draw, act a scene and view films they never knew about. A world so important.

Before I have a seat, I will need a sturdy table to invite teachers to sit and talk about the importance of the arts integrated into their subject matter, and the impact on their students learning.

Eric Booth's picture

Joan, thank you for creating something we can sit on properly. I find your metaphor clear and helpful. I am interested that you tease about legs three and four--often that distinction is left as one role, and as are result we forget the power of having learners visit artists in the community. And picky as I am, I wonder if you might consider rephrasing leg two to be something like "the arts-informed non-arts teacher"--this is for parallelism with the other three where you focus on the individual and not the function. Minor but it has some nuances to it. And I appreciate the comment above about considering what all four players need to know and all be focused on to give extra power to the whole chair. Because those for legs are joined to support a consistent, safe, elevated place for each learner.

joani share, NBCT's picture
joani share, NBCT
High School Visual Arts (9-12 & college dual enrollment) , Phoenix , AZ

I think that the chair as a metaphor is quite nice - especially since a chair is actually functional sculpture. The problem I see and have witnessed with the type of concept that you are describing is this:
1) in dire economic times the arts integrated into the classroom is a way for schools to eliminate the certified art specialists. The rational is that the classroom teacher can teach art - the thinking is almost anyone can do so.
2) Artists who may be excellent in their field - are often times brought into classrooms to teach a specific lesson. They may be good at their work, teaching art to children over time is an entirely different aspect of art. The "visiting artist" may also be a ploy for school districts to eliminate the certified art specialists.
3) Programs like "Art Masterpiece" bring in parents and other community volunteers to teach an art lesson in a "regular classroom." These lessons are what I call "the art quicky." It gives students tidbits of information about an artist, style, historical art period - whatever - then students create a work of art in relation to that "lesson." This teaches students that art is quick - we can make it and take it in one period.
4) I think that at all costs we must value and support our certified and trained art teachers/specialists. If we do not do this - we will have programs and school districts that basically give lip-service to art. They will say that they have an art program - but do they? Be careful what you ask for, and be highly supportive of true art specialists.
In an era of tight budgets the arts are often the first to go, and making it look like an art program can be done at a fraction of the cost can be done - but the cost may be elimination of true art education.

@creativityassoc's picture
Director, Education Division, Creativity & Associates

Joani, You bring up some really good points. Part of the problem that the arts education field has is that it shies away from discussing who the providers of arts education are. It's frustrating because it's an important conversation. Part of my goal in creating the metaphor of the chair is to show that each kind of provider (certified arts teacher, arts-informed non-arts teacher, teaching artist, community artist) has an important role to play. However, you're right. The certified in-class arts teacher has the most influence on students.

Most elementary and middle schools don't offer theatre or dance. In those cases, I think it's appropriate to bring in outside teaching artists in order to give students everything from "the art quickly" to a project-based learning experience through a longer residency. It's always important, I think, to take kids out to see capital-A Art so they can understand what quality looks like. And, extending the learning into the non-arts classroom is a way to integrate arts skills and idea across the curriculum.

All that to say, we need all four legs of the chair for comprehensive arts education. I don't want to make the choice to not do the other 3 in case it threatens the position of the arts specialist. That's looking at it like a "slippery slope" that we shouldn't go near. The optimist in me says that the more of the arts that are present in the school building, the more the school will want because the results will be evident.

joani share, NBCT's picture
joani share, NBCT
High School Visual Arts (9-12 & college dual enrollment) , Phoenix , AZ


I hope you are correct. Unfortunately many school districts are cutting art programs in the elementary and even middle schools as a way to balance budgets. This band-aid approach hurts everyone in the long-run. Time will tell how this fiscal problem will impact schools nationwide- we won't know until late spring, early summer what the arts will look like in the schools.

joani share, NBCT's picture
joani share, NBCT
High School Visual Arts (9-12 & college dual enrollment) , Phoenix , AZ

This movie over simplifies a large and complex issue- changing schools to meet students needs. This movie implies teachers unions are bad, charter schools are good, many teachers are lazy and the system is terrible.
I don't know any teachers who spend their days doing the least possible for students. In my area our teachers union is very small, as it probably is in most areas (with the exception of the NYC or any very large urban district). Our little union as part of the national is still small potatoes.In the US we educate ALL children,and have ALL children take standardized tests. We also offer Arts to the majority of our students. This is not the same world-wide. In Sweden one country noted for top education- in the elementary schools in each classroom they have 3 teachers- one for the high,middle and low students. We in the US with our budget crunches have 1 teacher for too many students. In the No Child Left Behind Act- the Arts were considered a core subject- too bad that most school districts ignored that. This does not give credence to the movie "Waiting for Superman" - it just opens the door to look at the arts as a motivator for students to become successful in school

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