Arts in Education Stretches Student Boundaries

In times of tight budgets in a high-tech world, there are those who question the value of arts in education. In a world of STEM, the arts may appear frivolous. Not so, say others who view arts in education through a different lens. September 8-14, 2019 is Arts in Education Week. The week starting with the second week in September was designated by Congress in 2010 to be the week to acknowledge the “transformative power of the arts in education.”

The Education Commission of the States (ECS) says that arts education is a key to student success in school, and also in the workplace. A recent poll of more than 500 senior executives addressed the issue of hiring personnel to fill the skills gap at their companies. Forty-four percent of them believe that American lack soft skills of communication, creativity, critical thinking and collaboration.

ECS says that arts in education may be an answer for that lack of skills. The report “Beyond the Core: Advancing student success through the arts” says that students of the arts learn tools for

  • Understanding human experiences, both past and present.
  • Teamwork and collaboration.
  • Creatively making decisions and solving problems when no prescribed answers exist.
  • Adapting to and respecting others’ diverse ways of thinking, working and expressing themselves.
  • Understanding the influence of the arts and their power to create and reflect cultures.
  • Analyzing nonverbal communication and making informed judgments.
  • Communicating effectively.

One way that arts in education help students develop these skills is that they require students to participate in classes where they have to be independent thinkers and draw inferences. Students are in situations where they must work together and accept other people’s ideas and thought processes. They often must analyze nonverbal clues.

Arts in education doesn’t just mean practices such as elementary students singing, middle school students painting, or high school students acting in plays. It applies to students in post-secondary education and beyond. Many medical school students engage in arts programs that give medical students a different perspective on their world that is so heavily science based. Arts in education during medical school help doctors develop skills they need like critical thinking, observation skills, communication skills. They also learn bias awareness and empathy.

For example, Dr. Michael Flanagan teaches “Impressionism and the Art of Communication” to fourth-year medical students at Penn State College of Medicine. In his class students observe, write and even paint in the style of 10th century artists.  In one assignment students pair up to paint. The first student has a picture of a famous Impressionist painting. The second student, at an easel, must ask questions about the painting in order to reproduce it. “The painter becomes like the physician who’s taking a history and trying to get information from the patient,” Flanagan says. “They experience firsthand how much easier it is to gain information when you ask open-ended questions, when you stop and let that patient tell their story.”

Other med schools also have arts in education programs. Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons required first year- med students to take humanities ranging from dance to poetry. Harvard Medical School and University of Texas also have arts and humanities programs.  These programs do more than make med school education interesting, says Flanagan. “It’s protecting and maintaining students’ empathy so that by the time they go off to practice medicine, they’re still empathetic individuals.” When students start medical school they are very empathetic. But, he says, after three years of exposure to death and suffering they can become less empathetic. Engaging with arts in education can help solve this.

Dr. Delphine Taylor at Columbia Medical Center says that arts activities teaches student to “be present and aware.” Medical students at Yale, Harvard and UT Austin meet at art museums. In this arts in education program the students describe and discuss artworks. This activity helps students learn close observation to improve diagnostic skills. It also teaches them to look beyond face value. Dr. Taylor says that verbally reacting to art, and developing a hypothesis about why the artist chose a certain color shade or what they were thinking prepares students to deal with patients and colleagues in situations that may be uncomfortable or uncertain. Most important, she says, they learn to consider other people’s perspectives.

In every field or industry, all students can learn important skills from exposure to arts in education. Employers who allow students to take these classes with their tuition assistance will benefit from employees who can observe and analyze, work in a team and communicate effectively. Employees who experience arts in education often are willing to step out of their comfort zone and think creatively. They can use the soft skills they gain to problem solve and find effective solutions for their employers.