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An Interview with Jessica Hoffmann Davis, Part One

This week it’s my pleasure to kick off a two-part interview with one of my favorite authors in the field of education, Jessica Hoffmann Davis.

Jessica Hoffmann Davis has published and lectured extensively on the role and promise of arts learning, drawing not only on her own and other current research, but also on personal experience as a visual artist, writer, and educator. While her popular book, Why Our Schools Need the Arts (Teachers College Press, 2008), proposes a “new and unapologetic approach to advocacy for the arts in education”, I originally came to admire her work through reading (and re-reading!) Framing Education as Art: The Octopus has a Good Day (Teachers College Press, 2005), where she challenges non-arts education to be more connected to and like the arts.

Dr. Davis holds a Doctorate in Human Development and Psychology and a Master’s in Teaching, Learning, and Curriculum Environments from Harvard University where she went on to be a senior lecturer and to hold the university’s first chair in the arts in education. She retired from the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2005, in large part to focus on a book about her mother and the extraordinary school she directed for almost four decades: the Hoffmann School for Individual Development in Riverdale, New York. Davis’s educational memoir, Ordinary Gifted Children: The Power and Promise of Individual Attention, was published by Teachers College Press in 2010.

This interview took place over the past two months and became what we finally started referring to as a “blogversation manifesto”….

To start, could you talk about some of what you’ve been working on lately and how this connects to your original passion for articulating the connection between education and art?

I left Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2005, after many years of teaching and publishing at the field juncture of human development and the arts in education (a term which includes but is not limited to art/s education). My breakaway book, Framing Education as Art: The Octopus has a Good Day (2005) proclaims that mainstream education would be improved by taking a lesson from (modeling itself after) the arts and arts learning. Of course even as I offered a framework for such modeling I allowed that there were versions of what I suggested already happening in the classrooms of what I call “artful” teachers. Nonetheless, at the heart of that work is a notion that seems to have eluded arts education advocates in recent years: specifically, that the arts provide essential learning that other subjects simply do not.

This positive view flourished in the 1920’s in the Progressive era when immeasurable student outcomes like creativity, empathy, and thoughtful citizenry had valued places in the agenda of student learning. But in the late nineteen fifties after the Russians had embarrassed us by launching a satellite into space before we did, there was a shift towards hard-edged disciplines like math and science in order to give our students the edge in international competition. This was at the expense of what was thought of as “soft” learning: visual arts, dance, music, theater, et. al. And arts education advocates ultimately gave in to the wave of priorities, arguing that the arts might make a difference in fostering creativity in these valued hard edged arenas, or that in fact the arts could be reconsidered as one of these hard edged arenas and taught in terms of factual information that could be measured on tests (the current prevailing and devastating ethic). And while the terms have changed along with educational fashion, the mandate to “sell” the arts as handmaidens to whatever is valued most in education has held sway. Will the arts make your IQ get higher? Yes, yes, listening to Mozart can do that. Will arts learning make you a better leader or someone better equipped to hold down a job? Absolutely; there are habits of learning (like “sticktoitiveness”) that the arts foster.

As someone who has been attached to some aspect of arts education for more than half a century, I had grown weary of the “justifying” of arts learning, disgruntled with conversations behind closed doors in arts education conferences that were preoccupied with the assumption: “Yes we know arts learning brings joy to students, helps them develop into whole and capable people, enriches their souls-but ‘they’ want statistics, they want quantitative proof of immeasurable value.” I was tired of the we/they, the low expectations for colleagues in the scene (“them”), and the bitter acceptance of a backseat for the arts (extra-curricular, integrated, or occasional if at all). It was time to proclaim what educators have long known: that kids show up the day the visiting artist or arts performance is scheduled for school; and kids who struggle in reading seem able to memorize all their lines for the play; and kids who have left high school show up at community art centers and direct shows, dance for neighborhood audiences, and/or manage venues through which other young people share the stories of their lives in media ranging from spoken word poetry to high tech video.  Why not proudly acknowledge that the arts are powerful vehicles for learning and development? Sure what they teach can serve student learning in any subject but the arts provide vital learning opportunities that other subjects simply do not. Why not lead from strength rather than barter for acceptance?

This perspective has infused my own learning, teaching, and research since the first time I noticed that the drawings of the five year olds in my summer art classrooms looked remarkably like what I was seeing at the Museum of Modern Art. Wow, children can do that when they come to school! How can we accept that they lose the interest and ability as they mature? What if we had visual art and music and dance every day? Think of how many more of us would become artists and perhaps even more importantly, how many more of us would be able to participate as makers and audiences in the timeless and particularly human conversation that the arts perpetuate? With an eye to advocacy that would help folks understand what the arts in particular teach our children, I drew on research from a number of sources for a manifesto for strength-based advocacy: Why Our Schools Need the Arts (2008).  Above and beyond suggestions for effective advocacy, I included in that volume the sort of simple structure that evolves from years of muddled groping: a list of five features of the arts that set the stage for ten outcomes of arts learning that other subjects do not specifically provide.

Since that publication, I became aware of recent data (not surprising but timely) that indicated that in urban high schools, when the arts were included, more students showed up at school and furthermore, they stayed to graduate. Considering implications for reversing the drop out rate, in Why Our High Schools Need the Arts (2012), I employed the structure from the earlier text to make sense of what I was learning from recent observations and interviews with high school students and teachers of the arts. I was pleased to feature their voices since the perspectives of students and teachers (the main players on the stage) are too frequently omitted from the great theater of school reform. These actors shared powerful stories and I was greatly moved by how crucial they found the arts to be to the challenging journey of adolescence from childhood to adulthood.

Somehow then, even as I have retired to the woods to enjoy such writing projects as a personal educational memoir of groåwing up in the school my mother ran in New York city (Ordinary Gifted Children: The Power and Promise of Individual Attention, 2010) and writing and putting up a play about a fiftieth high school reunion (in the end I didn’t go to mine), I still am engaged in the continuing struggle to find a more secure place for arts learning in the lives of our students. I spoke recently with a junior at Plymouth Regional High School here in New Hampshire. Monica is planning to go on to college and major in Renaissance History, but she will always find a way to study art. She told me last week, “I just don’t understand the problem. Everyone knows the art students here do better at everything. They care to notice more, and they know how to tell you what they see. And that’s everything. Isn’t it?”

Can you describe some of the learning outcomes you outline in Why Our Schools Need the Arts (2008) and how you incorporated student voices in the 2012 follow up, Why Our High Schools Need the Arts? What kinds of things did these students share with you?

Why Our Schools Need the Arts is a manifesto for what I am calling a new kind of advocacy, one that doesn’t try to fit the arts into whatever shoe is being worn this year in mainstream education. With that in mind, I take a look at what it is arts learning specifically provides, without concern for what it may or may not do for learning in other subjects (transfer) or whether these outcomes lend themselves to quantitative measurement—the standardized kind in which all our mainstream shoes are wrapped at this time. Indeed, I remind the reader that in most contexts it is what is beyond measure that has most value. Briefly outlined, here are three of the five features of the arts and the consequent learning outcomes that I pinpoint: 1) the tangibility of the arts-the presence of a something that was not there before the artist/student created it. From this emerge the learning outcomes of imagination (possibilities that the student invents and/or considers) and agency (the student’s central role in effecting these ends). 2) A focus on emotion, out of which students learn about expression (giving shape to their own feelings) and empathy (recognizing the emotions of others). 3) Ambiguity—the arts deliberate delivery of multiple meanings from which students learn about interpretation (making sense) and respect (for others’ sense making).

In preparation of Why Our High Schools Need the Arts, I visited high schools (public, charter, and private) and interviewed teachers and students of the arts on site or by phone and, with the help of my friends—colleagues and former students who are now working in arts education—I was able to circulate a questionnaire and receive great written responses from high school students and teachers of the arts across the country. The book is a call for educational reform, for the inclusion in our high schools of more courses about and more students engaged in the arts. Based on recent and past research, I argue that the arts help high school students find a reason for going to school and staying there to graduate. But my voice throughout is most importantly threaded with direct quotes from the teachers and students with whom I spoke. Their rich and often poignant experiences are front and center in this book.

What kind of things did they share? Stories of how visual arts had given them the opportunity and courage to express their inner lives, how musical ensembles had given them a sense of community and mattering, how playing a dramatic role had enabled them to experience almost first hand the suffering of a grieving friend. Wonderful moving accounts of the safe haven that they found in the arts classroom and the difference they experienced between arts teachers who treated them like colleagues who could make their own choices and non-arts teachers whose expectations were set and constrained. The passage from childhood to adulthood is both thrilling and perilous and at this challenging time of life, these students found that arts learning helped them with the pressing agenda of self-discovery.

Please join us next week for part two of our conversation!


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