Teaching with Contemporary Art

An Interview with Jessica Hoffmann Davis, Part Two

This week it’s my pleasure to share part two of my interview with Jessica Hoffmann Davis. For part one of the conversation, please click here. Many, many thanks to those who sent along such positive e-mails and messages saying they enjoyed the first half last week. I have a feeling you will also appreciate part two….

Arts education advocates most certainly took a defensive posture in light of the shift to excel in math and science, and we continue to do so, especially facing steep budget cuts over the past few years and for the foreseeable future. How do you see a variety of arts advocates- even columns such as this one- helping to shape policy and not just discourse? After all, this seems to be at the root of the problem we face. Most people agree about the importance and benefits of the arts in schools but few put their money where their mouth is. How do we get more schools, especially public schools, to put this thinking into practice?

I like your optimistic view that “most people agree about the importance and benefits of the arts in schools.” Overall, I agree and feel strongly that advocates need to assume value rather than doubt—it sets the stage for a cooperative rather than adversarial conversation.

Your statement calls to mind something I encountered in my own efforts for school reform around the arts (i.e. starting a program in Arts in Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education). When I first brought the idea up to then Dean Gerry Murphy (who in the end was the guardian angel of the arts in education and helped us move to a place of recognition and permanence), he spoke as if I’d heard it before: “Everybody cares about the arts in education but not instead of something else.” I think that is the prevalent view. I was speaking recently with a professor who teaches writing and history. She told me that she felt the arts education advocacy I was doing was “so important.” She went on to explain that the arts were good for students because they didn’t use much brain power and students could talk and socialize as they created works of art. Flabbergasted, I tried to turn the tide of our discussion in the direction of the kind of wonderful self-assessment students in an ensemble might do as they prepare for a performance of their work.

But both these perspectives are alive and flourish: “not instead of something else” and “don’t take much brain power.” Ironic really that the thing that came up most frequently from high school students was their view that the arts taught them to think in important ways that other subjects did not- beyond the right answer to critical analysis and interpretation. Think of math and someone saying, “Sure it’s important but not instead of something else” or “It doesn’t take much brain power.” We’d think these statements to be absurd. And yet the arts are easily as entrenched in scholarship, culture, and history, and still they struggle for a place that is always assured for mathematics. I don’t know why I always choose math for this comparison. I hope math teachers will forgive me and note carefully that I am not suggesting math is unimportant (not at all)-only that the arts are too. In sum, I believe the conversation is invaluable and needs to continue. More and more educators, whether they appreciate the arts or not, need to think hard about what it is the arts provide that other subjects do not. And we need to take a hard look at what we value in education and what place the essential learning that the arts provides deserves in our curriculum.

Looking to distinguished private schools for models for the public sector, reading guru Jeanne Chall used to say “What’s good for the rich can’t hurt the poor.” For this last book, I visited well known private secondary schools like St. Paul’s in Concord, New Hampshire where guess what? Arts requirements abound and arts courses have equal status with non-arts courses. And this model is not exclusive to that setting. Great schools take the arts seriously and include them in their course requirements. If we want our public schools to be great, we need to include arts learning and to take it seriously. While students in privileged schools may not be dealing with the same factors that make it hard for others to stay in school, we have found (see reports like the Staying in School report that I cite in my book) that in low performing high schools in New York City, when the arts are included, more students show up every day and stay to graduate. Finally attendance, the quantitative variable that makes the most sense to associate with the arts, is getting its due. Let’s keep talking and thinking and putting teachers and students at the front of the discourse and let’s be sure to include the policy makers who in the end I believe—whether they want to bring back the progressive era or to celebrate No Child Left Behind—are on the same page of wanting the best for our students in our public schools.

I agree that what is beyond measure often has the most value, but here in NY and around the country art educators are now being asked, for example, to administer pre and post-assessments to students which are then tied into a teacher’s overall “score” on their annual evaluation. I feel this is partially a result of testing companies driving the obsession to quantify everything. How do you suggest incorporating some of the features you discuss- imagination, agency, emotion, expression- into assessment activities that teachers create and use with students? How can we measure growth in areas like these?

I have an article on this precise subject that may be of interest to you. It’s in the May issue of Visual Inquiry.

Of course NCLB also has its emphasis on scoring and counting as a measure of success. The testing companies serve the wants and needs of administrators, etc., who are desperate for “proof” that their students are doing well or at least improving. When arts educators have spoken of the “they” who call for this quantification, it is usually those who hold the curriculum strings and can make a place for or exclude the arts. And they (superintendents, boards of education, etc. etc.) are pressured by local and state and more recently even federal mandates for “success” (as measured by a standardized test).

The areas that I have noted as particularly educated by the arts, are often tracked by art teachers in assessment narratives, back and forth dialogue with students in review of portfolios of work, or as categories of importance contributing to a letter grade where letter or numerical grades are required. An academic dean at an independent school in Boston made the suggestion that the ten outcomes could be listed as “core learning objectives” within and across the visual arts and music classes throughout the school. As they emerge from the arts and arts learning, the features and outcomes can serve as talking points in the consideration of a student’s work in the arts.

Your recollection of the writing and history teacher who first said your work was “so important” and then went on to assume that students “didn’t use much brain power” in an art class is something I come up against often. Fortunately, at least from my perspective, art educators haven’t knuckled under to the standardized testing craze in search of some kind of legitimacy. But it’s getting more difficult and this new round of standardization dressed as accountability has me very concerned.

Project Zero came up with its assessment work in the late nineteen eighties— Arts PROPEL (production, perception, reflection, learning)— in response to the challenge that had been posed to them to create a standardized test/SAT for the arts. There are currently Advanced Placement tests in the arts that rely on a portfolio of student work assembled for consideration. And there has long been debate around “standardizing” arts learning, placing more emphasis on disciplines like art history or aesthetics (remember DBAE?) that can be measured (albeit inadequately) in terms of countable right or wrong answers. In our quest to get the arts into mainstream education, will we sacrifice what’s important and different about the arts? This question has long plagued the field.  In my text, Framing Education as Art: The Octopus has a Good Day, where I alternatively suggest ways to make other subjects more like the arts, I describe arts learning’s more authentic often holistic means of assessment. Just as it seems laughable to reduce our estimation of expression or imagination to a numerical score, we need to be more mindful of the injustice we do to all learning areas by restricting them to the playing fields of right or wrong. Math and science, like the arts, are fueled by good questions (not just right answers) and even as we value information, we need to remember that information enriches rather than defines the great landscapes of teaching and learning.


Please share any comments or further questions you may have and I can perhaps pass them along to Jessica for a follow-up post in the late fall… Thank you!- JF