The practice of teachers in classrooms is what matters most when it comes to students learning in school. The principle strategies of school reform -- 'higher' standards, school and teacher 'accountability', intensified testing, and 'choice' -- may affect teacher practice indirectly, but the the relatively poor record of school reform over the last three decades, especially in schools serving low-income students, suggests that those strategies are of no great consequence to the quality of teaching. They may even be counterproductive. Could arts education and teaching artists -- artist/educators who have entered schools in significant numbers in the last three decades, after more than a century of educational work in other kinds of community venues -- be a strategy for improving the quality of teaching in American schools? My three-year study of teaching artists suggests that the answer to that question is likely to be yes.
What is good teaching?
There is broad agreement among leading researchers and education organizations about good teaching. Reports and studies have repeatedly found that it is grounded in three principles that test-driven schooling subverts:
• Good teaching is student centered. It begins with students' interests and what they already know, offers students new and real challenges, choices and responsibilities, and features curriculum that that they find relevant.
• Good teaching is cognitive. Learning is the consequence of thinking and work on compelling ideas and problems across subject areas, and the demonstration of real understanding through the representation of learning in a range of media, including art forms.
• And good teaching is social. Individual students build competencies and knowledge, but students do that better together than they do alone. Good teaching involves building a community of learners that works and thinks together, challenges each other, reflects on its work, and supports taking the risks necessary to learn new things.
These principles are prized by many TAs, woven into their identities, and into the mental, social, and physical processes of making all kinds of art. We interviewed over 200 program managers and TAs, and most told us that their practice was about "making meaning," "engagement," "voice," "making connections," reflection, self-assessment, collaboration, group critique, personal agency and expression, and community-building. These practices are rooted in a tradition of teaching the arts that began over a century ago when the settlement houses, early social service and change organizations in the burgeoning immigrant neighborhoods of industrial cities -- there were over 400 in 1914 -- made the arts central to their work and hired artists to run their programs.
TAs work and the principles of good teaching
Engagement is job one for TAs in schools. They are not regular faculty, most see students for less than an hour a week, and for just a few weeks before moving on. They must win students' commitment quickly, and they've found the best way to do that is to take students' interests and ideas seriously. TAs believe students come to school with the potential to develop perspectives on the world and life, an aesthetic signature, and a focused set of concerns and questions that stimulate their curiosity and creativity -- what artists often call 'voice.' experiences, perspectives, ideas, and questions that interest them. Activating them is the surest pathway to engagement. A focus on voice and engagement is the essence of what student centered means.
"Meaning" is another concept at the center of TAs' work. It signifies three things: what something means to all of us -- a word, gesture, fact, thought, color, sound; what it means in the particular context of an art work; and what it means to someone. Making a thing or experience meaningful is a fundamental goal of art making, and when TAs refer to 'making meaning', they are referring to putting knowledge to use to create something that matters -- both intellectually and emotionally. Good teachers encourage their students to make great effort to do that. TAs model it. Artists reach for high standards because their work has meaning to them and because they want it to have meaning to others as well. Art is all about making things, ideas, and time meaningful.
TAs think about "connections" as a social concept -- they build connections between students by encouraging them to learn about and from each other, and by structuring collaborative projects. They also think of 'connections' as a cognitive concept -- they connect the substance of the arts to other subjects and to the world around their students. The arts are means of finding and illuminating the meaning behind otherwise disconnected experiences, facts, and phenomena.
The arts have been largely dismissed as vehicles for making schools better places for students to learn. Focused, as they are, on academics, schools tend to push feeling and creation off to the side, diminishing both student motivation and opportunities to learn. In the process they damage the capacity of teachers to teach well, too. Schools need to find strategies to reintroduce the principles of good teaching into their classrooms. TAs are doing that in thousands of classrooms from coast to coast. With appropriate and systemic support, TAs joining teachers in classrooms, could represent a serious approach to doing the one thing that will matter most to making schools better places for students to learn -- fully integrating thinking, emotion, and creation.