Leonard Bernstein's Arts-Based Education Revolution

Most people know my father, Leonard Bernstein, as an iconic American composer and conductor. However, he was also a dedicated teacher. He sought to use music, fine arts, and performing arts to instill a lifelong love of learning in students.

As President Obama's Committee on the Arts and Humanities launches its Turnaround Arts Initiative that aims to help low-performing schools, Leonard Bernstein's arts-based education program, Artful Learning, has already achieved significant success since its inception 23 years ago.

In 1990, Bernstein provided a grant to develop an arts-based education program. He firmly believed that the spirit of artistic creativity through the visual arts, music, theater, and dance would improve students' reading, writing and math skills. He was right.

Artful Learning, the program initiated by Bernstein, is rooted in using the arts to enhance all areas of education by deepening the academic experience. The interdisciplinary, concept-based approach leads to a more informative and invigorating classroom setting for both teacher and student. The program goes beyond simple arts integration, to allow students to use arts-based strategies in all curriculum areas.

The program is based on "units of study," which each consist of four core elements: experience, inquire, create, and reflect. This process engages students with a larger artistic concept or masterwork, encourages them to ask questions, involves them in their own creative projects, and elicits a deep study of what they have learned.

In early May, my sister Jamie and I travelled to Portland, Oregon to visit a pilot Artful Learning program at Jackson Middle School as they celebrated 15 years of success. It was an incredible experience to see how much these students have learned and grown with this academic model.

A recent unit of study at Jackson tackled the concept of systems. The class used the U.S. Constitution, Beethoven's 3rd Symphony, and Pink Floyd's "Welcome to the Machine" as the masterworks to explore the ideas of utopia and dystopia, how systems work, and why systems are balanced or unbalanced. This allowed for an integrated approach to social studies, math, science, visual arts, kinetic sculpture, literature, reading and writing.

The students also showed off a glass, light installation that they had created themselves with the guidance of a master trainer and classroom practitioner as well as a local glass artist. The excitement and energy of the students was palpable as they presented their projects, which are on display all over the school. It was clear that their deep understanding went far beyond the physical art, extending to other challenging disciplines.

Now in 15 schools across the United States, Artful Learning is a proven educational model. According to a 2009 report by CRESST (National Center for Research on Evaluation Standards and Student Testing) at UCLA, Artful Learning has seen an increase by 9 percent, 12 percent and 16 percent in Language Arts, Mathematics and Reading respectively. The report also reveals that students improve in writing, reading and mathematics regardless of demographics and socio-economic standings.

My father understood that education must be engaging and driven by imagination and curiosity in order to develop students who can think creatively and solve the world's most complex problems. He would be so proud.

Alexander Bernstein is Leonard Bernstein's son. He is President of Artful Learning, Inc. and of The Bernstein Family Foundation.