When kids are safe and motivated, they achieve. The arts are keys to engaged, motivated learning.
The NPR report below describes a persistent and real problem that is evident in most schools and classrooms across the country, and spanning socio-economic groups.
Teaching and learning are complex, with many perspectives represented in the comments at the end of the report. Here’s mine.
In order to learn school curriculum, there are certain conditions that must be met. Children must (1) feel safe (not hungry, not feeling threatened), and (2) be engaged and motivated. Without these, learning is hampered, not only for the disengaged child, but for the entire group. Children learn coping and social skills early, based on interactions with the adults and others around them. If the adults are positive, set clear expectations, model mature behaviors, and generally follow cultural norms that match the school’s expectations, the child will most likely adjust well. If there are different norms in the home or community than in the school, the child or school will need to adjust.
Turning to content, the curriculum is the “stuff” that is deemed important to teach. Hopefully it is developmentally appropriate for the child – sometimes it is not. Over the past decades, the curriculum has been inappropriately narrowed to include reading (not literacy – mostly leaving out speaking, listening, and even writing) and some mathematics. Programs that taught these skills in context, applying them to real life or interesting problems, have been out of favor. Arts programs (music, visual arts, dance and drama) have been eliminated in many places, from large school districts to small rural schools. Why? The arts were seen as less important frills, rather than core curriculum. This is just wrong. The arts are core curriculum, unique ways of knowing and communicating that are essential for brain development and all learning. They build auditory, visual, kinesthetic and linguistic skills, and they have the significant benefit of engaging self-expression, imagination, and emotional understanding. The arts provide the social-emotional outlet for students, and strategies for learning across the curriculum.
When the arts were removed from school curriculum, the opportunities for learning self control, self regulation, collaboration, and learning how to learn disappeared.
The PATHS program addresses a real and persistent problem. However, that problem would not exist if sequential, quality, integrated arts programs were reinstated. Slapping on a huge band-aid that takes time away from learning, in place of filling the gaping wound with nourishing, powerful, engaging core educational experiences is not an answer. Education’s decision-makers have cause the problem, and they can solve it by allocating funds to essential, core, arts curriculum. There’s plenty of data that supports this perspective. And don’t be fooled just because kids love the arts – learning that brings joy, engagement, and positive interactions will build those social-emotional skills not by labeling, but through experiencing them. Once there is love of learning, good things will follow.