Cycle 5: Tensions in Creating the Ideal School

A good school nourishes individuals exposed to the principles on which the world turns, nurtures in the narrowed areas to which these individuals are naturally drawn and from which they connect to areas they are not; supported by people that have a magic mix of passion for ever-deepening experiences and the ability to effectively interact and communicate with other learners.

A good school uses the tensions that create a balanced education to thoughtfully craft learning experiences for all stakeholders.

The introductory post for Cycle 5 included the following tensions that in a delicate way create a balance: subject-matter knowledge/habits of worthy living, common culture/individual interest, and gate-keeping/deliberation. In my own work there is yet another tension that exists- that of discipline-specific arts study/arts integration.

“Good” teaching within artistic disciplines bridges concepts from those that appear within the art form to those that exist in “other” disciplines. I consider this connected learning. As discipline-specific educators, it is our job to expose our art-form for all that it does and is. An example would be explaining momentum when teaching how to effectively and efficiently turn, jump, and/or change direction. In order to dance well, I need to know momentum, not simply know about it or be able to discuss Newton’s laws. Momentum becomes part of my embodied knowledge.

In an arts-integrated approach, the intention of fusing these arts and non-arts concepts serves as the catalyst for informational dialogue. We could enter the class knowing we are using turns or jumps or direction change to demonstrate examples of momentum and therefore teach content standards for each subject area- dance and science. The experience is valuable, but limited in its potential for sustained application (the continued practice of dance training) and enduring understanding.

The differences outlined here are fine but significant.

We need to find the balance of these two approaches and meet in the middle where lessons of dance and science are simultaneously, or maybe sequentially, implicit and explicit.

When guided by a true dance educator, the opportunities are rich with potential as students view content from multiple views. Depending on the leaders of this kind of experience, the students become citizens that could, as Howard Gardner describes in his book The Disciplined Mind, “come into existence if students learn to understand the world as it has been portrayed by those who have studied it carefully and lived in it most thoughtfully; if they become familiar with the range- the summits, the valleys, the straight and meandering paths- of what other humans have achieved; and if they learn to always monitor their own lives in terms of human possibilities, including ones that have not been anticipated before.” These very students could leave that experience understanding the world in a new way in addition to understanding momentum and dance technique.

But the consequence of emphasizing integrated learning over connected, discipline-specific learning can be the elimination of arts positions, even if the arts continue to be “taught” by non-artists with support from artists as proposed by the Lansing School District in their recent answer to devastating funding shortages. Even a quality arts integrated experience cannot supplant quality arts training and the embodiment of knowledge that is garnered in such an experience.

When the politics of education sets educators, particularly arts educators against each other, arts integration becomes a dirty word. While some arts disciplines, such as music and visual art, are well established in the canon of K-12 subject areas, dance is grossly under-represented. Arts integration can aid these subject areas, but the value of Music and Visual Art are pretty readily acknowledged without it. Meanwhile, Dance is still trying to get a foot in the door and therefore requires it. Talk about of being “damned if you do and damned if you don’t”.

Personally, I have used dance “integrated” experiences as an opportunity to introduce and promote more sequential dance training with the aspiration of dance becoming as established as the other art forms. What I do, really, is teach my discipline broadly, and in a way that connects to life experiences and other academic areas. With my experiences in K-12 education, I am able to adeptly relate dance processes and concepts to those of grade level content areas. But I don’t feel that all dancers could do this in a K-12 setting, even with help of classroom teachers. K-12 dance education is a specialized profession and a focused area of study in and of itself. (Go here for a break-down of teaching roles in arts education. )

I would like to think that schools refer to arts classes as specials because of this specialized focus and not because of the deviation from the traditional classroom as if the arts are pure novelty and not much more.

Regardless of this debate though, a good school is populated with people that think like artists- people that constantly ask “what if?” and “so what?”

There is an attitude of risk-taking, an appreciation or at least acceptance of the “grey” area, and recognition that life is a series of adjustments and progress of thought put into action.

A good school is a process, not a product, and it never stops moving. Picasso said, “Critics, mathematicians, scientists and busybodies want to classify everything, marking the boundaries and limits… In art, there is room for all possibilities.”

Can’t we treat education the same way?