Beyond Attendance – Participation in Transition

A lot of mixed messages flying around these days about:

Music and Art Education
Failing Schools
Transition from Public Spaces to Cyberspace

     Last Saturday, (Zero hour for Harold Camping’s Rapture fans), I  went mining for data on the state of music and arts, in the schools and in life in general. Generally speaking, I found more to celebrate than you might think, and more than a few fascinating discoveries.

    Following is what I took away from these two studies.  You can look them over for yourselves and see if you agree:

The President’s Committe for Arts and Humanities (PCAH) 18 month study published May 6, Reinvesting in Arts Education, Winning America’s Future Through Creative Schools: Both the full report and a shorter summary are at:

and The National Endowment for the Arts 2011 review of studies done 1982-2008, Beyond Attendance, A Multi-Modal Understanding of Arts Participation, available here =>

     In spite of the PCAH report’s recommendations to reinvest in art in the schools, the Kent School District (under mandate by Washington State) is eliminating more art classes for the third year in a row. My wife teaches art and ceramics here, so this has had an on-going impact for our family. My 17-year old daughter is a member of her school’s chamber orchestra and music has survived the cuts (in High Schools at least) because the parents of music students seem to be a little more organized and vocal in making their feelings known. But it is a constant struggle and with music disappearing in the primary grades, it won’t be long before the number of students with previous musical experience entering High School will start dropping.

     As the PCAH report states clearly, there is no question about the importance of art and music in our schools. We learn things about ourselves as individuals and as members of society through creative involvement.  We stretch different ‘muscles’ playing music and creating art than we do in science or the ‘three Rs’.  Everyone should continue letting the Kent School District know that they must find other ways to deal with their budgetary problems than lowering the quality of education by taking away what music and art bring to growing minds.  Specifically, the PCAH report states that current research shows:

    • Music training is closely correlated with the development of phonological awareness – one of the most important predictors of early reading skills.
    • Children who practice a specific art form develop improved attention skills and improved general intelligence. Training their attention and focus also leads to improvement in other cognitive domains.
  • Arts Integration techniques, which use multiple senses to repeat information cause more information to be stored in long term – as opposed to short term – memory, and may actually change the structure of the neurons.

     Pursuing a career in music or art has always been a risky business. I am reminded of this quote from Herman Hesse, the german author of Steppenwolf, Siddartha, etc…;

Whoever wants music instead of noise, joy instead of pleasure, soul instead of gold, creative work instead of business, passion instead of foolery, finds no home in this trivial world of ours.

    How ironic that Hesse identifies the world that does not value music and art as trivial, while much of society tends to see music and art as trivial, at least compared to their material interests and technological progress.

If the Kent School District gets around to the President’s new study, here is some of what they will be reminded of:

     Our overall system of public education is failing, it’s common knowledge. Reinvesting in art in the schools not only helps the students now, it helps the whole country as today’s students become tomorrow’s policy makers, parents, teachers, engineers and doctors. Towards that end, the committee states that the arts are anything but trivial. They can be tools for much more than personal enrichment and uncovering talent, they can be effective “tools for school-wide reform and fixing some of our biggest educational problems.”  This is how they suggest we begin;

1.     Build robust collaborations among the different approaches to arts education. (Working smarter by implementing methods tailored to the unique resources and needs of different communities.)

2.     Develop the field of arts integration. Incorporate some of the classroom work from music and art into other subjects, ie; 4th graders learning a rigorous dance number using physics vocabulary, etc.. (When one of my daughters was in grade school in the 80s at an alternative school in Seattle, they helped develop the design for the waiting station for the Sound Transit light rail at Denny Way, which would not be built until many years later.)

3.     Expand in-school opportunities for teaching artists. (see Assessing Complex Learning, Measuring Progress & Inspiration in the Classroom below.)

4.     Utilize federal and state policies to reinforce the place of arts in K-12 education.              (I guess Washington state has not gotten that message yet.)

5.     Widen the focus of evidence gathering about arts education. Educators need practical tools to measure the progress of student learning in the arts — an investment that dovetails with the federal education agency’s investments in more authentic assessments of complex learning.

Assessing Complex Learning  –  Measuring Progress,  &  Inspiration in the Classroom  –  addressing points 3 and 5 above

     We already know standardized testing is a problem.  If we grew our children in test tubes, maybe standardized testing would be ok, but it is not a practical way to assess students with a variety of learning styles, as well as the other variables in their environment from english as a second language to family and health issues.

     The PCAH report recommends ‘more in school training for teachers’ , ‘practical tools to measure the progress of student learning in the arts’ and developing ‘more authentic assessments of complex learning’.  Addressing these issues will help improve the delivery of arts education. But even more, the PCAH wants us to re-invest in Arts Education for the sake of the country’s future by re-engineering schools in general into more effective creative environments.  But if standardized testing is not working for academic subects, how can it possibly be applied to creative arts?  Today was full of serendipity as I kept accidentally(?) running in to a wealth of  sound possibilities for these questions.  One such was an article by James Croft, a student in the Graduate School of Education at Harvard called, Education for Inspiration, Peak and Flow in the Classroom.

     Croft points out how everyone can probably recall at least one incident as a student where due to the sheer force of a moment of inspiration, a realization of, or awakening to something on a deeper level than usual, the trajectory of our lives was altered permanently.  The ‘aha’ moment has far more significance than simply a new bit of everyday knowledge.  Croft believes that teachers could be trained to implement inspiration on a regular basis in a variety of ways.  Inspiration not only provides one of the primary resources for musicians and artists, it can also fire up mathematicians, chemists, computer programmers, maybe even school administrators !!?

     I heard a good example recently listening to folk music on ‘The Village’ channel on XM Satellite Radio. Singer/Songwriter Richard Shindell told the story of being in a junior high school assembly years ago, sitting up in the bleachers with his cronies, throwing spitwads, goofing off and paying no attention whatsoever to whatever the assembly was supposed to be about.  Suddenly he became aware that someone was singing, and it wasn’t like anything he had ever heard before.  The guest ‘speaker’ that day was a folksinger, Richard doesn’t even remember who it might have been.  But the music completely captivated him. His buddies seemed to fade into the ether as his attention became riveted on the song this man was singing.  Shindell says that this was the moment that he knew what he wanted to do, not be a lawyer, or a doctor or anything else, he wanted to do THAT.  And he did.

     In Education for Inspiration, Croft explains that administrators and perhaps other teachers, will raise up objections to bringing in guest artists, poets, musicians, actors on a regular basis because they already don’t have enough time to deal with the required curriculum.  But while the students are attending the assembly, teachers can use the time to actually get some work done.  And talent can also come from within the school as well.

     But what really popped out of Croft’s paper and sent me off on another series of serendipitous discoveries was his mentioning the ‘Peak‘ and ‘Flow‘ experiences from the work of humanistic psychologists Abraham Maslow and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (don’t try to pronounce that name, you’ll hurt yourself.)  I remember the day in the 70s when my friend with a degree in social psychology trying to develop a private practice as a therapist, was overjoyed at discovering that a new field of psychology was emerging at last, displacing the behaviorists and their fascination with pathologic minds. Humanistic psychology focuses more attention on optimal states of mind, healthy behavior, happiness, creativity and so forth. (Why it took them all those decades to come up with that approach is beyond me, seems like a no-brainer, oh well, what do I know, I’m just a folksinger.)  Athletes train nowadays to learn how to invoke peak experiences on a more consistent basis, to get into “the zone”.

     Since peak experiences are very brief, Csikszentmihalyi developed his concepts about flow. When we become deeply engaged in our writing, or painting or any activity, so that time seems to fly, or not exist at all, we are in the flow state where the work is nearly effortless compared to normal consciousness where we are constantly distracted or just ‘not into it’.  One of  Csikszentmihalyi’s 7 – 10 requirements for achieving the flow state is “clear goals and swift feedback telling us whether we are achieving those goals.” One of the clearest examples of where this has been implemented successfully is in the video-gaming industry.  Those games are designed to pull the player in and not let go, dangerously so in fact, as they can actually cause long-term or permanent damage to joints in the hand controlling the action. But that’s for another discussion.

     The point here is, that more creative environments can be designed to foster things like inspiration, creativity, and flow for individuals and groups. These ideas are being developed for use in corporations, for government committee work, and in universities.  It just hasn’t quite trickled down to K-12 administration yet. Csikszentmihalyi admits that the flow experience cannot be induced (he must not play video games), that it arises spontaneously, unexpected. But it is no doubt a matter of time before such methods are understood well enough that environments can be designed to enhance creativity. In 2000 Csikszentmilhalyi looked at the layout of Montessori classrooms for young students and found them to be effective examples fostering the flow experience in a group setting.  An interesting sideline of this is that a similar experience has been practiced in Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism for centuries.  The West is finally beginning to wake up to the necessity and value of other states of consciousness beyond waking, sleeping and dreaming.

There will be much more coming to this Forum on Peak, Flow & Creativity coming soon.

NEA Rethinks 1982 – 2008 Study –                                                                            Transition from Public Spaces to Cyberspace     

     The National Endowment for the Arts took a hard look at the studies they have been conducting since 1982 on public support, participation in and even the creating of art and music throughout our society.  Remember learning how statistics and graphs can convince us of something that is not even actually true?  Here is a classic example.  In their report Beyond Attendance, they show how fewer students involved in art education in the primary grades has been shown to be responsible over the years for  dwindling public support for and less participation in the arts. The thinking being that if the value of art and music are not established at an early age, more and more people grow up into adults who have little interest in creative activities.

     But then when they compared their data with other surveys on people’s involvement in less centralized, more distributed arts activities (such as neighborhood art fairs) and the rapidly expanding digital world of social networks, streaming radio stations, digital music downloads, video, and all the other ways art happens on the internet, they realized the decrease in attendance in the traditional centralized public space is matched by an ever increasing participation in more decentralized local activities and  in cyberspace.

     Yes, attendance at many venues has steadily declined over the years, but NEA was not taking into account the many alternate types of participation that have begun to emerge. Two years ago the Metropolitan Opera began streaming live performances to movie theaters all over the country on Sunday afternoons.  Neighborhood Arts fairs are growing. In many European cities they are installing coffeehouses with live music and small art workshops inside the cavernous art museums and concert halls that can no longer afford to put on as many large scale events.

And then there’s the internet:

 – streaming radio stations for hundreds of different musical niches

– digital download distribution networks for every kind of music imaginable

– portable music, every new car has a place to plug in your mp3 player

– satellite radio has hundreds of stations available 24/7

– personally designed digital playlist ‘mixes’ instead of buying CDs

– high definition music video is about to bust loose from YouTube onto giant high definition video walls which can be installed anywhere

– etc, etc, etc, etc………

     The tools for creating and distributing music, video, artwork and writing online continue to improve.  At the same time the major social networking apps are becoming more and more integrated with all kinds of modules and widgets, sharing was never easier, (which is not always a good thing and does require a consistent monitoring strategy).

     Of course it’s a volatile market, one wrong marketing strategy  and your favorite app is history, and all your fans with it.  Five years ago MySpace was the number one app for independent musicians, now its in Chapter 11. But for the creative artist, writer or musician, the tools just keep getting cheaper, better, and easier to use.  So when 20 somethings are doing their business plan for their band, they are finding much less expensive ways to promote and distribute their music than the traditional live tour.

So the NEA is now reworking its definition of “participation” to take into account:

– A  diversification of settings where arts activities happen (bookstores, coffeehouses, churches, art exhibitions in airports….

– More rapidly changing aesthetic tastes, aided by technology

– Increased mobility, immigration patterns, ethnic diversification, and the rapid evolution and amalgamation of cultural traditions and practices

– The emergence of spoken word, hip-hop, and self-made videos as popular forms of cultural expression

– The internet and public expectations for high speed exchanges and availability of information

– Erosion of the subscription marketing model for concert series, art museums, etc…

     There is a huge amount of data presented in the NEA report involving participation in the arts and the changing ways people become involved, along with changing demographic patterns and increasing multi-cultural influences, levels of education and so on.  It is obviously a moving target that will continue to evolve over the coming years.  It is becoming much harder to recommend policy regarding funding for the arts because people are participating in many different ways than they used to.

So based on all of the above, here are my recommendations:

    • Support the President’s Committee on Arts and the Humanities recommendations.
    • Reinvest in Arts Education, not for art’s sake alone, but to improve schools in general.
    • Continue to develop more authentic ways to assess complex learning, and transform classrooms accordingly into more creative environments that foster imagination, inspiration, creativity, peak and flow experience, etc.. for the overall improvement these bring to all curriculum, math, science, history, language, music, art, writing, etc…
    • Increase opportunities for in school training for teachers and administration for improving how complex learning can be nurtured.
    • Improve teachers’ understanding of internet technology to help students use things like social networking in a safe and more responsible manner.
    • Make more use of local artists, musicians, actors and writers relevant to changing student demographics, and build cross-cultural understanding with the arts.
    • Develop more arts integration with other curriculum and also find ways to relate it to real-world activities in the community by increasing coordination with local organizations.
    • Find ways to support local arts and music in your own backyard/neighborhood.  Promote diversity, cross-cultural and inter-generational understanding through community centers, and local businesses who support local art.
  • Artists, musicians and writers: look for more alternative sound possibilities for creating, evolving, and distributing your art.  It is no longer necessary to sell out to broad-based, commercial, lowest common denominator industry standards.  Use the new technology to reach the audience that appreciates your authenticity.

There, I’ve had my say.  Let me know what you think. I’m going to go play some music.

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