"I would teach children music, physics, and philosophy; but most importantly music, for the patterns in music and all the arts are the keys to learning" ― Plato
Let’s talk about the controversial “A” placed in the STEM concept. A lot of what I'm about to say may seem self contradictory at first, but hear me out till the end. We are going to talk first about what Art is and what Art is not. Be sure to leave your own thoughts on the issue in the comments section below.
First, a little about my background. Before college, I instructed in a developmental program for kindergarten and lower performing students. I’m a printmaking artist; an Etcher and Lithographer. To most people, that means very little, but in short, the Printmaking Arts are where Chemistry and Art converge. Along with my studio degree I completed a second degree in Art History from Colorado Mesa University. As mentioned in the discussion about the “T” in STEAM, I’m a history junkie and I firmly believe that it is the catapult for every subject in education. History is context, and context makes all the difference in preparing us for the future.
Let me be clear, I believe that STEM is just one side of a coin and that the other side deserves it’s own acronym to apply to the Arts/Humanities. I hope someone develops the idea, and I’m sure one day someone will. But until then, we have STEAM.
So, Art. What is it? How can a canvas, simply painted red qualify as fine art?
While the debate rages on even among artists what truly qualifies as art and what does not, it is their argument that contains a philosophy and a way of thinking. Which, in and of itself, is an important skill to have. A skill they would not have otherwise acquired, if it weren't for their love and involvement in the Arts.
So to answer the question as inclusively as I can, I argue that, In it’s most basic form- Art is Communication.
This deeper form of Communication can be more than self-expression, it can convey a unique lens of how someone sees the world and their place in it. It is the articulation of emotion and feeling. The act of bringing abstraction into concrete existence. It is the process of understanding ourselves, our fears and our desires. Art is commentating and exploring what we do not understand.
For these reasons, we as human beings, have persistent tendencies toward the Arts/ Humanities. It is vastly important, and it could even be argued that if man’s greatest quest is to define the purpose of life, then STEM and Humanities are just two different approaches to answering that question. There should be no hierarchy, one is not better or worse. They are equal.
Thus, it isn’t so important that you be sure to let your students paint a picture every once in a while, or bring in the art enrichment program once a month. Instead, try to understand what art is and that it may not look like a "crafty" project, that it may be as diverse as every one of your students. Understand that at the core of teaching art is the principal of teaching your students how to think about thinking, and how to freely communicate abstract thought in a safe environment.
We cannot truly include the A and keep the stereotypical methodology of teaching Art. It’s not enough to just incorporate a dance or include paint and pipe cleaners into a lesson about the planets. Those things may all do well and fine for other reasons, but it's not Art. Aesthetics are just aesthetics, they have a formula, but Art is the blending of Aesthetics and Personal Communication. Please understand I’m not bashing attempts to include Art, I’m trying to offer the idea, that what is typically "artsy" may not have any of the key principles that would impact their growth.
You have to know why you should teach art as a way of thinking rather than a concept.
Instruments for making art are not the same thing as the Artistic Process, which is the most beneficial aspect of teaching the Arts. If you are teaching the "Process" more than the "activity", then what they learn can certainly be applied across the spectrum of STEAM. They will have learned something about how their own brain works rather than just a flat subject or instruction.
Art is self-expression.
Art is therapy.
Art is problem solving.
Art is critical thinking.
Art is design.
Art is questioning and committing to understanding the answer.
Art is becoming self-aware.
Art is seeing the world around you, and changing it.
These are invaluable skills for children coming into the real world.
So, if Art is self-expression, self-awareness, and problem-solving, well then, that opens the door to many things. If they are being consistently nurtured in their self-expression and critical thinking skills then the underlying value of Art is being taught. Some kids are musical, some are theatrical, some writers, some painters, some sculptors, and some are designers.
I am challenging you to redefine your understanding of what art is and what it does for mankind, individually and culturally. I am also challenging you to approach your students on a very individual basis when it comes to applying the A in STEAM. Art is an exercise in taking an idea, a question, or a concept and pushing it into existence. Something that was once abstract idea, now exists in physical space, and hopefully, it is also deeply personal to the student.
5 Ways To Integrate the A Effectively
1. Challenge them to critique their own work.
This has to do with their original concept and their desire to test and create this concept. Maybe the original idea was a failure from the start, but they have to explore it and figure out why for themselves. Did they really achieve what they wanted to? Did it turn out the way they imagined it would? Now that they’ve created it, how can it be improved? If it was a failure, back to the drawing board. What needs to be refigured for it to be a success? They are the critics, only they can decide if it is what they wanted it to be and they should feel challenged to recreate it every time they are not satisfied. If you are creating this culture and atmosphere in your classroom you are teaching the A. Painting and drawing, singing and dancing is fine but it is the principal of what Art is and does to a person that is the key.
2. Open the door, show them what’s possible.
In early education is is certainly important to exercise the fine motor skills that they need to develop for so many other reasons. But as students mature and understand their interests and natural talents, be prepared to push them harder than you naturally would. Give them the freedom to create what they want, and challenge them specifically in what they are creating. Assign them to write about their projects, analyze their thinking. Ask them to render famous works of art, ask them why they chose it, and what about it is special to them. Have them write about their experiences. If they are mathematical and logical thinkers, then introduce them to Seurat and his determination to understand how the eye processes light and color.
3. Push those who are naturally "talented".
There are those students who will be naturally gifted in the traditional sense. They will be talented and ogled for it. If I may offer a little advice as someone who was a “natural” artist all her life, don’t just compare and prize their work in front of the entire class. Rather, recognize that they excel but don’t be afraid to challenge them. Just as you would give an advanced reader advanced material, there should be no difference in this regard. You will have to think how to do this in a meaningful way or glean ideas from higher education art instructors. You don’t have to be "artistic" yourself to nurture their talent. There is no worse feeling for a student, who has drive and motivation to communicate through pictures, than to discover there is no one who sees its value and importance, especially when it is the only way they themselves find meaning in their own life.
4. Do not confuse Creativity with Art.
There are plenty of "artists" that have not been creative for years, they have a formula for success and they stick to it. The ability to "draw well", is really only someone who can "see well" with excellent fine motor skills and muscle memory. Creativity is central to numerous subjects that require critical thinking. It is different than art because creativity is a way of thinking about something and challenging the status quo. Sure it can be applied to art, but not necessarily. To praise one child as creative just because he or she can draw, and ignore the creativity of a more logical thinker, is a misunderstanding of the two concepts.
5. Be acutely aware that for some students, art is purely psychological.
If you can help them discover why they paint or draw, then help them. If it is the only way they can release energy, calm down and focus, then it must become central to their growth as a person. For some people it is the only way they can control a chaotic world in a healthy way; to release frustration and process information. For others, they are trying to understand themselves and their environment, and we all know that for some students their school life is more safe than their home life.
Art is Communication, and it serves many purposes.
Without Art, the world would be fundamentally different, and not for the better. It is intimidating because it is a nebulous concept and exercise; one of emotion and philosophy. But Art does engage our intellect in a very different way than Math and Science, and this connection is just as dire and irreplaceable to a child's overall education.
Danielle is a writer and printmaking artist, as well as a stop-motion filmmaker, with a degree in Art History and Printmaking from Colorado Mesa University. Prior to pursuing both of her degrees, she worked for an elementary school that provided a sensory and developmental program for kindergarten.