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What Does it Mean to Teach Children to “Appreciate” Art?

By Sara Mead — June 15, 2012 2 min read

Dana Goldstein has an interesting Slate piece looking at how states, schools, and districts are assessing children’s learning in the performing and visual arts. This is an issue I’ve struggled with personally in my work as an authorizer--when charter authorizers approve an arts-themed charter school (of which there are many), ideally we want to see that the school is not only delivering student achievement results on state assessments, but that it’s also fulfilling its mission to deliver high-quality arts education to students. Identifying appropriate arts-related measures of learning outcomes has proven challenging, however, for both schools and authorizers, so I’m glad Dana took a look at what some states and districts are doing in this area, as well as some well-regarded arts assessments at the high school level. That said, I’m sort of perplexed by an idea that I’ve seen in Dana’s piece as well as elsewhere. Dana writes:

Students are then shown a measure of sheet music and asked to identify which of four electronic recordings matches the notation. The multiple choice section of the state's fourth grade arts exam shows students a picture, such as one of a vase and a bowl of fruit placed on a chair, and asks them to identify the drawing as either a "landscape," "portrait," "non-objective," or "still-life." The question is: Does a student's ability to answer such queries correctly actually indicate arts proficiency? Can such a test measure creativity--or is creativity not the point?

She also expresses concern that such assessments do not measure children’s appreciation of art and may incent teachers to spend less time creating art with their students. I’m not sure I completely agree with this challenge. Obviously, if we believe that ability to create visual art or play an instrument at a specific level is a skill we want all children to master, then we need to look at children’s actual performance and creation of visual arts--just as, if we want children to be good writers, we need to actually assess their writing. But I’m not entirely sure there actually is a consensus on these goals for students. Moreover, proficient writing builds on and is supported by a host of other specific, concrete skills--such as ability to appropriately use vocabulary and grammatical conventions,to identify the logical implication of a statement or piece of data, and to understand the structure of a coherent argument--which can be assessed through multiple choice and other easier-to score mechanisms. In the same way, musical performance builds on skills, such as the ability to read music, that the test Dana describes above do assess.

What really bugs me, however, is the implication that evaluating students’ understanding and mastery of certain arts concepts has little to do with arts appreciation or proficiency. The point of arts education shouldn’t be to teach children to simply “enjoy art"--we are, after all free to choose which art we enjoy, or whether we enjoy it at all. Rather, it should be to give children the skills and background knowledge to experience art or music in an informed and more than superficial sense--much of which is about understanding and identifying concepts, vocabulary, and techniques in ways that can be assessed through multiple choice assessments. A major reason that high-quality education needs to include the arts is certain arts-related information--such as names and work of key artists and composers, specific musical or artistic vocabulary and meanings, and artistic movements over time and their relationship to broader historical and social trends--is key cultural knowledge that our students need to be culturally literate. But arts and music instruction in our schools has often ignored cultural literacy and key concepts in favor of performance and “creativity.” (This is not a knock on creativity, but creativity is enhanced when children or artists have rich background knowledge and understanding of concepts and history from which to create.) Getting a bit more balance here is not a bad thing.

The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.