What Is ‘Artistic Literacy’? Framework for Arts Standards Takes Look

By Erik W. Robelen — January 24, 2013 3 min read
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We talk a lot about literacy here. The ability to read and write. Math literacy. Science literacy. But what does it mean to be artistically literate? A document issued last week by the National Coalition for Core Arts Standards takes a stab at this question.

The coalition has drafted a framework for forthcoming arts education standards. And one of the central issues it tackles is defining artistic literacy. At the heart of it is a belief in the need to “do” art, or to make it.

“Artistic literacy is the knowledge and understanding required to participate authentically in the arts,” the document says. “While individuals can learn about dance, media, music, theatre, and visual arts through reading print texts, artistic literacy requires that they engage in artistic creation processes directly through the use of materials (such as charcoal or paint or clay, musical instruments or scores...) and in specific spaces (concert halls, stages, dance rehearsal spaces, arts studios and computer labs).”

The framework identifies four fundamental “creative practices” for the arts: imagination, investigation, construction, and reflection. And as you might imagine, it makes the case that these activities come in handy not just in artistic enterprises, but in plenty of other realms, such as math and science.

In the forthcoming arts standards, these four creative practices are “a springboard and bridge for the application of the artistic practices” across disciplines.

The National Coalition for Core Arts Standards is composed of nine arts and education organizations working to develop a “next generation of voluntary, research-based arts education standards” that build upon an earlier set created in 1994. Those organizations are the:

• American Alliance for Theatre and Education;
• Arts Education Partnership;
• College Board;
• Educational Theatre Association;
• National Association for Music Education;
• National Arts Education Association;
• National Dance Education Organization;
• State Education Agency Directors of Arts Education; and
• Young Audiences.

Scott Jones, a senior associate at the Arts Education Partnership, a member of the coalition, highlighted a few things for me over email about the framework to help better contextualize and understand this work.

First, unlike the earlier voluntary standards, he said the new ones are “designed to provide teachers and school leaders with concrete guidance on how to authentically assess arts learning.” To that end, “sample cornerstone assessments” will be embedded within them, he noted. The framework notes something we’ve all heard often: “If [something] is not assessed, it will likely be regarded as unimportant.” And so these sample model cornerstone assessments will be provided throughout the standards to illustrate the type of evidence needed to show attainment of learning. Such assessments are “embedded” in the curriculum rather than external standardized tests that “drop in,” the framework notes. They’re intended to engage students in applying knowledge and skills in “authentic and relevant contexts.”

Second, Jones said the standards writers are mindful of not creating the arts standards “in a vacuum.” Rather, NCCAS is working with the College Board and many of its partners to ensure the standards reflect work being done in other disciplines, especially the Common Core State Standards. (For more on the intersections of the arts with the Common Core, check out this recent EdWeek story.

Third, he said the standards will include a focus on critical thinking, problem solving, and the ability to express oneself, skills that “support educational goals outside the arts classroom.”

In addition to defining artistic literacy and outlining the creative arts practices, the framework document guides readers through the historical context for arts education and standards and the foundational research and philosophical basis for the work, notes a press release issued last week.

The framework promises that the standards are designed to serve the “eminently practical purpose” of improving teaching and learning in the arts. They also are being written “with one eye on the realities faced by our nation’s ... school districts in the 21st century. Key among those realities is increased attention to accountability for instruction and the outcomes [that] should be expected of instruction in the arts.”

You can finds lots more information about the arts-standards project here.

A public draft of the standards is expected to be issued in June.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.