Teaching Opinion

Response: The Role Of Arts Education In Schools

By Larry Ferlazzo — June 13, 2014 10 min read
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This week’s question is:

What role should arts education have in an overall school curriculum?

There’s certainly been a lot of interest in this topic, and I’ve included many readers’ comments in this post.

In addition, I’m featuring guest responses from three educators -- Virginia McEnerney, David Booth and Heather Wolpert-Gawron.

You can also listen to a ten minute conversation I had with Virginia and David on my BAM! Radio Show.

I’m compiled additional related resources at The Best Resources Discussing The Importance Of Art In Education, and you can watch a number of videos and read about how I work closely with a talented teacher at our school to use art as a language-learning activity.

Response From Virginia McEnerney

Virginia McEnerney is the Executive Director of the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, the nonprofit administrator of the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards which recognizes and provides scholarship opportunities for creative teens:

In order to create change, students must first learn to create. Just like adults and perhaps even more so because they are still developing their own identities, young people turn to and respond to the arts to help them communicate and understand ideas, viewpoints and emotions. In this way, the arts cultivate creative thinking which leads to other supplemental skills such as problem-solving which ultimately can benefit students across disciplines.

Arts education should play an essential role in affirming and developing creative abilities among students of all skill levels, without limiting it to those who aspire to be professional artists or writers. It’s just as likely that a biologist who developed creative thinking in middle or high school arts classes could think of a new way of looking at cancer research as it is that an artist can develop new forms and media for artistic expression. In fact, I’ve seen this among the past winners of the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards.

Our contemporary economy depends and thrives on innovation and new ways of thinking about and seeing the world. This is exactly what arts education nurtures - young people who, through creative practice, develop the skill to imagine the world differently. Studies such as Reinvesting in Arts Education: Winning America’s Future Through Creative Schools from the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, display the powerful role that arts education can play in increasing student engagement, closing the achievement gap, and nurturing the skills that will ultimately change our world.

If young people have an inherent pull to create, which we believe, then the arts must be integral to students’ education, rather than viewed as separate.

Response From David Booth

David Booth is Professor Emeritus at the University of Toronto. For more than 25 years he has worked with teachers in creating, applying, and evaluating approaches to how children learn to read and write. His latest book is I’ve Got Something to Say: How Student Voices Inform Our Teaching:

As caring and concerned members of our home and school communities, we want our children to grow into adulthood with arts-enhanced lives, engaging fully in the world’s activities with their aesthetic, cognitive, physical, and emotional strengths, and entwining all these processes as often as possible. We need to “feel our thoughts,” and we need to “think about our feelings.” Knowing that emotion is a powerful component of life’s intellectual responses, we require opportunities to grow as whole beings, to fill our personal worlds with events and experiences that reveal as many shades of color as possible, that widen the possibilities inherent in everything we see and do.

What if our schools opened up the repertoire of artful choices that children could encounter each day, so that as their knowledge expands, their senses grow, and their feelings find form, their responses to life’s situations could become more mindful and thoughtful? That is the real role of the arts in school--to help youngsters construct their worlds in wonderful and meaningful ways and, at the same time, gain satisfaction from their expanded understanding of how to accomplish this lifelong process.

The arts are an imperative. In the concentration camps in World War II, some children drew and wrote poems; you can read their poems and find their drawings in the book I Never Saw Another Butterfly. After the disaster of 9/11 in New York City, parents and schools were at a loss about what to tell vulnerable and shocked youngsters. What followed in New York is a metaphor for arts education, as thousands of schoolchildren turned to creating paintings and drawings and poems and stories and letters to somehow give form to their feelings and to share in the sadness that had enveloped their communities. As they engaged in arts responses, they revealed so much more than they could articulate in talk. They were able to imagine hope beyond the destruction. They were able to find catharsis, to seek out ways of demonstrating their compassion and anger. They were able to use art to construct a present reality and to recognize a better future. As parents and teachers and friends, we view their pictures and read their words in the book Messages to Ground Zero, and recognize the depth of their feelings and the connections they have made to the human family. We were better able to cope because of their artistic efforts.

The arts are a way of learning, of exploring, of responding, of revealing and demonstrating, of imagining, depicting, and making meaning. They belong in the school curriculum, as they belong in the minds and hearts of all lifelong learners.

Response From Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Heather Wolpert-Gawron is an award-winning middle school teacher. She has authored workbooks on teaching Internet Literacy, Project Based Writing, and Nonfiction Reading Strategies for the Common Core. She is the author of ˜Tween Crayons and Curfews: Tips for Middle School Teachers and Writing Behind Every Door: Teaching Common Core Writing Across the Content Areas. Heather blogs for The George Lucas Educational Foundation’s Edutopia.org as well as her own www.tweenteacher.com:

This country is going crazy for STEM. STEM, STEM, STEM. But the fact is that if we don’t focus on the arts, on writing, on speaking, we’re neglecting how to communicate that which we find so important. You can’t get funding for your inventions without writing. You can design a building based on green technologies without some level of art. You can’t be selected from an interview of you can’t speak with confidence.

Incorporating the arts into your curriculum is about developing kids that are well rounded, that are exposed to things other than simply the CORE subjects. Think about our innovators, or simply about those people in your life you respect the most. They have elements about them that are diversified.

Additionally, it’s vital that we expose students to things in life that are NOT in their nature, which may NOT be what they believe to be interesting or important. We are meant to expand their knowledge and make their world bigger. So we can’t limit them by focusing solely on one subject group or the other. Our subjects need to be interconnected. Our subjects need to weave more than ever before.

Besides, going to school is like going to the gym. We can’t only work out our biceps while neglecting our glutes. We’d be off-balance, or we wouldn’t function at the level we could have had we focused our attention on all of the important muscles. Art is a muscle. Math is a muscle. Writing is a muscle. So are history, and PE, and Theater. By shutting off one or by cutting funding to an entire outlet, we’ve stunted our students’ growth and learning.

Teaching sequencing from one variable to another? Try having the kids create hand drawn or digital storyboards.

Assigning persuasive writing? Have the kids write a speech to the United Nations asking for them to support a researched solution to an international problem.

Having students observe a cow’s eye? Have them pair their note taking with labeled sketches and drawings.

The opportunities are there to incorporate the arts no matter what subject you teach. It’s critical that we develop those STEM muscles, yes. But it’s more critical that we focus on STEAM.

Responses From Readers

Jonathan Bethards:

Arts are incredibly important for all schools and all types of students to think and act creatively as well as innovative way for student to problem solve.

The beauty of the Arts is that they are incredibly broad and should be kept as so. Art is not simply a 2D drawing course and Pottery. They include music, theatre, sculpture, drawing, creative writing, design, woodshop, and many, many more courses.

The Arts must absolutely be integrated into students’ education in order liberate them from the overtly oppressive nature of a school, despite teachers’ beliefs. The Arts cannot be quantified unfortunately for those desiring data and numbers for every single class; this is not possible, but the Arts are still as important as ever.

Curriculum should not define Art nor assign specific values to other forms of Art. Curriculum should provide many different paths for students to freely follow in order for self-expression and realization.

Billy Bowden:

Without being educated necessarily in other forms of Arts education such as theatre and digital or media arts, I can say that these forms of learning are important to help students express what they are learning in a contemporary and innovative way. If students are asked to record videos, to utilize social media or blogs, this enables them to produce their own sense of voice in the twenty-first century. By adding these strategies or methods into contemporary curricula, we get students engaged and thinking about how they can be effective learners and workers in the future. Starting students off with this sort of curricula at an early age, will ensure that they are crafty and intelligent workers, who can collaborate with peers and colleagues in their future. Thus, Arts education is essential to the modern curricula, if we are to encourage all students, who are interested in all disciplines to adequately support their ideas, to be able to debate, and to produce an effective rhetoric that will prepare them for college work, and ultimately for the workforce. This will eventually contribute to our country’s economy and well being.


Performing and visual arts must be a part of school curriculum. I am passionate about this. Students discover gifts and abilities, they feel a part of the school when involved in the arts, and it motivates them to further their education. Students can learn a life long skill in such classes. These classes blend many subjects - math, history, science, English. A play is set in a time period, lines are memorized and presented, themes analyzed, sets and stage have dimension and balance, programs are formatted. Music and art is historically and mathematically grounded. It makes everything personal and practical. Students produce something they are proud of, often in a group, and on a deeper, personal level. I could go on and on...

Readers sent many comments via Twitter, and I’ve used Storify to collect them:

Thanks to Virginia, Paul and Heather, and to readers, for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo 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.