Curriculum Opinion

The Power of “What If” Learning

By Learning First Alliance — May 31, 2012 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

By Gail Connelly, Executive Director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP)

What if students could build sculptures for an art-math expo? Or act out skits with a backdrop of life-size, student-created paintings based on stories they read? Or use LEGOS to program robots — and then film a movie about them?

These ideas are just a few of the winning proposals submitted this year from schools across the country for the Champion Creatively Alive Children grant program. This joint Crayola-NAESP initiative challenges principals to imagine innovative projects that bring the arts to life in their schools. Embedding the arts in everyday learning is essential for equipping students with 21st century skills — but it takes visionary, creative school leadership to take ideas from “what-ifs” to reality.

Arts education is a crucial foundation for preparing students to take part in a rapidly changing world. Arts-infused education spurs students to innovate, analyze, and apply what they are learning. For example, one way to learn geometry is with pencil, graph paper, compass, and protractor. But consider how learning changes when students use the fundamental theories of geometry to work in groups to craft a three-dimensional sculpture of the Great Pyramid of Giza. The result is complex problem-solving, a fundamental skill for career-readiness. In working with the arts, students develop the social competencies — teamwork, self-confidence, tolerance — they need for personal growth and to participate in their communities.

Study after study has tied arts education to better student achievement, higher student motivation, and increased student engagement — all linked to reduction in the drop-out rate. The comprehensive report “Arts Education in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools,” released last month by the National Center for Education Statistics, indicates that most schools across the nation (80 to 90 percent) offer music and visual art programs. But there’s still an access gap — having a dedicated art teacher, for instance, or delivering instruction throughout the year — between high-poverty and low-poverty schools. Plus, theater and dance programs (especially at the elementary level) are in danger of becoming extinct.

The key, in these times of lean budgets and high-stakes testing, is for school leaders, educators, community agencies, and parents to implement a little creativity in how we work together to protect and fortify arts education. The best way to use the arts as a tool for 21st century learning is to make sure it doesn’t stop at the music room’s threshold; it should instead be embedded into the curriculum. Educators can work together to design robust, project-based activities that cross academic disciplines. Project-based, arts-infused education involves teamwork among staff members and rethinking how students are assessed (across subjects, instead of through individual standardized tests). Principals can help foster connections between staff members, carve out time for comprehensive planning with core teams, and facilitate communication with parents about what project-based learning entails. Principals can also connect with community organizations, nonprofits, or local artists to enrich existing school curricula with performances or workshops, thus transforming the arts into a vehicle for community engagement.

Weaving music or art instruction throughout lessons is vital — but for a school to become fully arts-immersed, it must embrace a larger school and staff culture of creativity, too. School leaders set the tone for learning — it’s up to them to cultivate an atmosphere of discovery where new ideas are encouraged. It’s also the principal’s role to organize open brainstorming sessions and professional development sessions that challenge staff to think differently.

Approaching teaching and learning in creative ways can be challenging for students, parents, teachers, and principals alike. But working together across disciplines, educators can create an arts-infused setting for learning, fertile for problem-solving and teamwork. Setting an example of innovation starts with us; inspired school leadership can transform “what if” to action.

Views expressed in this post are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.

The opinions expressed in Transforming Learning 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.

Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Curriculum Webinar
How Data and Digital Curriculum Can Drive Personalized Instruction
As we return from an abnormal year, it’s an educator’s top priority to make sure the lessons learned under adversity positively impact students during the new school year. Digital curriculum has emerged from the pandemic
Content provided by Kiddom
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Curriculum What's the Best Way to Address Unfinished Learning? It's Not Remediation, Study Says
A new study suggests acceleration may be a promising strategy for addressing unfinished learning in math after a pandemic year.
5 min read
Female high school student running on the stairs leads to an opportunity to success
CreativaImages/iStock/Getty Images Plus
Curriculum School Halts Use of Fictional Book in Which Officer Kills a Black Child
Fifth graders in at least one Broward County school were assigned to read a book that critics say casts police officers as racist liars.
Rafael Olmeda, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
5 min read
Broward County School Board member Lori Alhadeff listens during a meeting of the Broward County School Board, Tuesday, March 5, 2019, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Broward County School Board member Lori Alhadeff listens during a meeting of the Broward County School Board in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Alhadeff told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel that she does not feel like the book "Ghost Boys" is appropriate for 5th graders.
Lynne Sladky/AP
Curriculum Opinion Introducing Primary Sources to Students
Five educators share strategies for introducing primary sources to students, including English-language learners.
12 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
Curriculum Opinion Eight Ways to Teach With Primary Sources
Four educators share ways they use primary sources with students, including a strategy called "Zoom."
13 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."