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May 07, 2019

Why We Need Art

Fostering Community

When I watched her on stage, I didn’t see the tentative student who typically walks through the hallway, smiling but with books clutched tight to chest.  Nor did I see the diligent but sometimes self-doubting student unsure whether to answer in class, her hand hovering midpoint between straight up and straight down.  When I watched her on stage, I saw a young girl transported by the lyrics – eyes closed, head back, radiating joy and confident abandon as she sang her soul.  This is what I saw multiple times over in multiple iterations during Arts Fest, our week-long celebration of visual art, music, drama and dance.  I saw students reveal imagination, skill, interests, passion, determination, social activism, a fierce desire to be seen and heard.  And in seeing these things, my belief in the arts was reaffirmed.  The arts are not an add-on but an essential component of preparing students for life.

A friend shared a social media post this past weekend that detailed the course cancellations at a high school just west of Toronto.  Here’s the note all students received: “Due to the cancellation of courses for next year, please review your Next Year Courses list on your Student Status Sheet.  If you have had a course or courses cancelled, please choose two alternate courses for each cancelled course.”

The cancelled courses included Grade 10, 11, 12 Dramatic Arts, Grade 10, 11, 12 Music, Grade 10 Digital Media, Grade 11 Media Studies, Grade 11 Film, and Grade 12 Writers’ Craft. Cancelled courses also included Grade 9 Exploring Technology, along with English: Contemporary Aboriginal Voices, Philosophy, American History, and Physical and Health Education – all Grade 11 courses.

This week, further cuts are making the news, including the announcement that a Caledon secondary school’s award-winning vocal group, The Magnetics, will be cancelled next year.  In response to the news, one student was quoted as saying: “What is a music program going to look like with no choirs, no vocal groups and no band to go to? It’s going to be devastating to the music kids who just want to write, perform and showcase their creative talents.”

Public schools and school boards don’t have it in for the arts.  Cancellations like this happen because an increase in class size means each school requires fewer teachers. Fewer teachers means fewer courses.  The mandatory courses students need in order to graduate can’t be cancelled, so it follows that electives are the first to go.  These are not easy decisions for schools to make, particularly given how important art is to learning.

According to Ontario-based advocacy group People for Education, research on the importance of arts education demonstrates that the arts support students’ development in areas ranging from improved spatial reasoning (Hetland & Winner, 2001) to a deepened motivation for learning (Deasy, 2002).  We see this at Trafalgar, where the integration of arts into other subjects such as science, math and technology enhances learning and pushes students outside the comfort zone of content knowledge, requiring them to stretch their creative muscle and imagine outside the box of possibilities.  Our hope is that each girl will develop creative confidence.

Creative confidence is a term coined by David Kelly, founder of global design company IDEO and Stanford University’s d.school. It’s loosely defined by IDEO as “having the freedom and courage to fail/take creative risks and the knowledge that all of the ideas you create have value.”  But it’s about more than just creativity.  Creative confidence encompasses problem solving, determination, imagination, risk taking, resilience, insight, reflection – many of the things we know contribute to success in learning, in the workplace and in life.

What I think is important to note about Kelly’s journey to international recognition for his work in design are his roots as an electrical engineer.  He epitomizes why leading schools and universities assert that a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) should be replaced by an emphasis on STEAM (adding in the “A” for art).  Examining Kelly’s career suggests that his training as an engineer might not have led to the high level of success he now experiences were it not for the time he spent doing graduate work in product design at Stanford.  This exploration of the connections between functional use and creativity deepened Kelly’s understanding of design as a cornerstone of innovation and business success.

It’s not only educators who see the importance of design thinking or who acknowledge the role creativity plays in outcomes.  A study by IBM of more than 1,500 CEOs from around the world and across more than 30 industries revealed that top executives believe that, “more than rigor, management discipline, integrity or even vision, successfully navigating an increasing complex world will require creativity.”  It’s this emphasis on creativity as a key component of top performance that makes the current cuts to the arts all the more concerning and arguably short-sighted.

Our commitment to the arts is strong at the Castle.  There’s no single reason for that commitment, but rather 232 reasons, each one with a name, a dream and a future.  Our commitment is strong because we believe that every girl should experience that moment of artistic transcendence.  We want every girl to feel joy in creating something unique, whether through dance, music, drama or song, or through an algebraic solution, a perfect piece of code, or that single sentence that transports the reader to another place.  Such moments are gifts that expand each girls’ horizon, teaching her what it means to see possibility where none existed before.  This is the power of art.  This is why we need art.

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