Why We Need Arts Education In the Digital Age

As technology empowers today’s kids to explore, create, and share their interests in new ways both in and out of school, ensuring access to quality arts education for all our students is an imperative.

Back when he was a professor at MIT Media Lab in the late ’90s, John Maeda said he often got flack for telling budding artists and designers they should learn to write their own computer programs. “Why should artists learn to code when there are tools like Photoshop?” they asked.

Writing in the Seattle Times, Maeda, now president of the Rhode Island School of Design, says he doesn’t want the students of the future to have to rely blindly on software created by someone else. He argues we should treat the computer as a new kind of artistic material and learning to code as a key literacy.

I remain convinced that artists and designers will be the innovators of this century, and that the problem-solving, the fearlessness and the critical thinking and making skills that I see every day are what is needed to keep our country competitive.

Maeda was the keynote speaker last week at the Arts Education Partnership National Forum in Washington, where several members of the Hive Learning Networks were in attendance.

We came to the forum to share our experiences of how kids today are learning with art and technology, and how parents, educators, and advocates can to work together to support that learning through mentoring and collaboration.

But we also came to listen. The Arts Education Partnership has been one of the most important national groups speaking up about why arts education is crucial for today’s students, even and especially in light of new technologies.

The twice-yearly forum brings leaders together to talk about arts education and to advance best practices.  In addition to Maeda there were folks talking about how schools across the country are nurturing creativity through new models and public-private partnerships that ensure equity and access for all students.

About forty people attended a session on developing place-based networks to enhance collaboration between artists, educators, and others.The session included a panel discussion with representatives of the Hive Learning Networks in New York City and Pittsburgh. Chris Lawrence, Senior Director of the Mozilla Mentor Community and director of Hive New York, commented on the contributions arts educators have already made to the debate.

“Arts educators have been at the forefront of rethinking qualifications through things like portfolios,” said Lawrence, “And that’s strongly related to the work we and others are doing to develop Open Badges as an alternative way of recognizing achievement.”

We also learned about work going on in Portland, OR, where voters passed a local public fund to make targeted investments in K-12 arts education and community arts organizations. The $35 tax is placing teachers in every local elementary school and funding city arts programs.

We heard about the recent partnership between Performing Arts Workshop and Global Writes, for example, to integrate technology and the performing arts to promote literacy and collaboration.

And we learned that the AEP has just released ArtsEdSearch.org – the nation’s first online clearinghouse of research and policy information focused entirely on the educational outcomes associated with arts learning.

The conference emphasized a point that should be obvious to everyone but sadly isn’t: arts education is essential. Research shows that arts education is good at building the kinds of skills kids are going to need in future workplaces like critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, innovation, communication, and collaboration. It also helps build the skills they’ll need as citizens in our increasingly global world like empathy and cross-cultural understanding.

In Pittsburgh, we’ve just joined New York and Chicago as the third Hive Learning Network. These networks reimagine how learning is organized and supported across youth-serving organizations.  The networks aim to create learning opportunities that connect all the spaces where learning takes place in kids’ lives­—at home, with peers, and at school. We see nurturing creativity and learning in the arts as a key part of this work, supporting our students’ creative selves both in school and out.

Photo/ Steven Depolo

Published April 17, 2013