How Arts Education Can Help Today’s Students Become Critical, Creative Thinkers

Arts leaders gather in Pittsburgh for the Arts Education Partnership National Forum.

Antara Cleetus learned to draw from her dad. But the 11-year-old has also learned a great deal from her art teacher at Boyce Middle School in Upper St. Clair, a suburb of Pittsburgh, who taught her that art is just as crucial a part of her education as science or mathematics.

This was a sentiment shared by national leaders in arts and education who gathered in Pittsburgh last week for the Arts Education Partnership National Forum. The two-day forum brought hundreds of local, state, and national leaders in arts and education to Pittsburgh to hear frontline examples of innovative arts education and to strategize about how to provide these opportunities for more young people across the country.

Cleetus received the group’s 2014 Young Artist Award. But she is just one of many students in the area who are benefiting from the region’s unique partnerships in and outside of school that emphasize not just the arts, but also STEAM learning. The STEAM acronym stands for the marriage of art and design with science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Advocates see this connection as central to preparing our next generation of innovators to lead the 21st-century economy.

“We want to get out of the mindset that the arts are separate from other subjects,” said Jane Chu, president of the National Endowment for the Arts, who spoke at the conference. “They’re an essential component of everyday life and help us become creative, critical thinkers,” and to “think outside of the box,” she said.

Chu was one of a group of leaders who visited Pittsburgh’s influential cultural district. In addition to cultural centers like the city’s Mattress Factory art museum, the city has long been a hotbed for technology start-ups as well as cutting-edge art and design. And today new partnerships are bringing this talent into schools. Educators are using arts and technology to transform teaching and learning environments, so more students can become these creative problem solvers.

Linda Hippert, Executive Director for the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, part of the school government structure in Pennsylvania, spoke at the conference about their work to develop the Center for Creativity. The center provides hands-on grants and 21st century professional development to teachers in 42 districts across the Pittsburgh area. This support has resulted in efforts like the C3 Lab at Blackhawk High School where students use 3D printers to design and print parts for broken equipment or Elizabeth Forward Middle School’s “Dream Factory,” where students are building robots from the ground up. In the region, students are recording their own spoken word poetry in school libraries, and designing 21st-century dioramas in history class.

Hippert told us that her journey integrating STEAM learning began years ago when the author Daniel Pink came to talk at a professional development session about his book, “A Whole New Mind,” which addresses the importance of “right-brain qualities” like empathy, inventiveness, and design.

“The message was loud and clear,” Hippert said. “And that’s when the movement started. Being strong in math and science wasn’t enough. To meet future workforce needs, we had to address the whole-brain needs of our students.”

Integrated arts education was one way to do that.

Also speaking at the conference was Bill Strickland whose urban arts centers and unique model of youth arts education began in Pittsburgh in 1968 and are now being replicated across the country. He told us earlier this year that he thinks involving kids in the arts is a crucial way to get them excited about learning.

“I think that kids are built for creative activity,” he said. “I think it’s how we’re built as humans.”

Sandra Ruppert, director of the Arts Education Partnership, agrees. “When students learn in and through the arts they obviously learn something about that art form, but there are these other things that happen,” she said. “It helps to build your creative thinking, critical thinking, your problem solving skills, your resilience, your self confidence, your ability to communicate, your ability to demonstrate what you know.”

For Antara Cleetus, art is, as she puts it: “another way to learn more.” Her painting of a Hindu Goddess earned her the Young Artist Award. As a sixth grader, she’s the youngest recipient in the award’s history.

In the painting, the goddess is shown with a third eye. “In India,” she explained, “they believe that the third eye lets you see things you can’t normally see.”  Indeed.

Published September 16, 2014