Developing the Whole Child: The Vital Role of Art and Music Education

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Martha Nussbaum
Madhavi Sunder and Martha Nussbaum this summer at a local Shakespeare performance. Professor Nussbaum attended the Davis Shakespeare Ensemble’s Summer Festival performance

By Madhavi Sunder

In our current technological age, it is easy to neglect the arts as an important part of children’s education. By arts, I mean a wide range of creative endeavors, including painting, drawing, sculpture, dance, drama, literature, and music. With the economic downturn and the state’s attention focused on preparing students for standardized tests, arts education, especially in the elementary schools, has suffered.

Davis offers an exemplary music program taught by a district teacher beginning in fourth grade. Literature continues to be an important part of the school curriculum. However, other arts in the primary grades face many challenges. These exist largely where either the teacher himself or herself takes the initiative and finds the resources, or where parent and community groups can find external resources. Even at the high school, where we have award-winning music programs, we need to ensure that there are opportunities for students to begin learning music. (After all, it is never too late to try your hand at the arts.)

In this column, I want to focus on the value of arts education, and leave the crucial topic of resources for a later discussion. I recognize fully that art and music require significant financial resources, and that the district faces the difficult task of allocating ever scarcer resources among a wide set of basic needs.

In this column I turn to the work of my friend Martha Nussbaum, a leading champion of arts education. Professor Nussbaum is the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago. (I was lucky enough to be her colleague for a year when I was a visiting professor at the University of Chicago Law School.) Professor Nussbaum visited me here in Davis this summer and I had the opportunity to take her to the Davis Shakespeare Ensemble’s Summer Festival performance of Much Ado About Nothing. We discussed the vital role of the arts in children’s lives.

In her 2010 book, Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, Professor Nussbaum argues that arts education, under threat all over the world, must be embraced because it supplies the skills needed to nurture true democratic citizens. Nussbaum cautions that our national and global focus on economic competition and growth must not come at the expense of opportunities for our children to have critical and hands-on engagement with art, music, and literature, all of which help foster our basic humanity — creativity, critical thinking, and empathy for others. Cultivating these values, she argues are the deeper purposes of education. Education is not just a tool for promoting the Gross National Product. Education must nurture the whole child, and arts are vital in this endeavor.

I have been speaking to other leaders in our schools about the arts, as well. I outline here some of the benefits of supporting arts education in our public schools, including opportunities for our youngest children.

  1. Hands-on learning. Project-based learning, an increasingly popular approach to education, recognizes the role of the arts. Project-based-learning involving arts, for example, might include learning about the civil rights movement through histories and biographies, but also through drama or dance. A child might learn about history, civics and journalism through a student newspaper set in a historical period or inspired by a fictional book. The goal is to provide students with “personally meaningful and expressive outlet(s) while building on standards-based instruction,” says Dr. Laurie Gatlin is an assistant professor in the School of Art at California State University. I like to think of this as part of “passion-based learning.” As Davis High School Principal Will Brown told me this week, we need arts, including technical arts, in schools because these are among the opportunities that “engage kids and bring them back to school, and get them caring.” Students engage with the material more when they are excited not just by what they are learning but how they are learning.
  1. Fostering critical thinking and creativity. Cultural texts can serve as vehicles for questioning or critiquing something in the real world. Through a real-world Harry Potter Alliance, for example, children uphold the Potter books’ values of being kind, having the courage to question authority, and fighting for justice by organizing around real world issues, from protesting human rights atrocities in Darfur to questioning book banning at home.
  1. Empathy. “Arts education is not just tremendous fun and a great incentive to learning in general, it’s also a very important part of democracy’s future,” Martha Nussbaum says. “Through the arts young people learn to imagine the world through the eyes of people different from themselves, an ability that’s crucial for good citizenship.” Studies show that participating in dramatic arts and role-playing helps children to negotiate conflict and develop language and collaborative skills. Perhaps most importantly in our diverse and increasingly inter-connected world, physically and emotionally inhabiting the role of another helps children learn empathy, as they contemplate what it may be like to walk in another’s shoes.
  1. Nurturing the whole child. Our curriculum should be well rounded to ensure that children’s diverse talents may be identified and nurtured. One size does not fit all, especially in children’s education. Emphasis on math and science to the exclusion of other subjects may miss the opportunity to nurture other important talents, from sports to the arts. Arts education, like sports education, can promote confidence and collaboration. This activity can also help promote good mental health in our schools. Art and music help children relieve stress, maintain balance, nurture talents and friendships, and stay engaged in school.
  1. The joy in education. Of course, the arts are not just a means to an end. The arts are an end in themselves. Dance, theater, and music keep joy in our lives and in our schools.

Arts education makes school joyful and meaningful and helps nurture the whole child. If I am fortunate to be elected to the Davis School Board this November, I will seek to develop partnerships with arts organizations, theatre companies, and foundations to enhance arts education here in Davis. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation helped establish the Da Vinci Charter Academy. I will reach out to non-profits, the private sector and universities to help to bring arts opportunities to all our district’s children.

Madhavi Sunder has been a professor of law at UC Davis since 1999 and is a candidate for the Davis School Board in November 2014. To learn more about her campaign please visit www.sunderforschools.org or follow (and perhaps “like”) her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sunderforschoolboard.

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18 thoughts on “Developing the Whole Child: The Vital Role of Art and Music Education”

  1. South of Davis

    Madhavi wrote:

    > With the economic downturn and the state’s attention focused on
    > preparing students for standardized tests, arts education, especially
    > in the elementary schools, has suffered.

    Will the Davis public schools allow parents to volunteer to teach art and music in the schools?

    Years ago when my sister’s kids were younger the art teacher at their (public) school was laid off and my sister (who went to undergrad at UCD and grad school at Cal) said she would teach the class for free (the last class the “art teacher” taught she was helping out in the class and said she was sure she had the ability to “teach” 5 year olds to glue colored pasta to a paper plate like the “art teacher” and even think of more interesting things. She was first rejected because she did not have an “art degree” then after she pushed harder to get the OK to teach the class (for free) I forget exactly why she could not do it, but it had something to do with not having a “teaching credential” or the school not allowing anyone to work for free.

    Davis has a MUCH higher percentage of talented artists and musicians than an average town and I know that many would love to share their love of art and music with Davis kids for free if we gave them the ability to do so…

    1. wdf1

      SoD: Will the Davis public schools allow parents to volunteer to teach art and music in the schools?

      You can actually do that right now, and many classrooms do have volunteer arts instructors. But as a non-credentialed, non-employee volunteer, there must be a credentialed teacher in the classroom present at all times. In part it is because the teacher is held responsible

      But my beef with this line of thinking is *why* do we discuss arts instruction as worth being delivered by volunteers instead of paid professionals? This kind of discussion is a subtle way that we devalue arts instruction in the schools. For instance, we don’t discuss whether math, science, or English language arts should be taught by volunteers in the schools.

      1. Biddlin

        +1-“But my beef with this line of thinking is *why* do we discuss arts instruction as worth being delivered by volunteers instead of paid professionals? This kind of discussion is a subtle way that we devalue arts instruction in the schools. For instance, we don’t discuss whether math, science, or English language arts should be taught by volunteers in the schools.”
        The same way we have devalued them in the broader US culture, no?
        ;>)/

      2. South of Davis

        wdf1 wrote:

        > But my beef with this line of thinking is *why* do we discuss arts instruction
        > as worth being delivered by volunteers instead of paid professionals?

        I don’t have any problem with paying for art and music instruction and I not only pay out of pocket every month for my kids, but my wife who wants to get better to help the kids learn.

        A neighbor kid asked me if I could help him replace the bad (threaded) bottom bracket on his bike last week and I told him to try to see if the volunteers at the Davis Bike Collective had a tool he could borrow (since I didn’t have a tool that would fit his bottom bracket).

        Telling a school district without a lot of extra cash to look for a volunteer to help for free is like telling a kid without a lot of extra cash to look for a volunteer to help for free. It is a good idea and does not mean that it is not “worth” paying a teacher or bike mechanic…

        P.S. If I could not read, write or play the flute and I only had the money to hire two teachers for my kids I would pay to teach them to read and write and hope I could find a volunteer to teach the kids to play the flute…

  2. wdf1

    I appreciate some of the thoughts and the effort to reference aspects of the district programs in the arts, but I find this essay a bit light on answers and pro-active policy.

    Arts (visual and performing) are laid out in some detail in both state standards and also in district standards (I’m not aware of posted standards for the district, but I’m aware that they exist). They are “required” but there are no consequences to anyone if the students don’t meet those standards. Arts instruction is delivered either by elective in the secondary grades, or somewhat by luck of the draw in elementary grades (the individual teacher can decide how much arts curricula to include), or perhaps by school site, if the PTO manages to fund arts instruction for that year. The elementary music program is also a pullout elective program. The only way to guarantee some level of universal access to the arts is to assign it dedicated instruction time at some grade level(s), in other words, make it truly required at some point. Otherwise you end up with under-represented participation in the arts among ELL, special ed, and low SES students. Also among students who later on spend lots of time in the school discipline system. This is a situation that exists right now in the Davis schools.

    The elementary grades are the ideal place to introduce compulsory arts instruction. From early experiences, students then have a chance to explore and develop such talents and interests in the secondary grades, and then the student, community, and district receives the full benefit of developed arts talent and experience in the later grades. Right now it is possible to go through grades K through 12 and not learn the words to the national anthem, or other patriotic songs, or common folk songs or well-known Broadway songs. When I attend public (mostly sporting) events where the national anthem is performed, I like to look around and see how many in the surrounding audience sing along — very few I find. When I see graffiti around town, I can’t help but wonder if this is a kid with under-developed artistic interest who missed chances for arts instruction in the schools.

    The bigger question: is Davis serious enough about arts education to make it a required instructional component at some grade level(s)? Can or will we hire the teachers to make it happen? Davis used to have such programs in the schools up through the 1970’s, but got rid of them in budget cuts at the time.

    I grew up in a school district in another state and another decade in which every elementary school grade (K-6) had 30 minutes of music instruction per week by a dedicated general music teacher. A visual art teacher would visit our classroom regularly for art projects. And it was great! I didn’t become a professional artist, nevertheless those are some of my fondest memories of elementary school. Why can’t Davis schools have that?

    1. Davis Progressive

      “The bigger question: is Davis serious enough about arts education to make it a required instructional component at some grade level(s)? Can or will we hire the teachers to make it happen? Davis used to have such programs in the schools up through the 1970′s, but got rid of them in budget cuts at the time.”

      that’s the problem that we face – we view these programs as expendable during budget cuts.

      1. wdf1

        What is extraordinarily fortunate is that we kept those “traditionally expendable” programs intact in Davis during the recent Great Recession. That represents a tipping point in community value in arts programs. In past recessions (which haven’t been as bad), we would have cut back such programs.

        In spite of lip services that suggests otherwise, Federal and State funding guidelines these days determine that school districts should cut arts if funds are limited. You can’t see the full benefits of arts instruction if a district is cutting it back every 8-10 years and then trying to rebuild it in the intervening years. It needs to be a program that can be sustained over decades.

          1. wdf1

            Frankly: The funding for arts has gone to hire more education system employees and to pay them all more.

            …and to testing companies for all those standardized tests. Those tests aren’t free.

            There are also more teaching staff for individualized instruction these days — ELL, special ed. Schools also have a greater responsibility these days for keeping kids through grade 12 and graduation; in past decades it was not as big a deal for adolescents to dropout.

            I’m not against paying teachers more. Even now I think their salaries are disappointing. As passionate as you are about education, would you take a teaching job in Davis to support the personal lifestyle that you expect?

            No? Too bad. I think you would probably have made a great teacher.

          2. Frankly

            I would not be a teacher not because of the pay but because I would work for a collective of mediocrity with a severe political bias.

            Private sector teaching, if it there had been more opportunity back when I was developing my career, might have been attractive.

            I feel in love with computers after I fell out of love with architecture.

            But I do teach. I have taught all my life when I am not learning myself. But I am and always will be, first and foremost, a student.

  3. Davis Progressive

    i see this as a policy statement: “In her 2010 book, Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, Professor Nussbaum argues that arts education, under threat all over the world, must be embraced because it supplies the skills needed to nurture true democratic citizens. Nussbaum cautions that our national and global focus on economic competition and growth must not come at the expense of opportunities for our children to have critical and hands-on engagement with art, music, and literature, all of which help foster our basic humanity — creativity, critical thinking, and empathy for others. Cultivating these values, she argues are the deeper purposes of education. Education is not just a tool for promoting the Gross National Product. Education must nurture the whole child, and arts are vital in this endeavor.”

    i think prioritizing the arts are critical for students who are not necessarily going to fulfill the cookie-cutter image of davis students.

  4. Frankly

    I agree with much of this, but I don’t like the narrow focus and also don’t like the detailed focus lacking a general strategy or purpose (call it a target).

    I separate childhood development into four quadrants: behavior, morality, right-brain, left-brain. Some would add a fifth, spirituality, but that would create a firestorm.

    These are all contributing factors to a final target. And it is that final target that is missing from the conversation about education.

    The education system is guilty of non-committal to meaningful targets, and hence politicians have tried to force targets with NCLB and now Common Core.

    But all are missing the mark. In my opinion that target should be success at preparing the student for his next phase in life… whatever that phase may be.

    And to be successful at this, the education system needs to be good at assessing what each and every student needs. And each and every student needs a custom learning path and curriculum.

    And we can drop many subjects that are not materially contributory to reaching the target because of the explosion in technology that provides access to all the information in the world 24×7, 365 days per year.

    The education system also needs to measure and adjust for success for hitting those targets… and this means assessing the outcomes of students after they move to the next phase.

    In this context we don’t have to have so many this-or-that arguments. The arts are essential for those students that are best served by them in pursuit of their targets. But for some, they are not necessary and would only be a distraction and waste of time.

    We keep forcing our kids into a smaller and smaller box of template student, and then why are we surprised that drop out rates are still high and climbing and education outcomes are still crappy?

    The problem I have with articles like I read above is that they appear to mask a primary goal of getting more money to pay more employees of the system. The world has changed and is changing at rocket speed, but we tend to hear the establishment only complain that we can’t go back in time. That will not get it done.

  5. wdf1

    Sunder: Even at the high school, where we have award-winning music programs, we need to ensure that there are opportunities for students to begin learning music. (After all, it is never too late to try your hand at the arts.)

    True, but having a widely accessible, more robust arts/music program in the elementary grades lessens the need for beginners level music in high school. This kind of discussion represents, in part, a symptom of letting kids slip through those opportunities in younger grades.

  6. Biddlin

    ” The arts are essential for those students that are best served by them in pursuit of their targets. But for some, they are not necessary and would only be a distraction and waste of time. ”
    Could not the same be said of Trigonometry or Chemistry, if your targets are so narrowly defined?
    By the way, the, once highly valued, education and skills I acquired for both printing press operation and photographic reproduction were rendered economically useless by the time I was entering the real workforce. My skill and knowledge as a musician have been much more enduring in value.
    ;>)/

    1. Frankly

      Could not the same be said of Trigonometry or Chemistry,

      Depends on the optimum education path of the student.

      My skills and knowledge as a musician were all self taught and it suited me well.

      There are different paths. There should be a unique path for each student.

  7. Chicolini

    Much Ado About Something:

    Madhavi Sunder recognizes the myriad of issues that currently surround programs in K-12 that need to be addressed in the DJUSD’s Master Plan. The Davis community has traditionally supported programs that foster such goals with monied measures , fund raisers , and volunteerism. All of these types and means of support have helped maintain and develop such educational goals and the programs that deliver those important activities, lessons, materials, and instruction to its students.

    Ms. Sunder’s resolute desire and commitment to ensure that such support and attention within Davis schools is ongoing for all students is not only refreshing in the current blitz of other worthy considerations like Common Core and STEM programs, but it offers a needed balance to the type of opportunities and learning styles that find their effective and fruitful awakening in the attainment of the goals and proficicies recognized as essential to broad based learning.

    All monies, programs,and activities that the general public support need a scrutiny and a focus that Madhavi Sunder will bring to the DJUSD School Board. Her credentials and her passion are solid indicators of that.

  8. wdf1

    Chinese seek freedom, edge at US high schools

    Though international surveys have shown that Chinese students perform well ahead of their American peers in subjects such as math and reading, top-level U.S. schools remain highly regarded among educated Chinese for developing critical thinking and communication skills.

    “China boasts solid elementary and secondary education, especially in math, but it lacks innovation,” said Wang Huiyao, president of Beijing-based Center for China and Globalization. “Chinese students may be able to memorize formulas but they lack ‘soft skills’ such as people skills and the ability to communicate with global language and culture.”

  9. wdf1

    Musical training ‘can improve language and reading’

    Learning to sing or play a musical instrument can help disadvantaged children improve their reading skills, US research suggests.

    After a year of music lessons, the reading scores of nine and 10-year-olds held steady compared to a dip seen in those who were not taught any music.

    Another group of musically-trained children were found to be better at processing sounds and language.

    The research is being presented to the American Psychological Association.

    The research was led by Dr Nina Kraus at Northwestern University and involved hundreds of children at high schools in impoverished areas of Chicago and Los Angeles.

    Her research had previously highlighted that learning music could improve the concentration, memory and focus of children in the classroom by improving their neural functions.

    But much of the research had focused on the impact of music lessons on relatively affluent children.

    In this study, Dr Kraus found that giving children regular group music lessons for five or more hours a week prevented any decline in reading skills, which would normally be expected in poorer areas.

    Another group of teenage schoolchildren, from a poor area of Chicago, took part in band practice or choir practice every day at school as part of a music project.

    Researchers recorded their brainwaves to assess how they responded to speech sounds.

    After two years of musical training, the results showed the musical group was faster and more accurate at distinguishing one sound from another, particularly when there was background noise, compared to a group that did not participate in any musical activity.

    Dr Kraus said this showed music could have a positive impact on the brain, which could also help learning, but it was not a quick fix.

    “Research has shown that there are differences in the brains of children raised in impoverished environments that affect their ability to learn,” he explained.

    “While more affluent students do better in school than children from lower income backgrounds, we are finding that musical training can alter the nervous system to create a better learner and help offset this academic gap.”

    All the children had similar IQs and reading ability at the start of the study.

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