Art is an essential aspect of the human experience. To varying degrees and in different contexts, we are each compelled by beauty. Most of us recognize there is some value in art, but we live in a culture that prioritizes STEM skills and education. It’s no wonder, for discoveries in the biological and physical worlds and advances in technology have had and will continue to have monumental, measurable impact on human life. The U.S. job market rewards this impact with high salaries in STEM-related careers and a projected growth in the number of jobs for STEM occupations as compared to non-STEM positions. It seems, then, reasonable to prioritize science, technology, engineering, and math education in our schools. To succeed in what the National Science Foundation deems an “information-based and highly technological society,” students “need to develop their capabilities in STEM to levels much beyond what was considered acceptable in the past.”
Given this reality, is there any rationale for art education in schools today? Should we not devote time once earmarked for art education to STEM activities now?
Why Study Art?
In past decades, schools have prioritized STEM, but recently, educators and policy makers have begun to embrace art education, again. Increasingly, STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) is now STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, math)––a correction (or enrichment) to the popular STEM framework. There are some, at least, who recognize the value of an arts education. The Brookings Institution, for example, cites empirical research to make the claim that art challenges us with different points of view, compels us to empathy, and welcomes us to reflect on the human condition. Participation in the arts has been correlated with individual psychological health (well-being), increased social engagement (empathy), and a civil society, in general. Even more, art is a means by which we experience the transcendent. Art is not just “the thing itself,” C.S. Lewis famously writes. It is the “scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never visited.” In art are whispers of the eternal––of the truth that underlies why we exist and where we are going. Yes, there are empirical reasons for art education, but there is a transcendent rationale, as well.
Art at RCLS
The “arts” of STEAM include literature, theater, music, and visual arts. We talk quite a bit at RCLS about the language arts curriculum, music, and even our theater program. In this blog or on other platforms we have not talked much about RCLS’s visual art program, but walk through any hallway at the school and you’ll see a range of visual outputs of young imaginations. Self-portraits, still lifes, and more decorate the school walls. These are the creative outcomes of a standards-based curriculum that is taught with various methods, each appropriate to a child’s age and stage of learning.
Early and Intermediate Art
Elements of art in grades Preschool-Grade 5 are taught in the classroom and often in context of knowledge-based learning. A Kindergarten lesson incorporates an art project to reinforce learning of the shapes, for example. Likewise, a 3rd-grade social studies unit includes a paper mâche´ project, while a 5th-grade literature unit offers the opportunity to produce a work of art that prioritizes perspective. In these early years of school, art accompanies and enriches knowledge acquisition, and knowledge, in turn, informs the art.
Art history and appreciation in grades K-8 are taught in the classroom in tandem with art projects, but also through Art Adventure, a program from Minneapolis Institute of Arts that Mrs. Elizabeth Curry implements at RCLS. Through Art Adventure, students are exposed to iconic, historical works of art as the children learn to notice details, describe what they see, understand how parts of a piece form the whole work (or idea that informs the work), and support their interpretations and opinions of the pieces they study. This is a rich program that offers RCLS students the opportunity to engage directly with the great works at the same time that it fosters appreciation and knowledge of the elements of art across time, culture, and movements.
Middle School Art
In middle school, in addition to their participation in Art Adventure, students study art in the classroom as a discipline. As students enter the stage of learning that demands more analysis and critical thinking, art becomes not just a means of expression or a strategy for engaging students in core learning, but also a means of interpretation and understanding. Middle school art teacher Miss Kim Schauer says art is a primary discipline at this stage of learning because it facilitates a connection to the Creator. We, made in the image of God, experience the “wonder and beauty” of creation when we, ourselves, create, so Miss Schauer guides students as they invent. Through art, students can touch the transcendent and engage with the eternal––a primary (read: essential) experience, indeed.
Miss Schauer structures her art classes by units, each focusing on a particular style or medium of expression, and each accompanied by art history lessons that serve to provide some cultural and historical context for the unit. In art class, Miss Schauer offers experiences with observational drawing, color, 3-D design, and abstract art, and often, she says, “projects fit more than one of those categories.” A recent 8th-grade art project––a collage in the surreal style––does just that. The juxtaposition of everyday but seemingly disparate objects in a single work certainly catches the eye. Surrealism, according to one commentator, “represents a crucible of avant-garde ideas and techniques that contemporary artists are still using today,” making it an important unit of study for the developing critical thinker.
To open the unit on surrealist art with her 8th-grade classes, students learned about the ideas that underlie surrealism, and they considered works by Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte. “We talked about what influenced the surrealists,” Miss Schauer explains, “and how they saw the world. We discussed the dream-like quality of many of their works.” If you’ve looked at any surrealist art lately, you know that “dream-like” is somewhat jarring when it comes to this style. The art leaves what Miss Schauer describes as an “unsettled feeling” that her students were encouraged to mimic in their own collage creations.
And, why collage? By creating a collage rather than a painting for this particular project, “students could focus on the content, composition, and ideas of their piece” rather than getting tied up in the technical aspects of producing a painting. Students were encouraged to think about shape, line, and color with the medium as they “unsettled” the imagination for their pieces.
So it is that RCLS middle schoolers engage with beauty. (Is surrealist art beautiful? Discuss amongst yourselves!) Still, the market demands STEM skills, and the reality of the 21st century is that more art is created through digital methods than is created by traditional means. So, RCLS middle-school teachers integrate disciplines, or, in this case, employ new tools, and students develop the skillset they need to succeed in a market that demands more than traditional art skills can offer.
Art and Technology
Middle-school math and technology teacher, Mr. Nelson, is quick to point out that he does not teach “technology for technology’s sake.” Instead, he uses technology as a tool––and teaches students to use that tool––as a means for creation. Technology is such a pervasive part of our society, he explains. In daily life and in the workplace, STEM skills are important for a variety of workers, not just for those working in science or technology sectors. In this, technology does not have to be viewed as a “necessary evil,” Mr. Nelson contends, but as a tool––one that can extend the possibilities of human production.
This recent surrealist unit offers an example of how this might be. As students were creating collages in art class with Miss Schauer, they were also creating surrealist-inspired digital projects in technology class with Mr. Nelson. Building on the skills and knowledge that students had acquired in art, Mr. Nelson offered students methods for creating digital surrealist art. Then, much like 21st-century designers might do in the workplace, students worked collaboratively to apply theoretical knowledge and technical skills to produce a digital work of art, surrealism that we imagine might have startled even the iconic Mr. Dali.
Taken Together: Art and Technology Matter
As students get older, Miss Schauer explains, it is important that they develop a sense for how disciplines and ideas fit together. Middle-school students’ “brains are ready to make connections––to see how they can use technology to make art, to apply their writing skills for a project for science, [or] to use their drawing skills in showing what they know in history class.” Even though the middle school day is compartmentalized into disciplines, the opportunity to integrate ideas and projects across classes “reminds [students] that learning is learning,” she continues, and what students learn, they can apply in various settings.
Here at RCLS, we teach with the understanding that many of those settings are yet to come. Science, technology, engineering, art, math––and the integration of one with the others: this is the foundation that prepares students for those settings.
And our students?
Well, as the saying goes, they are the future. We trust that future will be characterized by beauty. We’ll certainly work hard to give our students the tools to make it so.
Art always has been and always will be valued at RCLS. Through the art curriculum, Art Adventure, enrichment units, and even after-school drawing classes, RCLS is committed to providing Preschool-Grade 8 students with opportunities for developing appreciation for the visual arts, just one aspect of our whole-child approach to learning. We’re also committed to offering tools––in the CreatorSpace and through a sophisticated technology program––to create with both traditional and new technological means.
Hoping to build a STEAM foundation for your child? Visit us on campus and see the creative possibilities for yourself. We'd love to welcome you!