Monday, January 26, 2009

Dynamic Learning through the Visual Arts

The viability of art education programs are entering a critical phase in many school districts across Indiana and the United States. As state revenues decline and school budgets, presently cut to the bone, shrink even further, many decision makers responsible for shaping curricula may be tempted to marginalize programs vital to creative growth experiences necessary for fully developing the intellectual capacities of our children .

When I think of most of the educational activities in today’s classrooms, I think of student’s intellectual development facilitated primarily by listening, reading and writing linguistic and mathematical forms of symbolic information. Children spend much of their time in school completing paper and pencil selected response work sheets designed to prepare them for high stakes testing events. Learning in most 21st Century classrooms today require children to place a high priority on information processing. Don’t get me wrong, it is the role of our educational institutions to impart knowledge and skills upon our young learners. The problem is this: human beings are hard wired to think and dream with a multitude of sensory information in addition to using their visual imagination. It is hard to promote creative growth and divergent thinking capacity if children are deprived of learning experiences that do not stimulate these areas of the human mind. Creativity will be a critical component to the success of our future citizenry. Higher level thinking skills related to creativity cannot be developed within our children if they are deprived of experiences that promote such forms of learning.

Within our schools, the art room is that unique place where children are allowed to experiment, imagine, create and express personal ideas using a myriad of visual forms, artist materials, techniques and technologies. Much of visual arts education learning requires students to execute the steps to represent and convey ideas in two, three, or four dimensions. This requires individuals to develop the ability to focus their attention on a vast array of quality control details. The assembly of these qualities within an art work requires a synchronization of consciousness with imagination and the sensory, emotive and cognitive realms.

David Ausubel, the influential American cognitive psychologist defined meaningful learning as experiences where learners actively interact and interpret information and are engaged in substantive mental operations with the educational content they are to learn. He could have been describing the artistic process when he made this statement. Art teachers do not boast when claiming visual arts learning experiences can lead to transformational change within their students.

Scientific research by Nobel Laureate, Eric Kandel showed that stimulating sensorial activity boosts long term memory formation in neurological structures by the extra production of the neurotransmitter serotonin. Neural networks are strengthened and expanded when learners are engaged in stimulating, meaningful experience. Scientists and researchers using the latest medical imaging technology report rhizome like bundles of neural pathways interconnected throughout the human brain, illuminate like Christmas tree lights when subjects are engaged in meaningful activity. Likewise, the neural pathways are dimmed when cognitive activity is passive or repetitive.

From an educational perspective, Kandel’s research means regular opportunities for visual arts experiences can lead to increased cognitive capacity and expand learning and memory capability in the human brain. The hands, eyes, ears and body are the agents of cognition. Educational settings and experiences where students are reduced to passive recipients of knowledge produce learning experiences that are inadequate and unsatisfactory to learners. Regular visual arts experiences in our schools matter because without them, educators run the risk of providing a schooling experience that goes into one ear and out the other. Children thrive in school environments when they have access to the fine arts.

A citizenry populated with creative, divergent, imaginative thinkers will be most beneficial to this state’s future prosperity. Ideas and intellectual property dependent upon visual thinkers will become assets in the new economy of the 21st Century. The refinement of the imagination as developed through the visual arts will provide future designers, engineers, scientists, entrepreneurs, innovators, professionals and others with the creative edge they will need to compete in an increasingly competitive and uncertain future. Brainstorming without perceptive, imaginative counterparts becomes an exercise of inconsequential group think.

Center on Education Policy. (2007). Choices, Changes and Challenges: Curriculum and Instruction in the NCLB Era. Retrieved 01/11/09 from:

Driscoll, M.P. (1994) Psychology of Learning for Instruction,
Needham Heights: Allyn & Bacon Publishers

Eisner, E. W. (2002). The Arts and the Creation of Mind. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.

Gajdamaschko, N. (2005) "Vygotsky on Imagination: Why an understanding of the imagination is an important issue for schoolteachers." Teaching Education, 16(1), pp. 13-22.

Gaw, C. (2008) “A Rationale for the prevention of future failures of imagination,” Retrieved 01/14/09 from:

Kandel, E. (2006) In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind. New York, W.W. Norton & Co. Inc.

Greenspan, S., Shanker, H. (2004) The First Idea: How Symbols, Language and Intelligence Evolved from Our First Ancestors. Cambridge, Mass. De Capo Press

Winner, E., Hetland, L. (2007) Art for our sake. NAEA News, 49(6). Reprinted with permission from the Boston Globe.