Is Arts Education perpetuating bias and stifling creativity?

Reflections on how arts education today in public schools dangerously perpetuates biased expectations and limits actual independent/creative thinking?  Let’s talk.

A few years ago, I observed an experienced teaching artist working with second-grade students on physicalizing a story. The children were mesmerized by her animated gestures and excited by the moments she allowed them to join in. At one point she asked, “What does a tree look like?” and stretched her arms out to the side at shoulder level. Most of the children mirrored her gesture exactly. I had seen this moment many times, but this time it made me wonder: If the artist models for the students as they ask a question, what space is given for students to come up with their own version of a tree? We are constantly modeling and spelling out learning goals upfront. Is this training students not to think on their own? Isn’t having space to ponder necessary for children to strengthen their ability to make their own connections and foster their innate creative ability? I began to see something I had been trying to articulate for years. Is the way we teach the arts in school stifling creativity?

The artist I observed was a white woman and the students were all of color, a common scenario since the New York City public school system is primarily populated (85%) by students of color. There are many documented ways in which bias and racism play out in schools: disproportionate behavior management for Black and Latino boys; empowered White parents advocating for their children’s placement in gifted programs; and lower expectations for Black, Latinx, poor, English language learner and new immigrant students. By giving students the answer to what a tree looks like, are we too assuming they don’t have the capacity to make the connection on their own? What assumptions have the arts education field blindly adopted that align with institutional biases negatively affecting student success? What other ways is this being manifested that I too am blinded from seeing?

Arts Educators speak about the intrinsic value of the arts, the transferable skills that students learn, and the arts as a means to explore social justice topics. However, even with a commitment to nurturing the creative voices of young people, teacher-centered and outcome-driven structures often mirror the curricular frameworks used in other disciplines. We specify goals and learner outcomes and explicitly state what activities lead to those outcomes. Although we talk about young people learning to think independently, creatively, collaboratively, and critically, focusing on outcomes can unintentionally leave little space for wrestling with ambiguity, learning from mistakes, and taking risks with something unplanned, as is integral to the artistic process.

The concepts I believe are more in line with the artistic process are culturally sustaining teaching, critical literacy, and restorative justice. What draws me to them is the notion of starting by listening to students. As arts educators, if we started with listening, what would be shifted in our planning?  What power would we have to relinquish in order to give students more autonomy?  What assumptions and biases would we have to face?  These are the questions I would like to explore more in the coming months.

If these are questions you have as well?  I would be open to creating a learning community together.  Let me know your thoughts.

3 thoughts on “Is Arts Education perpetuating bias and stifling creativity?

  1. Ah Rachel! This is the very question. And it’s a hard one. As a teaching artist with only a few years under her belt – I’ve struggled with this one. Because too often the expectation is that we’ll show up and ‘Teach’ with a capital T. As in reinforce teacher centric dictatorial methods or spoonfeed creativity to our intended audience and this tends to be expected of us from participating classroom teachers and the students themselves as this is all they (seem to) know. As someone who’s also been educated in the West Indies I have seen how my teaching style has had to morph since this how I’ve been taught as well! How do we set community and trust building as an integral part of dance experiences in these settings to allow for creativity and risk taking. How do we not use arts education as free babysitting or entertainment and figure out ways to recruit student engagement in a process where they are free to explore, produce and if so moved use dance as a way to find self fulfilment. I’m still trying to figure if out!!

  2. After years of parenting without imposed structure I’ve definitely seen the benefits of just providing space, attention and materials and letting it flow. The limits you describe are real once we ‘model’ and impose expectations. Having young people (or older adults) observe artists at work, have access to materials and operate without goals is definitely a wonderful way to go. But can the system or the adults (parents and teachers) live with this?

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