This spring I have had the pleasure of leading a group of children as they worked together twice weekly over a period of a month on a class mural about intertidal zones in seacoast Maine. As I guided the children last session I was reminded that arts education teaches the 21st century skills that all students need. These skills are known by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills as the 4 C’s: critical thinking, communication, collaboration, creativity.
So how does this project encourage growth in the 4 C’s? Well, the children communicate and use critical thinking non-stop as they mix shades of color, trying to match the colors of real life; they discuss the placement of images as well as the composition of the overall layout of the work. They negotiate the sharing of physical space as they work in groups of ten with just one long sheet of paper. They learn to celebrate each other’s successes and provide constructive criticism.
As they worked on the mural of intertidal zones the students were working on their academics as well as the 4 C’s. They were learning where different sea creatures live and what they eat; and they were learning the vocabulary of marine life in two languages – English and French. They will be incorporating writing soon, as they create a bilingual key to accompany the mural.
In this world that seems to incline more and more toward standardization we should remember the benefits of project-based learning and artistic expression and we should remember that school subjects are best learned intertwined. The old labels of ‘core subjects’ and ‘specials’ are outdated. A complete education demands the benefits of all disciplines, academic and otherwise.
And when we work with children – and this is key to facilitating successful learning – a sense of joy should permeate the process – the kind of joy that usually accompanies artistic enterprise. All too often today the schoolroom feels like a workhouse, as attention focuses heavily on scores and data and school report cards.
Children want to learn. They are learning machines! Think of the enormous tasks they accomplish during their first years of life – how to walk, how to understand what others mean when they make sounds, and finally how to talk themselves. Why do they do it? The desire to learn is inborn in us. We need to be sure our schools keep that desire to learn alive.