Learning Through the Arts

Learning through the arts

Several years ago I was working as a language arts teacher at a school in Germany where more than 50% of the students came from immigrant families. Most of them spoke a different language at home than at school.  A lot of my high school seniors were not very good at writing essays. Their writing was rather shallow, and for many of them their understanding of literature was superficial. The same was true for the discussions we had about literature in the classroom. With a few exceptions the subtleties of art as well as the complexity behind the very obvious ideas in the literature seemed hard to grasp.

In one assignment, instead of writing an essay about a short story that we discussed in class, I asked them to transfer the story into a short film. We had previously discussed film adaptation of literature, so the students had a basic understanding of filmmaking. One part of the assignment was to act the story out. The other one was to interpret the short story through the cinematographic choices they made. They needed to find a visualization for what the story was about. This meant that they were interpreting the story through the the angles, perspectives, and shots of the camera. They also had to find a rhythm for the movie through editing. They had to create a setting, light, and costumes, and align it all to convey the story’s message.

I was not surprised that the students had considerable more fun with this project than with writing another essay. Most of them also devoted more of their time to make this project successful. But what really surprised me was the outcome of their films. The final products showed a deep understanding of the story. In their visual interpretation I saw a complexity that I had not seen in written or oral explanations ever before. Not only had they grasped the essence of the story, but they also understood the details, the tone, and the atmosphere that were conveyed. They understood what was written between the lines. They were able to transfer the style of the writing into moving pictures.

This was a very eye-opening experience for me, because it showed that my students had a better understanding of literature than I thought.  Maybe their understanding was more intuitive and they were not consciously aware of it, but the understanding was there. My conclusion was that it was not so much a lack of understanding that was responsible for the low quality of their written essays,  but an inability to express themselves.

Deficiencies in expressing one’s self through language might not be the only explanation for the quality of these results. In making their films, students were looking at that piece of literature through the lense of an artist. Taking the perspective of a cinematographer, director, or actor allows the students to notice things that they might usually overlook. Thinking like an artist made them become more observant and sensitive.

Using the arts for learning is not only relevant for language arts.  Math and science educators have started to recognize the impact of art-based learning strategies. The goal of STEM education (science, technology, engineering, math) is to prepare students for 21st century skills. In the last years the STEM movement has transitioned to  STEAM —  the “A” referring to the arts. Research on creative learning shows that students from arts-rich schools have better academic and social success, and have significantly higher graduation rates.

In Austin, the Creative Learning Initiative is implementing creative learning strategies over the course of 10 years in all AISD schools. Listen to this episode of the Creative Spark podcast to learn more about the Creative Learning Initiative and its goals, strategies, and results.

Is learning through the arts only relevant for students and children? Or can adults learn and develop their skills through the arts as well?

This article is the first of a sequence of articles that discuss art-based learning. The next article in this series will discuss what business can learn from the arts.


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