Aligning the Arts With Common Core Standards

An excellent instructional avenue for stimulating student thinking about content
By Bruce D. Taylor/School Administrator, December 2015

For arts education, this is the best of times and the worst of times. We could very well be at a tipping point.

Bruce Taylor says students can develop high-level thinking skills through artistic study and practice. (Photo by Amah Dokyi)
It’s the worst of times because in this era of accountability for higher student test performance, coupled with new paradigms for teaching and learning connected to the Common Core standards, policymakers may perceive the arts as even more irrelevant than they already are considered.

Paradoxically, the best of times may be just around the corner. The pervasive nature of technology and its ability to disseminate the arts makes our society increasingly arts-infused. Indeed, the Internet itself is a visual and aural artistic medium.

But the importance of the arts goes far beyond creating works of art. Arts education can be illustrative of how educators might reconcile seemingly contradictory trends. Dealing with the dichotomy of processing an accelerated amount of information with instantaneous access to it will have a profound influence on what students should be taught. To succeed in an increasingly complex social and economic environment, they must be able to adapt to the unfamiliar and the unforeseen.

A Rising Commodity

One of the philosophical underpinnings of the Common Core is the belief that acquiring the content by itself is not nearly as important as developing the skills to apply the content productively. College Board President David Coleman, a driving force behind the Common Core, has predicted that most of the content 4th graders are being taught today will be out of date by the time they graduate from high school.
The skills developed in arts, theater and music classes can carry over into various aspects of students’ lives. (Photo courtesy of High School District 214, Arlington Heights, Ill.)

What’s more, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, today’s youngest workers will hold between 12 and 15 jobs in their lifetimes. Up to about 60 percent of those jobs haven’t even been invented yet, according to Futurist Magazine. This means students today must adapt to changing circumstances, changing casts of workers and shifting requirements. They will need to become rapidly conversant with unfamiliar content to be self-sufficient and self-supporting.

As such, the future of teaching will need to focus much more on verbs (thinking) than nouns (content). Creativity may become an increasingly valuable commodity as evidenced by the revised Bloom’s Taxonomy, which in 2001 replaced “synthesis” with “creativity” at the top of its pyramid. This could lead to the restoration of arts education as truly a core subject rather than part of a selection of class electives for “Glee” wannabes.

The foundational structure of the Common Core standards is built from a limited number of what could be called universal thinking skills. These skills are represented by only two or three dozen verbs most frequently cited in the Common Core’s set of standards for the English language arts. They include analyze, develop, support, evaluate, demonstrate, explain, compare and contrast. These verbs then relate to certain nouns such as central idea, key details, theme, evidence, purpose, context and structure. All these terms subsequently constitute the matrix for any core-aligned assessment.

The same competencies embodied in these terms are the skills students will need as they seek employment beyond their formal schooling. Moreover, they are life skills. When I run workshops for parents about Common Core, I ask, “Who among you would not want your children to be able to evaluate content on the Internet or social media, compare and contrast two competing job offers, analyze a budget and determine causes of conflict in your community?”

Taken together, these competencies can contribute to good judgment, and don’t we want our students to learn how to exercise good judgment in their daily lives?

Artistic Applications

So how does all this square with arts education? First, the concept of competency-based education supports the view that these skills can be learned using content found outside the classroom as well as within it.

As such, any work of art can be used as a source of such content. Replace “text” with “work of art,” and clearly students can develop all of those thinking skills through artistic study and practice, as well as the “nouns” those skills are focused on, such as theme, central idea, structure, etc.

A genre painting (depiction of everyday life) has inherent narrative, characters, setting and implied relationships. A piece of music can be analyzed as to its structure, form and metaphorical allusions (e.g., Bedrich Smetana’s “The Moldau”). A set or costume design can become a focal point for a discussion on the difference between interpretation and inference. Choreography can be the foundation for exploring meaning and purpose.

Next, it is a dictum in education to start with what a student knows. Children consume the arts daily. Their art form of choice usually is music, followed closely by video games and YouTube.

How about going further and considering what matters to students — what do they have an emotional connection to? The arts’ stock on the shelf is emotion. It’s what we sell. Most works of art germinate from the soil of meaning and resonate with what matters to the artists and to their audiences. Why not integrate the teaching of key skills with content — an artistic product — that already is meaningful to students. This becomes even more relevant when asking each student to create an original work of art. To do this, arts educators may have to shift their focus from teaching the principles and practices of the arts to teaching the why and how works of art are created.

In common with the earlier factory model of teaching that emphasized the recall of facts, data, terms, equations, events and other forms of content, traditional arts education curricula often were based on developing students as technicians: Remember your lines, play the notes, follow the choreography, know the difference between primary and secondary colors.

Yet artists are experts at synthesis. It is this key capacity that is the wellspring of creativity. Creativity, in turn, becomes the resource students use to develop an ability to adapt to the unknown and the unforeseen.

The creative process is also one of discovery. The excitement of discovery can enhance students’ curiosity about the world and their place in it — a catalyst for lifelong learning.

Shared Rationale

An overarching aspect of Common Core is that it requires students to think about the content presented to them, not just think of an answer in response to a prompt regarding it. The skill of thinking about something requires more cognitive effort than merely recalling some fact about it.

This in itself is an intellectual exercise that can stimulate students’ interest. It can be the same when arts educators ask students to think about a work of art, not just identify a particular artist, style, period or technique. This skill can carry over into many aspects of students’ lives as they grow into adulthood.

Finally, there is the issue of “why?” Why do we teach what we teach? How often do we tell kids up front why they are learning what they are being taught? Not often enough, if at all. In the professional artistic world, there is almost always a why to what the artist does and how that goal can be achieved. Understanding the why of learning engenders an intrinsic motivation for doing so. Couple that with an emotional component relative to what the student is learning and think of the possibilities. This, in essence, is an artistic context for education.

Given the framework of Common Core standards and any off-named clones being developed by some states, arts education has value beyond the initial purposes for its inclusion in the school day — to provide celebratory events for parents and prep time for classroom teachers. Education’s present is really about preparing students for the future. We must teach what computers cannot — to imagine what does not exist, to create products and methods that people want and to communicate effectively in a more globalized world.

In short, we want our students to think, not just know. We must enable students to become architects of their future, and encourage them to evaluate options about their future. Arts education helps us to do just that.

Bruce Taylor, a consultant, is the author of Common Sense Arts Standards: How the Arts Can Thrive in an Era of Common Core. E-mail: Twitter: @BruceDTaylor