Sunday, June 19, 2011

Art and technology

My school is losing half of its art position next year. As a "technology school", one may wonder why this might be big deal, but I beg to differ. A technology school without a strong arts program is a perversion of education. It reveals an absolute lack of understanding of cognitive development; and a lack of vision of human beings, education, even the spirit. The decision-makers bow before the dumbest, unhuman aspects of the machine. It is the devil's work.

At my school, CPS pays for 1/2 of an art position, and the principal has made up the other half of the position out of discretionary budget money. School budgets have been cut, and my principal is saying that the discretionary money isn't there any more for the school's half of the art position. So next year we will have a part-time art position. By a rough calculation of 2.5 days a week times 6 class periods, she could serve 15 periods a week; we have 20 classes. The math is ugly.

This, of course, is especially disruptive for the art teacher. I mean it really sucks. It also tears at the social cloth of the school, more so because the art teacher is woven deeply into that fabric. We are all diminished. How much this was weighed in the decision of where to cut and what to cut, I don't know. Very little I suspect. I don't mean to minimize the personal or social aspects of the cut. There is, though, I think, a less obvious part of this -- the revealed lack of understanding, the lack of vision of how art provides the foundation, the skills, the experiences for work with technology.

Say, for example, that we take the National Educational Technology Standards for Students (NETS-S) as a starting point. The first two standards say nothing about technology operations -- they deal with creativity and innovation, collaboration and communication. The best education theory pushes students to be directors of their learning, and up Bloom's hierarchy of thinking. We want students to express themselves in many media, with posters and sound and video and photographs. Students cannot do this well without a solid art background. Art is where they learn the phonetics and grammar of media literacy. Art is where they learn how colors combine and clash, about foreground and background, about dimensions and perspective, about highlighting and shading, about seeing critically, about enlivening the imagination and creating. Implementing NETS-S without art instruction is impossible.

There are other starting points than NETS-S. Hand work is critical for brain development. Learning how to draw, how to color, how to use one's hands to create things and so on -- the kinds of things students do in art class -- is not "just art" but fundamental to developing thinkers. Art also exposes students to the joy of creating. It exposes the possibilities of discovering and expressing feelings. It exposes students to different possibilities for being in the world. And based on the success of art-intensive programs in working with at-risk youth, I can argue that art also helps with students' social and emotional development. Basically, we develop better human beings when we teach them art. When we don't teach them art, we handicap them. Devil's work.

The more we inject computers into instruction, the more we need to balance it with traditional art instruction -- working with hands, working with different materials, looking at and really seeing the real world. Computers suck the user into virtual space, imagined by someone else, shallow and incomplete. Students are taken out of the world, which can only be okay if their virtual experiences are tempered by real reality. The more students go into virtual worlds, the more armor of critical thinking and visual literacy they need to protect themselves. The most interesting and exciting computer use I think involves constructionist tools where the students create and express. But again, the basic units of understanding what to do effectively with these tools are cultivated, in large part, in art class.

The slide into the confusion of computerized spaces with real spaces, and computerized instruction with human instruction is the slide into idolatry. In the confusion, the role of the human being, the teacher, is lost. The teacher is reduced to a machine, albeit a resistant machine. And one machine can always be replaced with another. My school will have more computer-based instruction next year (e.g., Achieve3000 is mandated by our area for next year, but not paid for, approx. $6000), and fewer people to work with students.

Given the CPS budget issues, was there a choice? There are always choices. Recognizing choices though requires transparency, understanding, vision. (And, I might add, creativity and innovation, and communication and collaboration).


1 comment:

jd said...

On the relationship of the hand to brain development, see e.g. The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture.

For a reference to arts programs and at-risk youth, see Breaking down the barriers to learning: The power of the arts about a program in California.

For more on technology and literacy, including visual literacy and media literacty, see an earlier post, 21st Century Literacy.