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Art and Music

    When your 6th grader comes home and proudly shows you the "art project" he made in school from shoeboxes, duct tape, and spray paint, a valid question is, "Is my child learning anything about art?"

    In the context of the art program itself, the overwhelming emphasis in most schools is on art as a hobby and craft, with heavy favoritism of "creative" projects (painting an album cover, decorating a hub cap, etc.). Yes, it's fun. And some of the projects are indeed delightful. And no one doubts that kids should have time to be kids and let their creativity thrive.

    But what is missing?

Arts and the "Project Method"

    Does your school seem to be spending way too much time on art projects outside of art classes?

    We hear that complaint frequently from parents.

    Long sessions spent constructing puppets in "literature" class, measuring glazes in "science" class, and building a Greek theater in "social studies" class not only have dubious inherent value, they also steal precious and irreplaceable time that could be spent on substantive learning and thinking. The problem may be a fixation on the "project" method of education, also known as "discovery learning" and more formally a component of the "constructivist" method. While the use of excessive projects along these lines is risky in itself, the danger is compounded when teachers implement too many of these projects as artworks and crafts. This is especially endemic in the earlier grades.

    For much more on this, see our pages on:


    When it comes to art class itself, some schools offer little more than the making of art. Methods and media are examined, but there is little effort to put techniques and methods into an organized sequence, or to provide a historical content.

    With little emphasis on specific content and a great deal of stress on unstructured creativity, this can lead to bizarre excesses, such as this statement proudly offered in one school's parent newsletter:

    "The eighth and seventh grade hubcap pop art exhibit is on display ... the sixth grade is ... making cereal boxes. The fifth grade is reproducing aboriginal dreamsong cloths ... the third grade is doing a unit on circus animals in which they will put together a circus train of ornate circus cages on wheels."
    Fun, yes. And having fun in the context of an art program is good.

    But what exactly are kids learning from this diet of nonstop fun? And is this the best use of precious school time, and collected property tax dollars?

What Else Is In a Complete Art and Music program?

    Art and music classes should include rich opportunities to make art and to make music. But a complete program in music and visual arts must also include a component of actually learning about these fields.

    To see how art is treated in a comprehensive and exciting way, with greater richness and depth than at most schools, and within a strong academic context, look at how it's done in Core Knowledge schools. Just as a little taste, let's pick a month at random, say November, and see what's happening in many Core Knowledge schools around that time:

    • 1st grade: identify and use different types of lines; examine these types in The Swan by Matisse, or one of Georgia O'Keefe's Shell paintings.
    • 2nd grade: review the concepts of portraits, self-portraits, and still life, as introduced in 1st grade
    • 3rd grade: explore relationships between two-dimensional and three-dimensional shapes; observe how artists use various illusions of depth to make two-dimensional shapes look three-dimensional, looking at Millet's The Gleaners and Brueghel's Peasant Wedding.
    • 4th grade: Become familiar with the "art of a new nation", enjoying early American paintings such as Gilbert Stuart's George Washington.
    • 5th grade: Consider the shift in world view from medieval to Renaissance art, while recognizing the influence of Greek and Roman art. Explore the development of linear perspective during the Italian Renaissance. Art works studied include Botticelli's Birth of Venus, da Vinci's Proportions of Man, Mona Lisa and the Last Supper, the "creation of man" detail in Michelangelo's painting in the Sistine Chapel, and several of the Madonnas by Raphael.
    • 6th grade: review main features of Renaissance art (classical subjects and techniques, emphasis on humanity, discoveryt of perspective). Examine Raphael's School of Athens and Michelangelo's David. Begin explorations of Baroque art, especially use of light and shade, and turbulent composition. Discuss View of Toledo by El Greco, and one of Rembrandt's self-portraits.
    • 7th grade: Post-impressionism, examining characteristics of such works as still lifes by Cezanne, Seurat's Sunday Afternoon, Van Gogh's Starry Night, and works by Gauguin and Toulouse-Lautrec. Explore "art nouveau" as a pervasive style of decoration.
    • 8th grade: examine representative post-WWII works by artists such as Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.

    These standards give a content basis for whatever activities and art projects are planned by the art teacher. The kids still enjoy the fun and skill-building of an active arts program. But in Core Knowledge schools, the kids are learning, too.

Creating an Art and Music Curriculum

    Here are links to articles about art and music in school:

  • Art On The Prairie (PDF file) by Edward B. Fiske, American Educator (American Federation of Teachers), Fall 1997. Art education shouldn't focus exclusively on "art making," says a group dedicated to expanding the discipline to include a healthy dose of art history, criticism, and aesthetics.

  • "What Mozart had and Tracey hasn't", from the Times of London. A rigorous education separates the geniuses of the past from today's 'creative' artists. Will we never learn?"

  • A Mire Of Mumbo Jumbo, The Daily Telegraph (UK), July 6, 2002. Subheads: "Jargon and fashionable theories may dissuade potentially good teachers from entering the profession, says Paul Humphreys. ... Art class and homework are no longer simply a matter of expression. Today, jargon is the order of the day."

  • Where's the Art in Today's Art Education? by Michelle Marder Kamhi "Advocates for art education have long been striving to establish the visual arts firmly as a subject of study in school curricula. ... On close examination, however, there is cause for deep concern. For, while many schools have been taking steps to integrate art education into their curricula, serious art of high quality has been rendered more and more marginal to the content of their programs. It is being largely displaced by often trivial works of popular art..."

  • Children's Knowledge Gap Of Folk Songs Threatens Heritage, University of Florida press release, May 28, 2003. Excerpt: "Children in the United States aren't singing the songs of their heritage, an omission that puts the nation in jeopardy of losing a longstanding and rich part of its identity ... school music programs are allowing generations-old lullabies, and historical children's and folk songs to be ignored, with some teachers replacing them with the latest pop hits. ... 'The study found that, overall, the vast majority of young people could not sing patriotic, folk and children's songs, because teachers who teach them at all frequently don't go over the songs enough for students to learn them ... Most students could not be expected to sing from memory songs such as Home on the Range, Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star or Bingo.'"

  • Design Software Weakens Classic Drawing Skills, CNN, April 5, 2006. "U.S. art students spend so much time toying with computer graphics these days that many wind up without needed drawing skills, university instructors say. Students are more comfortable manipulating computer graphics than doodling, drafting and drawing with pen on paper, and this has created a sharp decline in drawing skills in recent years, teachers say. Additionally, tech-savvy students simply lack the initiative and persistence developed by drawing, resulting in uninspired work -- at least work on paper."

  • Back to the Drawing Board by Emma Tennant, The Spectator (UK), July 5, 2003. This book review laments the decline of formal training in arts programs: "[One author] describes how difficult it is nowadays for a young artist to find the right language with which to express his or her ideas. The loss of the old atelier system is noted, but even worse, and not mentioned, is the disappearance of the craft ladder which enabled aspiring artists of the past to realise their dreams. Hogarth engraved silver; Turner coloured lithographs; David Roberts painted stage scenery; Renoir decorated china. None of these possibilities is open to today's 'fine art' students. They are under great pressure to be 'creative' and to 'express themselves', but they have not been taught the skills with which to do so, as it is no longer thought necessary to learn to draw, paint, carve or model. The divorce between art and craft is complete. No wonder there is so much angst and misery at these places. Spalding underestimates the depths of the slough of despond into which our art schools have sunk. ... There are, it is true, a few slivers of light appearing on the far horizon. Students are beginning to complain about the lack of instruction in art schools ..."

  • Why Music Is an Essential Liberal Art by Peter Kalkavage, American Educator, American Federation of Teachers, Fall 2006.

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