At a recent conference I was reminded of how critical it is to define the terms we use early in conversations about arts in education. The one hundred people in the room came from different backgrounds with varied past and present experiences and we did not create a clear foundation of understanding together. Without full introductions and norming it became increasingly difficult to truly understand one another. There were many sessions throughout the day and our language continued to grow more vague as participants started using the same words to mean varied things, like when “creativity” became a synonym for “the arts.”
We never paused to slow down and clarify our terms. Ultimately, I started to question the details and big ideas being shared. Beneath this conversation lurked our seemingly varied definitions of arts education and the purpose of it, though they never had the chance to be articulated.
At one point people began discussing the positive impact the arts have in schools. Terms went flying and I sat back, confused by our vagueness. I wondered, “what is the difference between an arts classroom and a creative classroom?” In the end, we were having a conversation about teaching and learning with purpose that is kinesthetic, hands-on, collaborative, fun, and engaging, all of which can occur without the arts. But we were referring to this as an “arts” classroom.
The quality of teaching was left out of the debate, leaving a sour taste in my mouth, as if any teaching that involves the arts, or any arts classroom is automatically powerful and worthy for our children to experience, which is simply not true. I have sat through many horrible arts classes that had none of the above attributes.
If we fail to define our terms and do not consistently return to a conversation of quality in arts education then we become cheerleaders, rather than champions. This can be tricky for many reasons. Often to do this we must share our background experiences that have led us to these beliefs. This takes time and a deep level of reflection. Additionally, language can be tricky when trying to communicate things that are often physically done and experienced purposefully without words, like dance. Isabella Duncan famously said, “if I could tell you what I meant, there would be no point dancing it.” If we don’t challenge ourselves to find ways to communicate clearly within our field and with others, then we are limited to superficial discourse rather than generative discussion that leads to productive work with and for kids and communities. We will merely say the arts are important and be hurt when they are not respected, but will struggle to do great work and lead change. As we re-imagine our relationships with one another within arts education let us first define our selves, then our terms, and always revisit the question of quality, which I see as a driving lever in broader education reform.