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Learning in the Arts
An Interview with Faculty Member Jessica Hoffmann Davis

Harvard Graduate School of Education
July 1, 2003

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Faculty member Jessica Hoffmann Davis
Faculty member Jessica Hoffmann Davis (photo: Karlyn Morissette)  

Jessica Hoffmann Davis is the founding director of HGSE's Arts in Education Program. A cognitive developmental psychologist, Davis is interested in children's artistic development as well as arts learning within and across school walls. She has studied the model and promise that the arts provide for pedagogy, assessment, and research, and worked to develop the methodology of portraiture into a group process. This last area is addressed in her co-authored book, The Art and Science of Portraiture, and in Passion & Industry: Schools That Focus on the Arts, a collection of portraits of arts learning in different school contexts. A former teacher, practitioner, and administrator in the visual arts, Davis believes that arts learning should be part of every child's daily life at school.

Q: What prompted you to study arts-focused schools in The Art and Science of Portraiture?

A: Throughout the history of education, the arts have struggled with varying—but mostly little—success, to find a permanent place within mainstream school walls. In response to changing priorities, advocates have "marketed" arts education as a chance for children to release excess energy, give shape to emotions, enhance critical thinking, and acquire skills that will make them more viable in the job market. Most recently, arts education advocates have tried to demonstrate that arts learning will help raise measurable non-arts outcomes, such as IQ points or SAT scores. The need to justify arts learning compromises the impartiality of research and ultimately limits our chances of knowing the real range of benefits of arts learning. In schools that focus on the arts, the importance of the arts is a given, and the depth and breadth of possibilities for learning in and through the arts are being seriously explored. What better setting in which to study the implementation and impact of the arts in education?

“In schools that focus on the arts, the importance of the arts is a given, and the depth and breadth of possibilities for learning in and through the arts are being seriously explored.”

Q: How have these schools managed the balance between separating themselves from mainstream education and establishing themselves as reliable and good institutions for student learning?

A: The three sites in our Passion & Industry study represent three different versions of schools that focus on the arts:

  • a pilot school (Boston Arts Academy/BAA)
  • a charter school (Conservatory Lab Charter School/CLCS), and
  • an independent school (Walnut Hill/WH).

As a pilot school, BAA works within the Boston Public School system to test new educational ideas from which other schools in the system can learn. The charter school status of CLCS makes it more independent, but in order to maintain its charter, it is obliged to share the results of its educational innovation. Student learning at these sites is evaluated from the outside, with the same measures that apply to mainstream Boston public schools. These external structures play an important part in demonstrating to others that the learning that happens in these schools is "working." But internally, the schools are negotiating their own measures of "goodness" that speak more directly to their unique arts-focused contexts and objectives. For example, is it more important for a senior painting major at BAA to score well on the same standardized tests that are being used and challenged in mainstream schools, or to represent her paintings articulately to experts who have been invited in to review this imprint of student learning?

As an independent school, Walnut Hill has more freedom to set and rely on its own measures for educational effectiveness. The school is aware of the privilege of autonomy and pursues and disseminates research on the effects of arts learning to other schools. Perhaps this can be seen as a way of "giving back." That being said, independent secondary schools are often evaluated on the scores that their students earn on the SATs and/or the prestige of the colleges that their graduates enter. It will be interesting to discover whether the traditional colleges to which Walnut Hill students apply, like Harvard or Yale, prove to be as receptive to the school's focus on the arts as are professional arts training schools like Julliard or the Rhode Island School of Design.

Q: Can you cite some of the practical difficulties that administrators, teachers, and students encounter in schools for the arts, regarding academic achievement?

A: I'm not sure when the arts were deemed "non-academic," but even in schools that focus on the arts, there is an understanding that arts learning and academic learning live in different rooms that may or may not have doors that open between them. All three schools in our study actively consider the way through or the demolition of those doors. At the Conservatory Lab Charter School, for example, music becomes a vehicle for all sorts of academic learning. The governing structure for pedagogy and research is the "learning through music model." Academic achievement in such a setting ideally incorporates arts learning: the more complex your understanding of music is, the more sophisticated will be the connections and academic content available to you.

“We walk a dangerous line in trying to respect the 'alternativeness' of arts learning even as we try to find ways to bring the arts into the mainstream setting.”

At the Boston Arts Academy and Walnut Hill, there are dual faculties, one focusing on the arts, the other more broadly on humanities and/or the subjects that are traditionally thought of as academic. Students are expected to succeed in both arenas, sometimes even to deserve the privilege of the other. For example, a student whose academics fall below a certain level may not be able to perform at a gala or mount a show of artwork. But when there are two faculties, tensions or competition may arise between them. Am I supposed to forgive this student for not doing her term paper because she went with the school to put up a show in New York? Which learning counts more? What concessions do either faculty need to make?

These schools are considering the exciting challenges of interdisciplinary learning and the unique approaches to learning that may be brought to the table by students who have particular talents in or passion for the arts. Passion for the arts seems to be shared by teachers, administrators, students, and parents. Industry is required not only because students pursue rigorous and serious artistic training, but also because they do so alongside of—and not instead of—demanding academic learning. The "a" in achievement in these settings stands both for academics and art.

Q: Do you believe that the themes you found in schools that focus on the arts can benefit schools that are less arts-oriented and more mainstream? Why or why not?

A: My interest over the last decade has been in studying arts education not only to learn more about what the arts actually do for our students, but also because of a conviction that other disciplines can learn and benefit from the unique and important examples of teaching and learning that the arts provide. You want to awaken creativity? The arts do that. You're interested in habits of learning, like discipline or engagement? The arts can do that too. I think it's important to remember that the arts can be pulled apart to serve so many ends because they are intrinsically synthetic. Any great painting in the museum may represent the coming together of history, social studies, psychology, narrative, the marriage of form and content, mathematical concepts like scale and balance, scientific considerations like light, and the composition of enduring materials, etc.

The arts—and students in the Arts in Education Program have absolutely convinced me of this—help students put learning back together. We so often spend time in schools pulling learning apart, deciding what belongs to math, to science, or to language arts. In schools that focus on the arts, we see the arts pursued for their own end (i.e., the study of drama towards achievement in drama), the arts pursued for transfer (to and from academic subjects), and the arts studied as agents to and examples of interdisciplinary learning.

Mainstream settings can learn so much from the examples these schools provide, partly because they share many core values and practices. We walk a dangerous line in trying to respect the "alternativeness" of arts learning even as we try to find ways to bring the arts into the mainstream setting. We don't want to compromise what's different and unique about the arts, even as we don't want to exclude them because they're different and unique. In the struggles that the arts face to justify themselves, to balance what they do with what other subjects do, and to cultivate what they do uniquely, all subjects may find paradigms for self-reflection and revitalization. In the Passion & Industry study, I hope we give educators in all disciplines the chance to learn from the hard work of these creative and passionate sites, while allowing them and their disciplines to imagine, as the arts allow us to do, "what if."

For More Information
More information about Jessica Hoffmann Davis is available in the Faculty Profiles.

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