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Arts Education and Diversity: A picture is worth a thousand lessons

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Pablo Picasso once said that "painting is just another way of keeping a diary." Much of life and history indeed have been captured through art, from historic news photographs of war, hardship and celebrations to paintings such as "Guernica" (1937), Picasso's depiction of a town in Spain ravaged during the Spanish Civil War that became one of the greatest antiwar symbols.

While not everyone may see the value of art beyond its visual beauty, arts education is one of the ways schools can bridge differences and instill meaningful learning experiences for students of all cultures, backgrounds and abilities.

A Picture is worth a thousand lessons
ILLUSTRATION BY DAVE CUTLER

It's not only about music, painting, sketches, cartoons, anime and origami. Arts education essentially nurtures a wide range of skills in students, and an appreciation and understanding of diversity and the richness of our nation.

Studies show that the arts offer many opportunities for engaged learning, encouraging the exploration of cultures, ideas, thoughts and expressions different from what we've known before. Through discussion, interpretation and expression of the arts, students develop critical-thinking skills, enhancing imagination, reasoning and their ability to evaluate situations from multiple perspectives.

Creating Curriculum Relevant to the 21st Century Workplace

Schools are becoming much more diverse in many aspects of their student population and methods of teaching. Thus, globalization is a key factor in creating curriculum that will be relevant to the 21st-century workplace.

Employers in today's workforce value critical thinking, desiring employees who have the ability to problem solve and see challenges from different viewpoints. Case studies have found that students who have been exposed to fine arts are more likely to develop this key skill.

With the importance of the arts in shaping students for the future, Alberta Education provided some guiding principles in its K–12 Arts Education Curriculum Framework. It recommended that arts education should support creativity, design, student-centred learning that engages the whole person, broad artistic and cultural perspectives that value the unique cultural identities of students, connections to the community that establish relationships through experiences in the arts, and a sense of belonging in a group.

Research indicates that the arts enhance ownership of learning and inspire positive transformation of the school community and culture.

Arts and education quote

In 2008, the Alberta Foundation for the Arts analyzed its past artist-in-residency programs that invited artists to stay in schools for up to a month; this hands-on initiative and process-based learning contributed to a significant increase in pride and self-esteem along with higher levels of engagement and motivation among the diverse groups of students and schools that participated, according to a 2010 report by the Council of Ministers of Education and the Canadian Commission for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, also known as UNESCO.

James Catterall at the University of California found that arts programs integrated with academics impact the school climate by increasing community engagement, cognitive ability, creativity, empathy for others, collaboration skills, leadership and a wide range of higher-order thinking skills. All of these skills are desirable to employers in today's global workforce and encourage the understanding and acceptance of diversity.

The Arts are an Essential Part of Learning

At Concordia High School, Alberta's only international boarding school, language is often the biggest obstacle with so many students who come to study here from around the world, including China, Korea, Hong Kong, Europe, Africa and the Canadian North. But for many students, art class removes those barriers, proving that a picture is worth a thousand words–and lessons.

Living in a dorm, Grade 12 student Shammah Egege experiences the daily language barriers faced by students who are far from home. Egege, who was born in Nigeria and came to Canada over 10 years ago, says that art helped him communicate and connect with other students, even when English was a challenge. "The artifacts displayed in the art room, the different works done by my classmates and the study of art history help me understand different cultures and perceptions."

The arts are another way of keeping a diary– and much more. Whether it is a collaborative arts assignment in an academic subject, crosscurricular activities or a unique masterpiece, the arts serve a greater purpose in education by opening minds to new ways of thinking, learning and understanding that are essential to success in the 21st-century global workforce.

—Tamara C. Larson
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