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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Arts-Based Learning and Creativity: A School Transformation Model

The death of school reform

I have personally stopped talking about school reform: It’s crazy to reform a broken model. (“If you want different results you need to do different stuff…”). The “school reform” proponents/opponents and their literature overuses the term “reform” to the point where it has acquired several meanings in various venues. I prefer to use the phrase school transformation which better captures the objective of all “reform” issues in public education. With these ideas in mind, I now officially declare the school reform movement obsolete and all further discussions about the subject are to focus on school transformation. Whew…I feel better already!

Meaningful and effective change only happens when all the stakeholders have ownership in the processes and expected outcomes. External “top-down” education change initiatives too often define their impact in terms of “pockets of success” rather than full scale transformation. Empowering the stakeholders (“internal change initiatives”) to engage their personal interests and “passions” into the change process facilitates the creative energy needed to build the capacity for sustaining change initiatives. “Finding one’s element” as Sir Ken Robinson writes is an energizing combination of skills and interest and when nurtured within an organization, can bring the highest level (Bloom’s Taxonomy) of lasting impact to bear on the outcomes of the organization wishing transformation.

School reform has traditionally addressed three broad areas: Assessment, Curriculum and Pedagogy. It is time to start talking about pedagogy. Pedagogy is teacher and student centered – not organizational – and will lead to sustainable transformation where external reform models have failed to transform our schools. School reformers and policy makers can lump most reform measures and their sustainability efforts into one basic concept: Keep the pressure on long enough by forcing people to do something will modify their behavior. This behavior modification approach to sustainability, of course, is subject to all the limitations of behavior modifications itself. Sustaining school reform (transformation) would seem to require a different approach – one that instead of “keeping the pressure on” involves harnessing the power educators have to do what they value…nurturing the learning environment that promotes their element. In the end we are no longer talking about school reform because the folks at the center, teachers and students, have transformed the ownership of the change outcomes from external sources to an internal power of transformation.

A schooling transformational process and framework

Effective schooling transformation relies of systemic empowerment within the process. The Helianthus perspective defines a six-strand framework:
1. Central Administration/BOE Leadership – developing support mechanisms/policies
2. Programs/Building Leadership – modifying current resources to enable transformation
3. Curriculum/Pedagogy – developing collaborative constructionist instructional practices
4. Clinical Supervision – support through constructive observation/action research
5. Student Skills – building collaborative learning environments based on trust
6. Parental/Community Partnerships – enabling effective partnerships and place-based resources

The determination of support needed in these areas must be based on a strategic plan developed by all the local stakeholders, making the amount and direction of intervention unique to each school and district. The Arts-Based and Creativity perspectives of the model provides the cohesion and impetus for stakeholder ownership and is articulated in the six essential elements and expectations proven during the thirteen year history of the A+ School movement (Noblit, Corbett, Wilson and McKinney - 2009):

First – students need an increased exposure to the arts (music, drama, visual arts, and dance) both with specialists and in their regular classroom.

Second – schools must foster two-way arts integration: Pedagogical strategies to infuse the arts into the core curriculum and the core curriculum into the arts. The two-way arts integration instructional strategies provide opportunities for students and teachers to encounter the central ideas of the curriculum more frequently and diversely, increasing the chance for all to master content at a deeper meaning.

Third – teachers must tap students’ multiple intelligences. The idea is to attract students into the learning process that typically have been unengaged. This concept places a great emphasis on project-based activities.

Fourth – schools need to adopt an integrated, thematic approach to the major ideas in the curriculum. Thematic units present opportunities to connect arts instruction to that in other disciplines.

Fifth – schools must increase stakeholder driven professional collaboration. Arts-based learning and integration present a vision of teaching and learning quite different from that currently in place at most schools. This idea requires the elimination of the “isolation models” of 20th century classrooms and development of planning, team work and professional development.

Sixth – schools must strengthen their relationships with parents and the greater community at large. To create a rich arts-based learning environment, schools will need more resources than they typically posses – both artistic and otherwise. Schools can find additional support by drawing on the talents and resources of parents and community institutions, including area cultural resources, local colleges and university and the media.

On the topic of professional development, a new teacher-centered growth model centering on collaborative development of classroom and school-wide units is mandatory. Arts-based pedagogical perspectives will challenge typical views of teacher growth in professional education environments. These views are reflected in the writings of V. Richardson (1994):

The concept of teaching underlying these projects (units and modules) rejects the dominant notion among many educators and policy makers that the teacher is a recipient and consumer of research and practice. Rather, the teacher is seen as one who mediates ideas and constructs meaning and knowledge and acts upon them.

From a transformational perspective, where teachers revisit current instructional strategies, teacher professional growth is now also linked to larger change efforts such a democratic schooling, school reorganization and to viewing teachers as potential leaders (WV Policy 5300) and activists. In fact, the teacher-leader model must be the driving force in sustaining transformation in our schools. Schooling transformation happens first at the point of impact – the classroom. Supporting teacher-led transformational change in the classroom is the core component of effective sustainability and will hasten the indelible impact on the culture of the school. Powering this component is the value-added efficacy sense of “self-element” – where teachers, bringing their passion and interests into the learning arena through Arts-Based Learning and Creativity enable and facilitate effective 21st century learning every day for ALL students at every developmental age through graduation day and beyond.

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