Art education: helping establish a more creative, empowered society – Building the leaders of tomorrow

local1KUWAIT: Creativity, thinking outside the box, determination and teamwork. Those are basic qualities that any successful arts teaching program seeks to reinforce among students, and help bring out the best in them – both in arts and in their academic classes.

Those same qualities are also found in common among statements of a group of sixth grade students when they talked about their unfinished projects in art class. They are building replicas of the Eiffel Tower using only toothpicks and glue.

“I challenge the kids to do some architecture, to be architects, and be able to build,” said Abena Robinson, art teacher at the International Creativity Academy (ICA). Robinson, who is in her first year teaching in Kuwait after spending 16 years teaching art in the United States, believes that art education is important because it gives children a multitude of options to express themselves. For the kids, art provides them with an area where they can create and feel empowered, something that Robinson feels is important in every educational system.

“I truly believe that when a child succeeds in art, it is a catalyst for academic achievement, and there are studies on that,” she said. “I always try to have my students do their best in the art class and it shows in their academics. I would attest to a lot of times when they are proud about a certain achievement in their class that spills over into their academic achievement.”

In a study conducted by Judith Burton, Columbia University, research suggests that art education can have a positive impact on other subjects such as mathematics, science, and language because they require complex cognitive and creative capacities “typical of arts learning” (Burton, Horowitz, and Abeles, 1999). “The arts enhance the process of learning. The systems they nourish, which include our integrated sensory, attentional, cognitive, emotional, and motor capacities, are, in fact, the driving forces behind all other learning.” (Jensen, E. 2001. Arts with the brain in mind. Alexandria, Va., Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development).

Improved abilities
Improved problem solving abilities can be seen in the students’ works. “Here we made a mistake,” student Anas Jabr said as he pointed to one corner of his Effie Tower which was slightly uneven with the other three. “Our group decided to take it (down) and start all over again with some of the bases. As you can see now, it is better.”

For Anas and many of his classmates, the idea of using their creativity to build an arts project using minimum tools seemed farfetched only a year ago. But working together has taught them values of teamwork, problem solving, creativity and determination. “When we started working we felt like it was impossible,” he said. “My classmates and I worked together, then we started, and eventually got to the point you are seeing.”

His classmate, Yousef Ghareeb, is working on a similar project but with a different group. So far the bases for their Eiffel Tower are level. But Yousef also felt that it was an impossible task when his arts teacher told him that he had to build it using nothing but some packs of toothpicks, glue guns and his bare hands. “At first I thought ‘Man… this is impossible,’ but Ms Abena showed me some pictures, then I started thinking maybe I can do it,” he said.

Values of arts
In Kuwait, the government understood the importance of highlighting the values of arts from an early stage. Art education has been a primary part of Kuwait’s educational system since the state’s independence. Despite that, there have been complaints about the lack of proper attention given to art, music and physical education subjects in recent years.

Facing this situation, there have been attempts in both public and private schools to shed more light on the importance of art education and integrate more art activities in the curricula. One of these schools is ICA, where administration and staff understand the value of incorporating art in a balanced and comprehensive teaching program.

“It is in our name,” says Matthew Neal, Superintendent of ICA and its sister school, the American Creativity Academy (ACA). “It is the nature of who we are and our mission; to provide a creative educational environment where the students are allowed to express their interests and their passion not exclusively to what we tell them they must do, but allow them safe places to explore creatively in arts programs.”

“If today’s students graduate high school, and all they know how to do is memorize and regurgitate, (then) we have lost,” Neal said. “What we have to do as a team is to teach our students to go over to the other side of the brain. One is just memorizing and repeating. The other side of the brain is saying ‘What does it mean? How do I interpret this? How do I use this in other ways? How do I learn outside of the box, or better yet, to apply outside of the box?'”

“We are allowing students to use not just eyes on learning, but manipulatives, hands-on kinesthetic learning with building and creating,” Neal added.

Challenges
In ICA, teachers utilize art to help students perform better in core academic content. “The challenges are that all the students learn how to read, write and do math without exclusively focusing on these, but allowing creativity to infuse in this,” Neal said. “(The goal is to get) those two aspects to mix and to have students that their art is supporting reading, and their reading is supporting art. The challenge is how do we as a school provide an environment where both the arts and core content can be in a happy, symbiotic and partnership relationship.”

“Art enhances the children’s creativity,” says Demetra Gargasoulas, Principal of ICA. “It enriches their learning and it takes kids to a different level. I give equal value of the art lesson as I would have done with language arts, math, and science. I am a believer of integrating art into every single subject.”

Becoming closer
Throughout human history, art has been a medium that brought civilizations together and improved understanding between different cultures. “I think that arts and creativity allow us to be able to connect students,” Neal said. “We may have cultural differences. We may have ethnic differences, between how we were raised and where we came from, but the arts allow us to come together and elaborate and to be able to do teamwork and to focus in a way that we can say ‘this is not culturally separating, it is culturally joining and aligning.'”

“Art as a concept has the deepest roots in history than often times history itself,” Neal went on. “Print making; back to the days in the Chinese culture of developing print and art this way. All of our clay works and all of our hands-on are very similar to the same way that was done 2000 year ago. The big difference as of change is how students are using arts to express themselves in technology and the technology integration into art… and then how we are taking arts and creativity and using the other side of the brain. There is a lot of study on what it means to use the right side of your brain and how do you train your right side of the brain to think outside of the box creatively, beyond just being told what to do, but to be a creative problem solver.”

More receptive
The Kuwaiti society has become more and more accepting and appreciative of the values that students are learning through art classes today. “The Kuwaiti society is becoming more receptive because now the younger generation gives greater value to the arts,” Gargasoulas said. “The older generation maybe had a different mindset, but now the younger generation is more receptive.”

“I think you have a generation of young people now who desire some level of more expression,” Neal added. “And I think our responsibility as adults and parents in a traditional Islamic system is to help our students value traditions in the Islamic world and at the same time still be able to have some level of expression in integrating what is there in the heritage that our students have in their culture and in their traditions.”

“I think our leaders of tomorrow are those students that today cannot just take what they are given and give their regurgitation answer or repeating answer,” said Neal, “but to interpret it and apply it to their current culture using their values in their heritage that have brought them to this place.”

A former President Elect of Dade Art Educators Association in Miami, USA, Robinson believes that art education in Kuwait has evolved, but more attention needs to be given to children’s arts. “Art education today has evolved a lot,” she said. “I think in Kuwait, we need to see more of it with the students being in the forefront. More student artworks being exhibited and more students identifying with a child’s artwork.”

“It is nice to see professional art, but (students) need to actually see other students’ works. So it is important that the students can identify with other children’s work,” said the three-time teacher of the year.

By Ahmad Jabr

This article was published on 02/01/2016