Engage, Educate, and Empower: Art Is The Way To Learn

Patrice Milillo is an arts educator who has traveled the world talking with communities on the effect of arts and learning. He writes in this piece about education, "properly applied, the arts cultivate positive habits of mind such as observation, exploration, persistence, understanding, envisioning new possibilities, and reflection."

In 2012, several of my 5th grade students expressed a desire for art programs. They took charge of their education and decided to host a fundraiser called Bring Back the Arts, an event that included live music, mural painting, skateboarding, dance, and pottery. The execution of "Bring Back the Arts" integrated math, language arts, social awareness, and collaboration through budgeting, speech writing, engaging with the community, and peer collaboration. To recruit help, students delivered speeches to teachers, administrators, the school board, local artists, and business owners. They even delivered a speech to the city's arts commission at a public meeting. Their efforts secured a year-and-a-half of after-school art and dance programs.

Despite popular media reports, there are many school administrators around the country who support teachers who deliver these types of lessons. In the current climate of high-stakes testing, it is not an easy feat, and requires a broader perspective about the purpose and impact of education. After all, if the future of the U.S. depends on finding solutions for conflict, economic instability, poverty/inequality, and environmental degradation, we must educate students to critically examine and solve these problems now. And to do this, math, science, language arts, and other subjects must be grounded in self-awareness, empathy, social awareness, and creativity.

An effective education must embrace the voices of the community, especially those of the children. Integrated learning grounded in the arts that brings in real-world scenarios, like the Bring Back the Arts event, is a powerful way of doing this. Children are naturally creative and the arts give them a uniquely personal outlet for developing and expressing their understanding. Properly applied, the arts cultivate positive habits of mind such as observation, exploration, persistence, understanding, envisioning new possibilities, and reflection. These habits of mind are essential for understanding one's self and community, and to successfully navigate and transform one's world. 

Credited for discovering the super greenhouse effect, Dr. Veerbhadran Ramanathan, in a recent speech, affirmed that the solution to our climate catastrophe, "requires a fundamental change in our attitudes towards nature and each other, and then comes the science and technology".

Science and technology reflect values, and if education does not explicitly teach self-awareness, empathy, social awareness, and creativity, values such as hyper individualism, blind consumerism, and a disregard for one's impact on others, will persist. On the other hand, when a child understands and values the ideas of others and knows their own ideas and values are respected, they can more effectively develop solutions that take into account multiple perspectives and points of view.

The arts are an effective way of teaching academics within a human context grounded in personal and social empowerment, and when parents, teachers, and the rest of the community understand this and come together to demand it, school administrators are surprisingly receptive. Granted, building this type of culture is not easy; however, if we are to provide students with the skills necessary to understand, navigate, and positively impact their worlds, we must put in the effort. By ignoring these fundamentals in our education system, we cannot expect to develop emotionally intelligent contributors to society who can improve our world.  

About Patrice Milillo

is a teacher, Villa Montalvo Artist in Residence, and the executive director of Art is Power, an organization that explores initiatives from around the world that cultivate self-awareness, social awareness, empathy, and creativity through the arts to develop societies that meet their full human potential.

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