Equity and Arts Education

 “Education and training are the keys to the future. A key can be turned in two directions. Turn it one way and you lock resources away; turn it other way and you realize resources and give people back to themselves.”
~ Sir Ken Robinson, Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative

On January 8, 2012 The Toronto Star published an article addressing the issue of equity in arts programs offered to children in schools.  In a related blog by The National Post there was much debate over whether there should be exclusive, auditioned programs for children whose parents can afford them, or high quality, inclusive programs, available to any interested child, in all schools. 



Closing specialized programs in order to be “fair to everyone” is certainly one solution, though personally, I favour looking at inclusive programs as a model to consider.  While I realize that not everyone is “talented” or destined to become a famous artist, musician, actor etc., I do believe that everyone is creative in some way and should have the opportunity to discover how that creativity can find expression.  It is necessary to have arts experiences in order to identify interests, develop skills, find motivation, learn from others and be inspired.  I do not believe that it is fair if arts programs are available only to those identified has being talented, or that the opportunity to cultivate creativity should be available only to those who can afford the luxury of specialized programs.  Still, cutting such existing programs in the spirit of “fairness” is not necessarily the best solution.

The divisiveness at the heart of this issue really hit home for me while conducting my graduate research. When I decided to explore the field of early childhood music education, it was my good fortune to be able to afford a specialized program of study, which would add to what I had learned as part of my training as an ECE.  And it was a privilege to be able to study with some extraordinary music educators and to see what children could learn in high quality music programs.  Though I knew at some point that I would never teach music as those teachers did, I kept in mind my initial motivation for pursuing those studies.  I wanted to make music accessible to the children at my day care centre, many of whom might not otherwise enjoy music lessons.  I wanted them to have music experiences each day and not just once a week, for a limited period of time, delivered by a music teacher we had to fund raise quite heavily to hire.   But in order to make that step from being a teacher to being a teacher-artist, I had to get past the idea that teaching music was beyond my grasp.  To say that only artists should teach art in day cares and schools is similar to saying that only talented children should have access to specialized art programs.

Educators who are not artists may tend to look outside of themselves for answers to the question of how to insure that children receive arts experiences of quality.  There are programs like Learning Through the Arts (http://www.ltta.ca/), Artists in Education (http://www.arts.on.ca/Page28.aspx), Mariposa in the Schools (http://www.mariposaintheschools.ca/), Inner City Angels (http://www.innercityangels.ca/), Arts for Children and Youth (http://www.afcy.ca/) and others.  It is tremendous that these organizations exist and do the work that they do.  They reach out to children who might not receive quality arts experiences. However, they remind us of the divide between those children who can readily enjoy arts experiences and those who cannot, those specialists who teach the arts, and educators who may want to enrich their lessons with the arts but lack artistic skills and confidence.  How then, do we make arts experiences more accessible across the board? How do we set about bridging the gap between what educators do to bring the arts into their classrooms and how they are taught to do it?  How do we enable educators to find the skills and confidence to bring the arts into children’s lives each day?

I think that part of the problem lies in preliminary teacher preparation, which may be a reflection of how the arts are – or are not – valued.  Arts education for teachers represents such a small part of their training, and I have to wonder why.  When educators without prior experience in the arts (e.g., music lessons) lack the confidence to take artistic risks in their own classrooms, the teaching of the arts becomes the property of specialists. Perhaps this is what brings about programs that are available only to some children and not to all.  There are only so many specialists, and their expertise has value, and costs money that not all parents and schools can spare.  But don’t all children deserve the opportunity to find out what they can do?  Shouldn’t all children be shown that the arts are vital to who they are, rather than learning to view arts education as a luxury, separate from all else they are learning and from who they are – who they could be

If only there was a greater initial investment in the arts training of the educators who interact with children every day, arts experiences might become a more natural part of the daily curriculum – delivered to all children by their own teachers.  A change in our perception of what it is important for educators to know, and how they can share that knowledge, even with the very youngest children, could start a revolution that changes how we view the arts, and how we view ourselves, as citizens, as teachers and as artists.   But it must begin with the will to find ways to nurture and tap into the creativity of educators who can then find fair and equitable ways to give the arts to all children.

“The first task in teaching for creativity in any field is to encourage people to believe in their creative potential and to nurture the confidence to try.”
Sir Ken Robinson, Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative

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