A Child's First Method of Learning Is Still the Best

by Janet Eilber

November 19, 2007

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) has reached its fifth birthday—the hard way—and is up for reauthorization.

The “nation’s report card” has been controversial since being signed into law in 2002. The required reauthorization gives both supporters and opponents of the Act a chance to lobby for change.

The uniform testing that is a signature of the bill has come under particular fire from policy makers, educators and parents. Testing is not customized for special needs students and those learning English, and many school administrators complain that they cannot raise their standings with one-size-fits-all assessment.

The testing is also a bone of contention in arts circles. It quickly became clear that, under the law, arts-learning was not considered essential to a school’s success. Only math and reading skills are assessed for NCLB. Too many schools quickly marginalized or abandoned arts education as they focused on “teaching to the test.”

Both sides of the basic arts-versus-NCLB argument are presented in the Politico column “Arts Educators Battle No Child Left Behind." Arts supporters argue that students without arts learning will not compete in the creative workforce of the future. The opposition asks how anyone can compete if they can’t read adequately.

Lately arts supporters have focused on the “creative workforce” argument in support of arts in the schools, hoping that a connection to a competitive economy would speak to the business community. But there’s a more fundamental appeal to be made.

I heard Mel Levine speak at a workshop designed to help educators identify students with different styles of learning. A pediatrician and the founder of All Kinds of Minds, an institute for the understanding of differences in learning, Levine pointed out that “the most difficult thing a child has to learn in kindergarten is to sit still and be quiet.

Neuroscience tells us that much important learning happens between birth and the sixth birthday. Early learning is all experiential. It’s physical, aural, visual and tactile—quite the opposite of sitting still and being quiet. One wouldn’t teach a baby to crawl by holding him gently and carefully explaining how the body’s motor mechanisms work.

Infants and toddlers experiment with balance, locomotion and spatial relationships. They identify, imitate and communicate using sound and gesture. They respond to visual stimuli and clues. In this way, we all start out as fledgling dancers, actors, musicians and artists. We learn to move through and communicate with the world by using the basic elements of creativity: curiosity, observation, experimentation, translation, communication. When we arrive at school we already have a highly successful system of learning that we have been perfecting all of our lives.

No wonder “sitting still and being quiet” is so difficult and discouraging for many young learners. We are being asked to abandon approaches to learning with which we have had great success. Those methods have made us who we are.

The argument that arts learning must take place only after basic academic skills have been mastered ignores the fact that we are already masters at gaining skills in ways that are the essence of learning through the arts. Doesn’t it make sense to build on that successful model of learning rather than insisting on a completely different approach?

Support for this argument is widely available in the press, from the Washington Post story “In This Class, Math Comes with Music” to “Art Expression: Markham Pupils Learn Social Skills Inside and Out” in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Unfortunately, hands-on, arts-integrated lessons are often wrong-headedly perceived as inefficient methods that slow the process of the “sit still and be quiet” style of education.

The bottom-line goals of NCLB—mastering the basics of math and reading—would be easier to achieve if more schools would embrace experiential learning by using the arts to help teach our children. Children arrive at school with their brains wired to excel in the creative atmosphere. When students are engaged and successful, stillness and concentration become the natural byproducts of learning, rather than the daunting initial hurdle.

Janet Eilber, artistic director of the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance, serves as advisor for Arts Education in the News.