The Importance of Art in Education

by Amanda Outcalt

In the current educational environment where core subjects are stressed and other curriculum components are often viewed as extras or bonuses, arts educators are frequently advocating for their content areas. I myself am a second year classroom art teacher, and prior to being in the classroom I worked in museum education with a focus on visual art.  In addition to teaching elementary art, I am an artist myself and create my own work in my free time.  The debate about the importance of arts education seems to gain more and more arts advocates as time goes on, and the reason for that is one that artists, musicians, and performers have known for a long time: the arts teach us to be artistic thinkers, which encompasses the creative problem solving skills and critical thinking strategies that are desired in the world we live in today.

The nature of the arts is very open-ended.  When presented with a problem or project guidelines in an arts classroom, students can come up with many innovative solutions rather than one concrete right or wrong answer. According to VAEA representative Cindy Wells her summer 2014 advocacy article, “An art-making prompt allows for as many answers as there are students. When divergent thinking is accepted and nurtured, students are free to innovate and come up with novel solutions to problems.”   The arts are an area open for experimentation in a safe environment, a place where failures are low-impact and are easily interpreted as learning opportunities to build on rather than dead ends or stopping points.  In my own teaching experience, I have watched students turn the frustration of not being able to paint something ‘perfectly’ into being happy with a painting that focuses less on realism and more on color and line, a painting that is more uniquely their own style.  Arts educators are always pushing children towards these solutions by asking them questions about their work and encouraging them to think about how they are creating in new ways.  The arts are powerful because they communicate feelings and ideas. An arts classroom is a place where students are encouraged draw parallels between their life and their artwork to make it meaningful, and examine the artwork of others by searching for context clues to understand concepts and big ideas.  The arts also nurture the emotional and mental well-being of students.  My coworker Carrie Green teaches music at Larchmont Elementary, and sees music as a powerful tool for nurturing her students:  “I started my career over a decade ago in a school where many students were disadvantaged and from lower income households-experiencing the hardships that entailed. Some would come in sleep-deprived, hungry, demoralized or angry. When they came into my classroom, sang and danced with me, I witnessed music soothe those burdens of their minds and bodies. For those forty-five minutes in my care, they knew they mattered, that their contributions were important and that I was always listening to them. I saw music transform children and when class was over, they left my room in a healthier emotional and mental state-one more conducive to learning.” 

Every child will not grow up to be a sculptor or a musician or an actor.  But arts education is not about creating musicians or artists; arts education is about creating artistic thinkers.  An artistic thinker can look at a problem and see both the big picture and the details, and can see how the parts of something impact the whole.  An artistic thinker can take a step back from a situation and see all the avenues that led to that moment, and all the different paths that could be taken moving forward.  An artistic thinker is interested and curious, is unwilling to settle for just doing the minimum and eager to try new things.  An artistic thinker is a lifelong learner, constantly testing the boundaries of what they know and investigating new areas of knowledge.  An artistic thinker is emotionally intelligent, and is observant of those around them in order to perceive changes in behavior that might show signs of distress.  An artistic thinker is a proactive and good citizen because of all these traits.  Education is not just about learning facts, figures, and procedures, though these things are very important.  Education is about creating citizens that we are comfortable with inheriting our world with all its’ problems in hopes that they can make it an even better place.


Amanda Outcalt is a local artist and elementary school art teacher at Larchmont in Norfolk, VA. You can learn more about her art work on her website.