This time of year, I find myself having the same conversations with students with what seems like increasing frequency.
Me: “Hey Janice! I see you are doing your course selections for next year. Coming back to drama?
Janice: (With a pained, embarrassed and somewhat apologetic expression) “Sorry, Mr. Frost. I can’t take Drama in grade 11. I have to get my (*Insert Science class here) next year. I will be a) too busy or b) have no room in my schedule.”
If I had a nickel for every time I heard that, I might actually be able to retire at a reasonable age. Whether it be Advanced Placement this or High Academic that, students in our public schools, it seems, are often forced to choose. And for many, the choice is not really a choice. As a society, many Canadians seem to think of Arts education as a quaint little endeavour, meant to serve no greater purpose than to “round out” a course load. A nice little diversion from the rigors of academia. Not to be dismissed, mind you, unless of course, it gets in the way of true educational pursuits.
It seems that even here at home, we are not immune to the view of Arts education as secondary subjects. We like to say that we consider the Arts as valuable as the core sciences, but proof to the contrary can be found in the latest move by our Province towards a full year math program in grade 10. One day, the media is reporting that our math scores are low and the next day, BAM!, a brand new full year math course and a brand new curriculum. This may mean better math students, but it may also means students with fewer course options. I would love to see what sort of media storm could bring about a similar result for, say, dance.
There is a large body of research that points to the retention of math skills being inversely related to time away from the classroom, so I certainly see the value in a full year math credit. But why must there be a trade-off? Why must the pursuit of one academic path so often eliminate the exploration of another?
For many students in our schools, this is the reality that is their high school experience. In school after school, year after year, this conversation is repeated. Students must choose between courses which they feel, (and are often told), are valuable and those which are self enriching. The recent rabid “slash and burn” approach to cutting public education funding certainly has not helped the matter. I have always considered this constant, often one-sided battle for students as a fundamental structural flaw in the system. And the more I read about education, the more I see people who are agreeing with me.
All over the world, from Canada, to the US, to the U.K., people are recognizing that in order to remain vibrant and innovative, economies need to embrace areas of development outside what has been referred to as the STEM core (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math). Just this past week, the Globe and Mail carried two such stories, one talking about how educator’s in Oklahoma are working toward focussing more on the Arts http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/economy/canada-competes/oklahomas-lessons-for-teaching-creativity-hint-dont-kill-the-arts/article12088972/, and one from the UK, which had an expert exclaiming that “creative types…are key figures who have the potential to push stagnant economies back into growth.” http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/economy/canada-competes/uk-believes-in-the-economic-power-of-arts-startups/article12089028/
It is interesting to note that both these articles appeared in the paper’s business section.
I am not anti STEM. I am simply pragmatic. We want innovation and creativity in our villages, towns and cities. We want vibrant, engaged next generations. We want new ways of approaching old problems. If this is what Canadians truly want, then we need to see the value in a wide based approach to public education which equally foots Chemistry and Drama, Physics and Dance. Yes, it will cost. But to not encourage creativity and innovation among our youth will ultimately prove much more expensive.