UW – Madison’s Halverson reveals “How the Arts Can Save Education”
October 18, 2021
Erica Halverson notes with a smile that she is sometimes called the âlady of the arts in educationâ.
And that makes sense. For over 25 years, she has brought the arts to schools in various forms as a performer, teacher, and now professor and researcher at UW-Madison School of Education.
While it is not uncommon for proponents of K-12 arts education to cite research that shows studying the arts in school helps students perform better in so-called core subjects. like math and reading, this is not Halverson’s goal. Instead, her experiences as an artist teacher and researcher have led her to advocate for the use of the arts – performing, visual and multimedia – in ways that fundamentally rethink what good learning can be, an education and a curriculum.
Halverson provides a model for such efforts in his soon-to-be-released book, “How the Arts Can Save Education: Transforming Teaching, Learning and Instruction. “ She presents a bold plan to save education with an arts-based approach to teaching and proposes new learning models that integrate the social, cultural and historical assets that children bring to the classroom.
âThe pandemic and its disruption to schooling has provided us with a unique opportunity to re-evaluate our values ââaround education,â said Halverson, who chairs the highly regarded Department of Curriculum and Education. “I think it’s time to turn off the driver education accountability machine that works on standardized test results.”
Halverson argues that now is the time to rethink current learning environments that evidence shows don’t work for too many children.
“It is time to question the reductionist approach to schooling that we have taken,” says Halverson. âInstead of new ideas, people tend to redouble their efforts and say, ‘We just weren’t doing the right reading interventions’ or ‘We need to add more math to the curriculum.’ But we can do better and come up with new learning models. I hope this book can shed light on the value of the arts in education.
For nearly two decades, Halverson has examined topics related to how people learn in and through the arts, across a range of art forms, with an emphasis on the performing arts. In 1998, she co-founded the Chicago-based nonprofit Playmakers Lab (originally called Barrel of Monkeys), a creative art group that teaches elementary school children creative writing – and turns their work into performance parts.
Halverson joined UW-Madison faculty in 2006, and in 2015, she helped launch a Madison version of the Playmakers Lab, calling it Whoopensocker. The program, part of the UW Community Arts Collaboratory, sends artist-teachers to elementary classrooms and after-school programs to engage students in writing, performance and other forms of active learning.
In the spring and summer of 2020, Halverson adapted the school residency program to an online format with both asynchronous videos and activities and synchronous time with the teaching artists. The material was available in English and Spanish so that emerging bilingual students had the opportunity to express themselves creatively.
During more typical periods, Whoopensocker teacher artists and students meet in person to explore creativity, aspects of theater and creative writing. Students are given journals and instructions before breaking into small groups to start making more stories with the Whoopensocker team. These meetings take place once a week, for 90 minutes, over six weeks. At the end of the six-week program, the teaching artists transform several of the students’ writings into vaudeville-style plays or musical numbers, which are then performed for the entire school.
Halverson says she has repeatedly witnessed children engage in creative writing and performances release the knowledge, skills and identities they bring to school. As an example, Halverson notes how many schools she has worked in have a large percentage of students learning English.
âResearch tells us that by bringing language and experiences together, we can better cement language learning,â she says. âSo when students write, sing and perform their work, it’s a very different experience than putting a pencil on paper. In the arts, learning outcomes are emergent and collective; we expect students to bring their stories and experiences with them to come together to create something original.
In his book, Halverson describes an arts-based approach to teaching that emphasizes risk taking as the most important aspect of a successful classroom. She explains how bMaking mistakes is not something that is generally encouraged in schools – but highlights how no one can learn if they are not willing to make a mistake. Likewise, children won’t be ready to fail – and learn from experience – if they don’t take risks.
âModeling how to take risks and react in a way that keeps the flow of ideas and learning going is a great way to integrate the arts into everyday teaching and learning,â says Halverson. âThis is the single most important gesture for teachers in the arsenal of creating a productive learning environment, whether it’s an artistic environment or a traditional classroom. “
Halverson is hoping the era of accountability – driven in large part by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 – loses some of its momentum. As schools begin to rethink what is possible for all students during this new normal brought on by the pandemic, she hopes a profound change is coming.
âWe are increasingly aware of how learning outside of school provides vital opportunities for our most vulnerable children,â says Halverson. âThe arts – dance, theater, music, visual arts and multimedia – offer us a way to imagine a future for education that is inclusive, culturally sustainable and just plain joyful. “
Halverson will be attending two upcoming events to learn more about his new book.
â¢ October 23, 12 noon – âHow the Arts Can Save Education,â a presentation by Erica Halverson at Wisconsin Book Festival. This event takes place at the Madison Central Library, Community Room 302.
â¢ November 10, 6 p.m. – A virtual conversation with Erica Halverson, author of “How the Arts Can Save Education” and Ali Muldrow, educator and chair of the Madison Metropolitan School District education council. For more information, including how to register, visit this web page A room of your own.