The Importance of Art Education in Academic and Career Success

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The following article appeared in Cairo West December 2016 

As the academic year kicks into high gear and exams creep ever closer, parents all over the country are encouraging their children to get down to some serious study, work hard in school and do their homework. Many are investing in extra tuition to nail those the-importance-of-art-educationi-in-academic-and-career-success-cairo-west-december-2016-3important subjects, like maths and English and science. The pressure is on to grab those A*’s and then later, get a place at a good university. But what of the other subjects on the curriculum, like art and music, and in some places, drama, and dance, which help to develop a student’s imagination and creative abilities? Too often, these subjects tend to be given little importance, and are marginalised at the expense of those that will lead directly into a career. After all, why would a prospective engineer or doctor, need to know how to draw a vase of flowers?

Albert Einstein, the world’s greatest theoretical physicist said “The greatest scientists are artists as well,” He was stating a fact that all true educationalists understand as a given: that learning and practicing the principles of art is absolutely vital to the development of critical thinking. And critical thinking not only applies to scientists, it extends to all areas of academia, whether it be maths, information technology, history or geography. A*’s will get a child into university, and maybe one day they’ll be at the top of their particular profession. But will they stand out and be the Einstein of their field? Probably not. Thinking outside the box is vital, and that is a skill that art, more than any other subject, provides.

The ability to see the world in a different way, to think around a problem and view it from a different angle, takes imagination and is the cornerstone of success in all subjects. And the more advanced the level of study, the more important the skill becomes. It’s a skill that arts educationalists can rightly claim as their own. Nowhere else in the curriculum, is it taught so comprehensively and with such a powerful focus on the real world. Imagination is where all human success springs from. Imagination is, let’s be blunt about this; the womb of critical thinking.

Art lessons play an important role in nurturing young minds and developing their creative and imaginative abilities, and this spills over into non-art related subjects.  A comprehensive study by James Catterall, professor of education at the University of California in Los Angeles, reported that students who had more involvement in the arts scored better in standardised tests. Catterall said:

“While education in the arts is no magic bullet for what ails many schools, the arts warrant a place in the curriculum because of their intimate ties to most everything we want for our children and schools.”

If parents are worried about the academic success of their children, then more art is needed, not less. It has been widely reported that involvement in the arts can lead to gains in maths, reading, verbal skills, critical thinking, cognitive ability, motivation, concentration, confidence, and teamwork. According to ‘Americans for the Arts’ children are four times more likely to get noted for academic success, when they participate regularly in art activities.

In the area of language development, the practice of art for younger children provides opportunities for them to talk about their work, learning the words for different colours, shapes, and the motor skills employed. They learn to use descriptive words to discuss their work and talk about their feelings in relation to their work and the work of others.

The development of motor skills is also enhanced through an engagement with art. Holding a paintbrush, using scissors and scribbling with a crayon help with the growth of the finer motor skills that are needed at a later stage of development. Art engagement helps develop the dexterity needed for writing.

In a world filled with smartphones, tablets, laptops, televisions and other technological gadgets, visual literacy is more important than ever. Drawing, painting, making things from clay or sticking beads onto a collage contribute substantially to the development of visual literacy.

According to Dr Kerry Freedman, Head of Art and Design Education at Northern Illinois University: “Parents need to be aware that children learn a lot more from graphic sources now than in the past. Children need to know more about the world than just what they can learn through text and numbers. Art education teaches students how to interpret, criticize, and use visual information, and how to make choices based on it.”

The world that children are moving into, is one filled with visual stimuli of all kinds: marketing logos, advertising hoardings, and other graphic symbols, delivered through a variety of media, and at an ever-increasing pace. Having a developed sense of visual literacy helps children and young adults navigate this world, and become smart consumers and producers.

“The kind of people society needs to make it move forward are thinking, inventive people who seek new ways and improvements, not people who can only follow directions. Art is a way to encourage the process and the experience of thinking and making things better!” says MaryAnn Kohl, an arts educator and author of numerous books about art education. By encouraging children to express themselves and to make things that previously hadn’t existed in the world, they start to develop a sense of innovation and inventiveness that will be necessary skills in their adult lives.

Allied to the ability to understand the society that exists around us, is cultural awareness. We are constantly bombarded with images from around the world, and we read the world according to our understandings of it. That understanding is framed against our own culture, which we buy into based on social values and the influence of our parents, relatives, friends and colleagues, amongst other things. Through the study of art, we can start to contextualise other cultures and learn that what an artist or designer portrays is simply their interpretation of reality, which may be different, but equally valid, to our own. We develop an insight into other ways of being.

Art has a long and proud history in Egypt, perhaps more so than in any other country. The history of Egypt, and thus civilisation itself, going back several millennia, is told through the creative, visual expressions of generations of artists and craftsmen who highly prized their artistic abilities and creative skills. What would be left of ancient Egypt, were it not for the work of artists? Very little.

“When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come close to the conclusion that the gift of imagination has meant more to me than any talent for absorbing absolute knowledge… Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world,” Einstein said, and in this, he sums up the cultural urgency there is for an educational refocusing on not only visual art but the other Arts of music, dance, and drama as well.

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About Steve Gooch

Steve Gooch was born in March 1962 in Rugby, Warwickshire in England and grew up there with his two brothers and sister. He moved to Corsham in Wiltshire and attended Bath Academy of Art, where he studied sculpture and printmaking, before going on to work on projects for the artists Joe Tilson and Nick Pope. He also helped with the publication of a limited edition folio of Paul Eluard’s poetry. Steve moved to London to study for a postgraduate teaching certificate and then worked as a teacher of art in the UK. He gained his MA in Education with the Open University and also studied the discipline of Reiki with his Reiki teachers in Newcastle upon Tyne. His daughter Marianne was born in 1994. For a period of time, Steve devoted himself to teaching Reiki in his hometown of Rugby, before moving to Egypt, where he resumed his career as an art teacher, becoming the Head of Art in a prestigious British International School in Cairo. He continued to teach Reiki, introducing the discipline for the first time to Egypt. He also wrote extensively on the subject for various Egyptian English-language magazines. Returning to the UK, Steve’s son Sam was born in 2004. Not wanting to go back into the teaching profession, Steve took a job as a chef in a vegetarian restaurant and wrote his first book ‘Reiki Jin Kei Do: The Way of Compassion & Wisdom’. It was the world’s first book on that particular tradition of Reiki and is still considered to be the standard reference work on the subject. Steve them moved to Sudan, where he was again Head of Art at the prestigious Unity High School, and built an online living history for the school, called 'The Unity High School Archive'. It was in the process of building this archive that Steve uncovered a major scandal involving senior members of the Anglican Church, local dignitaries, and members of the faith communities. As a consequence, he got to know the head of the Secret Police in Khartoum quite well and then promptly left the country. Steve moved back to Egypt and took up a post as Head of Art in a school in Alexandria. Very much involved in the Reiki community in the UK, however, he founded the national organisation ‘Reiki Jin Kei Do UK’ and became the editor of ‘Focus: The Journal of Reiki Jin Kei Do UK’, and then set up the global ‘Reiki Jin Kei Do International’. He also set up the global video-arts project '12seconds for Peace'. The concept grabbed the attention of a number of big names in the peace movement, including Nobel Peace Prize nominees, and threatened to go viral. Circumstances (revolutions and social unrest) put it on the back-burner. Likewise, a major peace initiative called the 'Global Concert for Peace', scheduled for the summer of 2013, which would have been the world's biggest musical event, also went on the back-burner. Steve moved to Saudi Arabia for a little over a year in 2014, before returning to Egypt to take up a senior management position in another British International School in Cairo. Finally, after a year of professional purgatory in which he realised that there is no such thing as a good British International School in Egypt, he decided ‘enough is enough’ and quit the teaching profession for good to focus on his writing, art and Reiki classes. He is currently living in Cairo and writing ‘The Temple of the Djinn’, which is loosely based on the events that he uncovered during his time in Sudan. He is also teaching Reiki and working freelance for a variety of Egyptian magazines. He misses the UK and is looking forward to spending more time in his home country with his children. He'd also like to find time to paint and make sculpture.
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