What your kids learn in art class — and why it matters

Arts education sometimes gets short shrift — but it could be the key to raising more creative, engaged citizens.

Access to arts education varies across the province, and ArtsLink NB wants to change that

ArtsLink NB is hosting a series of town halls across the province with the aim of figuring out what kids are learning in art classes — and how to improve access to arts education. (Submitted by ArtsLink NB)

New Brunswickers tend to worry about how their children are doing in math, reading and science: what resources exist, how classroom time is being used, and how students perform on standardized tests.

Art class, though? Not so much of a priority.

That needs to change, according to Gillian Dykeman, executive director of the provincial artist's association ArtsLink NB.

Art is part of literacy

"Art" doesn't just mean sculpting and painting. It includes music, art history, and classes that use art to help kids understand other subjects.

"We live in a media-saturated culture," Dykeman said. "The arts equip us with tools that reveal the process by which media is made. We need the arts more than ever in order to create literate citizens — in the fullest sense of the word."

The arts also foster "leadership, active citizenship, and an entrepreneurial mindset," she said.

"Entrepreneurship is really nothing more than really creative problem-solving. The arts help students grow to know their own voice, and stick their neck out in the way that entrepreneurs have to do time and time again."

Gillian Dykeman, executive director of ArtsLink NB, says arts education helps kids navigate an increasingly media-saturated world. (Submitted by ArtsLink NB)

But with no standard art curriculum, and no guarantee of an art teacher or an art specialist on staff at every school, "a lot of teachers don't know about these programs," Dykeman said, and what kids learn is "very much dependent on what community you live in."

Not every school has a great arts wing or great art teachers.

"There's a disparity in who has access to what," she said.

This week, a series of town halls are taking place in Saint John, Fredericton, Miramichi and Moncton to shed light on what kids are learning in art — and identify simple, low-cost solutions to teach it more effectively.

Following Maine, francophone schools

The town halls were inspired in part by Maine's Statewide Arts Education Census, a year-long collaboration between the Maine Arts Commission and the Maine Department of Education, designed to improve arts education. In 2016, the Maine census achieved a 95 percent response rate, reporting on 97 percent of Maine's students.

According to the 2016 Maine Arts Commission report, arts education is recognized for its role in "fostering young imaginations and promoting critical thinking skills, skills that are essential to a twenty-first-century workforce."

ArtsLink NB will update the public on the findings in fall 2018, and start recommending pilot projects to be rolled out in local schools starting in 2019. (Julia Wright / CBC)

In an emailed statement, the Department of Education expressed its support for ArtsLink NB's research project, saying the town halls will "help identify challenges and opportunities for what Anglophone arts education could look like in the future."

"Government looks forward to learning more about the feedback and recommendations received at these town halls once they conclude," the statement said. 

New Brunswick does have some innovative art programs, such as VanGO!, which brings works from the New Brunswick Art Bank into schools, and the artist-in-residence programs for K-12 schools.

But Dykeman said the province could also learn from the public engagement sessions held in francophone schools by Association acadienne des artistes professionnelles du Nouveau-Brunswick, which represents francophone artists of all disciplines.

Francophone schools have gone "from having 100 artists per year visiting schools, to 1,000," she said.

"Over the years, they've done a couple of these and they can show improvement where they've put in new programming, had then better access and uptake and engagement with those mediums."

An ArtsLink NB open house. Town halls are being held this week in Saint John, Fredericton, Miramichi and Moncton. (Submitted by ArtsLink NB)

Better access to education

At the moment, Dykeman said, what we know about art classes across New Brunswick is "principally anecdotal."

In co-operation with the Department of Education, ArtsLink NB plans to develop a report using feedback from parents, teachers, and older students at the town halls to be held from 6 to 8 p.m. at the following locations:

  • Tuesday, March 13,  at the Ville in Fredericton.
  • Wednesday March 14, at the Anglophone School District North office in Miramichi.
  • Thursday March 15, at the Moncton Public Library.

Two online surveys will also be made available: one for members of the public and another aimed specifically at teachers.

ArtsLink NB will update the public on the findings in the fall and start recommending pilot projects to be rolled out in local schools starting in 2019.

"Hopefully, in the coming years, we'll develop more robust access to arts education," said Dykeman.

"We don't know what that looks like yet. Hopefully, this will help us find out."

About the Author

Julia Wright

Julia Wright is a reporter based in Saint John. She has been with the CBC since 2016.