Bowen: Arts crucial to creativity, innovation

Commissioner Bowen headshotBy Argy Nestor

This post is also published on the meartsed blog.

The Commissioner of Education, Stephen Bowen, graciously took the time to answer questions about arts education for the meartsed blog. I look forward to continuing the important work of Maine arts education with the Commissioner as we move toward transforming our schools for 21st-century learning and students.

Argy Nestor: As Maine’s Commissioner of Education, what is your vision of the role of arts education in our schools and communities?

Stephen Bowen: I think it is critical. If you look at what thinkers like Daniel Pink are saying, the economy of the future will be one in which creativity and innovation play a central role.  I think we have to see to it that our students are exposed to the arts and that they develop their creative capacities.

AN: Maine arts educators appreciate your commitment to the arts education assessment initiative. The Teacher Leader arts educators who are participating in the initiative have stepped forward and made a commitment to helping others in our state become better educators and to improve their curriculum, instruction and assessment of the arts.  What message do you have for them?

SB: The message I have is that I thank them for taking on this important work. It is becoming increasingly clear that none of us is going to be able to make our schools better on our own. We are going to have to work more collaboratively, and one of my top priorities is to develop a state-level online clearinghouse where educators can share what works. That way, we can, all of us, work collectively to build capacity in order to meet the needs of every student.

AN: You have a daughter who has benefited from her involvement in visual and performing arts education. As a parent, what do you think is important about the education your daughter receives from the arts?

SB: I think both of my girls have benefited from arts education. I think they both see value in artistic expression, and I think they both have developed an appreciation for the talent and dedication that artists bring to their craft. They also, I think, have come to understand the important role that the arts can play in helping us understand our world and appreciate it. All of this is critical to their education.

AN: I know it is early, but can you share where you imagine arts education in the Department’s comprehensive state strategic plan?

SB: I think it will cut across the strategic plan. As we move to a student-centered, proficiency-based model of education, students will be given more voice in how they choose to learn and more choice in how they demonstrate that learning. When given “voice and choice,” I think we’ll see students employing the arts as a way to share understanding. A true standards-based system will also require, of course, that students demonstrate mastery of the state’s art standards, so it will appear there as well.

AN: What did you see and hear on your listening tour that you think all Maine arts educators should pay attention to?

SB: The parents I talked with expressed a great deal of concern about how our test-driven focus on math and language arts, combined with recent budget cuts, has led to a scaling back of art programs. They then connected that to issues around student motivation – if the programs that students enjoy are cut back, it gets tougher and tougher to motivate kids to engage at school, which creates issues for parents and teacher alike. There is a great deal of concern about a narrowing of the curriculum, and I think that is, in part, driving the backlash we’re seeing towards NCLB [No Child Left Behind]. We have to be aware of this sentiment, which is widespread, and take it into consideration as we think about how to move forward in this new era of NCLB waivers.

AN: Do you have any ideas on how higher education can collaborate with arts education PreK-12 to strengthen and build on programs in arts education?

SB: I think students will benefit from any steps we take to break down the barriers between K-12 and higher ed, regardless of the content area. It certainly seems, though, as though the arts lend themselves to this kind of collaboration. With the technology we have today, it seems as though there are plenty of opportunities for sharing. Perhaps that is something that can be a focus of our efforts to build a state-level clearinghouse for the sharing of best practices.

AN: How do you imagine we can foster creativity in communities and the Maine economy?

SB: Going back to Daniel Pink again, he sees the economy moving forward as being one that places a high value on creativity. That means we need to think about arts education in the context of innovation. We need arts education to inform that creative aspect, but we also need a business climate that encourages innovation and risk-taking. We want a vibrant, entrepreneurial climate that makes it easy to take creative new, ideas and get them out there into the marketplace. If we play our cards right, there is no reason why Maine can’t become a center for innovation and entrepreneurship with a strong focus on the arts.

Argy Nestor is the Visual and Performing Arts content specialist at the Maine Department of Education.