Anyone whose school life was dominated by a passion for the arts will be familiar with the feeling that it really is the most important thing on the curriculum. But what if that was actually the case? This, to some extent, is what proponents of the Artful Learning education model believe.

Alexander Bernstein © Steve Sherman
Alexander Bernstein
© Steve Sherman

First theorised by the polymathic conductor, composer and educationalist Leonard Bernstein and developed by his family since his death in 1990, Artful Learning uses the arts as a gateway through which other areas of study can be explored. “He believed that you can learn everything from a piece of art,” says Craig Urquhart, personal assistant to Bernstein in the last years of his life, now senior Press Consultant at the Leonard Bernstein Office. “And that’s the philosophy of the Artful Learning programme: you take a masterwork, and through a masterwork you can learn math, history, literature, painting, physics – they’re all represented and connected in a masterpiece. In Artful Learning they work with Copland, or they work with the Declaration of Independence. A painting by Matisse or a theory by Newton.” Now, this arts-based learning model is reportedly having tangible results in 15 schools across the US.

How did Artful Learning start?

Those who knew Leonard Bernstein attest to his deep-seated desire to educate and inform. “He simply had to share what he knew and thought,” says the composer’s son Alexander, who is president of Artful Learning. “I think I learned more at home than I did at my fancy school.” In the public sphere, however, this could be seen in Leonard’s televised lectures and Young People’s Concerts. Described by the composer as “among my favourite, most highly prized activities of my life”, the Young People’s Concerts were staggeringly popular, running for 15 consecutive seasons between 1958 and 1972, with a 1967 edition of the programme being watched by 27 million people. But Bernstein’s urge to educate didn't stop when the Young People’s Concerts ended. When he was awarded $100,000 in the Praemium Imperiale arts prize, he invested it in an attempt to create an educational legacy, the Bernstein Education Through the Arts Fund. Working with a Nashville-based educational group, the seed for Artful Learning was sown. The family developed and refined the model in the years after his death, taking Leonard’s words from a 1973 Harvard talk as their credo: “The best way to know a thing is in the context of another discipline”. Though “interdisciplinary” has become something of a buzzword in academic circles today, it’s clear that the interconnection of different fields of study was always a part of Leonard’s philosophy, as Urquhart affirms: “He spent his life trying to break down barriers instead of putting them up. Musically, humanitarianly, educationally.”

How does Artful Learning work?

Field research and collaboration with other educators was used to develop Artful Learning as it exists today – a model which allows students from pre-school to high school ages to explore a given concept through various disciplinary angles, with a certain “masterwork” being used as a lens through which these angles are explored. A “Significant Question” is posed at the outset, guiding how the students research different aspects of the concept. The programme of learning is then split up into four “units of study”: experience, inquire, create and reflect. An example cited by the Leonard Bernstein office of how the idea is put into practice is this class, who were tasked with exploring the concept of adaptation.

It seems an attractive way of working, so are there any similar models currently in use? “Waldorf and Education Through Music come to mind”, says Alexander. “Though I haven’t seen any as comprehensive and rigorous [as Artful Learning].” It’s interesting to note that while an arts focus is part and parcel of Artful Learning, masterworks used in study don’t have to be from literature, music or visual arts – mathematical equations, works of architecture or scientific discoveries can be used too.

Students explored how the artist Chuck Close adapted to physical injury by making these paintings © Shannon Hattyar, Salvador Magnet School
Students explored how the artist Chuck Close adapted to physical injury by making these paintings
© Shannon Hattyar, Salvador Magnet School

For schools wishing to use Artful Learning, the process of implementing the teaching method fully seems fairly rigorous. Artful Learning trainers spend a week working with the whole staff and administration before the beginning of term, coming back for additional training sessions throughout the year. Alexander states that the teachers can create their own study programmes throughout this period, but reportedly it takes three years of learning before the model can be used fully, and subsequent refresher sessions are offered to schools battling against staff turnover. The numbers suggest that it’s a persuasive idea to many educators, with Alexander stating that there are currently 800 educators using the model – a total which includes the teachers at the 15 US schools currently using the model as well as independent artists who offer residencies. Reportedly the method has been used to educate 250,000 students since its inception.

Students explored the idea of adaptation by adapting the colour scheme of Van Gogh's <i>Starry Night</i> © Shannon Hattyar, Salvador Magnet School
Students explored the idea of adaptation by adapting the colour scheme of Van Gogh's Starry Night
© Shannon Hattyar, Salvador Magnet School

What are the benefits of Artful Learning?

Interested educators will of course want to know what the positive effects are to this way of working. What can it bring to schools? “A new energy,” states Alexander. “A collaborative spirit between teachers, administrators, students and parents, and also engagement with the community. When there grows an understanding of the power of the arts in the schools, the community is all the more prepared to demand arts specialists to be hired!” And what about the students themselves? “There is respect for other students and their work. They become lifelong learners!” As an example of a school in which the Artful Learning model has had a positive impact, Alexander cites the Salvador Elementary in Napa, California, which was reportedly performing poorly before the method was implemented. According to Alexander, the effect of Artful Learning on the school has been one of transformation. “Students and teachers are engaged, curious and work together in attaining deep understanding of content. Parents report that rather than the usual ‘How was school?’, ‘Fine’ conversation, students are eager to share what they've learned and what they are working on.” And what about more quantifiable results? “Yes, test scores are up (as they are in all our schools) but this is a lagging indicator, and there is very little ‘teaching to the test’ in Artful Learning schools.”

The "Original Creation" made by students to display their learning © Shannon Hattyar, Salvador Magnet School
The "Original Creation" made by students to display their learning
© Shannon Hattyar, Salvador Magnet School

While there has been interest from educators in other countries, so far the Artful Learning organisation is finding it difficult to help implement the method outside the US due to the cost of sending trainers further afield. But for teachers who do have access to the model, how best can they exploit the method? “Be brave,” asserts Alexander. “It is daunting, at first, during the early training, to paint, dance, and sing in front of your peers. But after a few days, it becomes thrilling and fosters true collaboration.” The willingness to ask questions is apparently also key: “That is at the very center of the model: questions, in learning and in art, lead not necessarily to ready answers, but to more and deeper questions, making for a habit of critical, creative thinking for a lifetime.” Talking to Alexander it’s clear that the influence of his father is still a central part of the philosophy of Artful Learning, as he states, “We like to use Leonard Bernstein as the model of an artist/teacher/scholar. Students, teachers, and administrators can all aspire, with confidence, to become that.”

To find out more about Artful Learning, contact Artful Learning Inc.