On Zippers and Learning in Arts Education

I am having many internal conversations about learning from watching my daughter’s discovery of the world. Yesterday we spent 20 minutes with a 7″ zippered pouch. Zip. Unzip. Zip. Unzip.

Because her fine motor skills are still “under construction,” the 20 minutes Evelyn spent with this bag was not entirely independent play. She relied on me to show her where to place her hands, encourage her to keep trying, and, every once in awhile, model for her exactly what to do to get the zipper open/closed.

This experience led me to wonder about repetition. And practice. And about the relationships between the two. And what role repetition plays in learning the arts, specifically.

Zip. Unzip.
Back and forth.
Cause and effect.
The knowledge that I can manipulate an object.
Discovering the purpose of a tool.
Zip. Unzip.

I have no idea exactly what she’s learning. I’m glad, too, because if I totally understood it, I would probably narrow the task unnecessarily in order to help her master it and risk her discovering many of these things at once. Instead, I sat with my body engaged in the zippering and my mind thinking about learning in the arts. I wanted to capture some of these thoughts here.

Repetition. I think repetition is essential to learning skills, including language. Recently my friend Jamie and I were discussing the un/commonalities of music and visual art. She suggested that art is more like science (based in discovery) and music is more like learning a language (based on skillful use of vocabulary). Together, we considered how even though we assume that because they are both methods of expression they have much in common, they are quite different, especially in how they are taught in K-12 classrooms.

I am going to estimate that 90% or more of the many hours I spent in music rooms during elementary, middle, and high school were hours spent “practicing;” that is, learning a series of songs for the purpose of performance and repeating sections of those songs over and over until we could sing/play them proficiently. I learned the skills I needed to play songs that other people had written through repetition.

Zip. Unzip. Zip. Unzip.

Now, whether you think that music education should be so performance-based is not a topic I plan to take on here. Rather, I hope to have illustrated that my experience “learning” music (which I do not think is at all uncommon), in most instances, was like learning a language. In order to help me reach a level of fluency, my teachers led me through exercises that relied on repetition, and gradually introduced new concepts…just like in my German class, but with the intention of a final public performance. I think the notable difference between repetition and practice is the idea that practice is repetition with a specified end goal in mind.

However, I had the reverse experience while spending many hours in visual art studios during elementary, middle, and high school. We weren’t “practicing.” Even though we often exhibited our works at the end of the year, we didn’t consider our class time “practice” for a final show. In fact, the only repetition or practice related to art-making I remember is when I would complete a task that required a specific, defined outcome (such as cutting a mat or mixing a color) incorrectly the first time and have to do it again. The only memory I have of repeating something over and over during any art studio experience was during my intro to drawing and intro to painting classes in college, where it wasn’t uncommon to draw from the same still life or model for weeks on end. But, that wasn’t consistent with my experience K-12. In my K-12 years, art education was about discovery. We played with ideas via a variety of materials. We created pieces of social commentary, and (gasp!) made some holiday-based projects to the delight of my parents’ refrigerator. In zipper language, once we had unzipped and zipped the bag once, why would we do it again?

Zip. Unzip.
Reverse experiences.
My music education experience relied less on repetition as I grew older. My first memory of being asked to make my own music was when I was 17 years old and one of 6 students in the music theory class at our high school.
My art education experience relied more on repetition as I grew older. I was somewhat surprised to enter undergraduate studio classes that were based almost exclusively on learning the “proper” technique of one media…when I was 18 years old.

So perhaps repetition is vital to learning skills, which includes techniques in both music and visual art. In my experience, K-12 music education was centered on mastering technique in a way that my K-12 visual arts education was not.

However, theories about learning, especially the updated version of Bloom’s Taxonomy, suggest that creating is a higher form of thinking than remembering (under which the word “repeat” is used). Such hierarchies have influenced the call from many education groups to ensure students are engaged in “higher order thinking” and “21st century” skills.

I then wonder how such hierarchies might inadvertently esteem some types of learning (and thus some subjects) and demean others. Visual art education (based on my experience) looks like a champion when judged on a scale like this, but boy do visual art educators struggle to authentically assess our students’ learning. Meanwhile, music education looks rather defeated, commonly relying on the “lowest” thinking skills, but the music educators I work with have a significantly easier time assessing student learning.

What an interesting place for these fields within arts education to be, given a broader education climate that currently wants teachers teaching higher order thinking skills and attempting to assess such skills on standardized test. Classic mis-match of learning goals and assessment measures, if you ask me.

Zip. Unzip.
Evelyn, maybe someday you and I will talk about these things out loud, and you will have answers to questions that I can barely articulate about learning and about the arts. And by that time, you will have lost your interest in zipping and unzipping, but hopefully not in discovery.