Muted Colors and Blurry Lines: Ten Benefits of Quality Arts Education

By Jessica Hoffmann Davis, founder of the Arts in Education Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education

“Look,” I whisper to my small grandson,
pointing across the lake.
The morning light embraces the scene,
pastel colors emerge in layered parfait.
The water, the shore, the sky. I ask,
“What color are the mountains?”
He is amused. “I don’t see mountains.”
“What color are the hills?” He contemplates,
“They should be green or brown.”
“Yes but what do you see?” Reluctantly,
abandoning what he thinks must be,
“Look,” he leans in close, “Pink.”
One of the most important things that art making teaches our children is how to see. How to really see and notice what is there no matter how improbable—to see beyond the given to what is possible in our imagination. The human ability to imagine is inborn, but this precious capacity is fragile—there to nurture or ignore throughout our children’s education.
In school my grandson is learning the difference between mountains and hills as measured by specific height, not relative regard. He learns that grass is green, the sky is blue, and trees are brown. There is no room for unexpected shades or hyperbolic description on the standardized tests that he will take. He is entering a world of black and white, right and wrong, and the scribbled edges of grey are left behind along with the artistic activities that used to fill his day.
In the current climate of high stakes testing, we need to make room for imagination in our children’s lives at school. Too many kindergarten children have art and music only once a week, too many middle school children are without a single arts class, and too many high school students who would be engaged by the arts, are giving up on school. Some youth find arenas for success in after school arts programs; others are unable to imagine a reality or a future different from what they know.
These students would be enlarged by as simple an assignment as taking a photograph or drawing an object. When they think of what to include and what to leave out of their image, they begin to see objects fully and to notice their details. Beyond that, acting as artists, they experience their own mattering, understanding that their decisions make all the difference. When you create your drawing of that lakeside scene, you can make the mountains yellow—the sky wildly magenta. You are in charge of what you make through art. Your vision counts in it all.
Individuals who have experienced an arts-filled education are not surprised by what I say. Many graduates of programs like Interlochen go on to professional careers in the arts and benefit in obvious ways from early training and support. But those who go on to non-arts careers benefit as well and carry their artful vision and aesthetic understandings into everything they do. Their training has equipped them all for participation in the conversation that the arts fuel across time, circumstance, and culture.
In a world that is short on arts education, those of us who have strong arts backgrounds have an obligation to be advocates for arts learning. Like the image of the outsider artist, arts education has tottered on the edge of the mainstream, clinging for a tenuous place on the boundaries of extracurricular. But the arts belong front and center in our children’s education and we must advocate for them in their own terms.
For too long, arts advocates have taken the low ground, arguing to those who hold the strings that arts education will make students better at subjects that people really care about. In 1957, when the Russians launched the first satellite, North American educators prioritized science and math—areas that might make the United States more competitive. Today, educators look for creativity and invention in an interdisciplinary model that includes science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). How is it possible that conversations about creative vision do not even include the arts?
Have advocates for arts education brought this omission on themselves by arguing for so many years that the arts will raise math grades, SAT scores or even IQ? These frail attempts to sneak the arts through the back door evoke outcomes that can be reached just as effectively through non-arts venues, if not more so.
What if we were to finally advocate for what it is the arts do that other subjects do not? Then we might find the arts in their rightful place at the center of any discussion of creativity and invention.
What do we find when we take a close look at arts teaching and learning? I have argued in much of my writing* that we find five distinct features of the arts, each of which gives rise to two very specific learning outcomes—essential learning that the arts provide that other subjects do not. These features and outcomes can fuel a more authentic discussion of why the arts are important to our children, not as handmaidens to non-arts subjects, but as singular agents to the kind of thinking and doing upon which societal advancement relies.

Imagination and Autonomy

First of all, arts’ learning concerns a tangible product—something we can hear or read or view that was not there before the artist conceived and constructed it. Whether it is a play or a poem or an original musical composition, there is a produced object at the center of our learning in the arts. Through the creation of their own work and in their understanding of the art works of others, students must apply and develop that precious ability to imagine. To think beyond the given to what philosophers have called the “what if.” What if I move my arm jerkily, how will that affect my dance performance? What if I add a bright yellow background to this drawing, how will it change the mood? At the center of this imagining is the maker of art, the student whose decisions determine the outcome of the work. And that decision-making and execution help students realize their own mattering.

Expression and Empathy

Secondly, works of art express emotion. It is true that in a painting or play or dance of piece of music that we can learn about the history of a period or the fashion of a time. But works of art embody and convey emotion in ways that other human constructs do not. On this account students who study the arts learn about their own feelings by expressing themselves through artistic production. Further, they learn about others’ emotions as they strive to make sense of timeless works of art and the creations of their peers.

Interpretation and Respect

While my grandson is learning the precise distinction between the height of a hill vs. that of a mountain, the arts will teach him about ambiguity—about the way a mountain can on the one hand represent fear and challenge, and on the other, tranquility and peace. Because the arts are ambiguous—because they can be interpreted in many different ways, arts’ learning introduces our children to interpretation, the ability to make different and equally valid sense out of a single work of art. And with the acquisition of skills of sense-making in art, comes the realization that other’s sense-making can be as valid as one’s own. Beyond the black and white of right and wrong, in the gray of interpretation, lies respect for a variety of points of view.

Inquiry and Reflection

Both the creation of a work of art and the making sense of another’s work is an ongoing process. The arts are famously process oriented. Educators have taken an interest in the portfolios of artists as vehicles for collecting and reviewing student work over time. Some educators argue that student folios should be called processfolios and their most important goal is the acquisition of skills of self-assessment, the ability to explain why something was done and consider its effectiveness. The process orientation of works of art invites our students into a conversation around real questions—questions that do not have right or wrong answers but may lead to new questions that advance the creation of new works as well as the understanding of works by others.

Engagement and Responsibility

Last, implicit in works of art in all media is a connection between artists and audiences across time and circumstance. Once a student has made a drawing or taken a photograph, she will see drawings and photographs in galleries in a new light. When a student has experienced the joy of being part of an ensemble, he will understand the connection that comes from co-creating a performance piece. The sense of engagement that making and sharing perpetuates, extends beyond the moment of performance or the encounter in the gallery to a profound realization of one’s own humanity, one’s own participation in the cultural landscape. And with that comes, as we so often see in the powerful social commentary that artists provide, a sense of responsibility to each other and to the broader scene of humankind.

These arguments fuel a brave agenda that speaks to what arts’ learning does in and of itself. The apparently clear-cut edges of the subjects featured in STEM do not make them more valuable to society than the less quantifiable virtues of the arts. Since when did “beyond measure” have negative connotation? 

If the outcomes outlined above are not paramount in our dreams and ambitions for the education of our children, then I believe we have surely lost our way. In a sea of standardization, surrounded by the perils of right and wrong answers, good and bad, black and white, let us turn to the arts to remind our children that the world is filled with curves where you expect angles and pinks where you expect green, muted colors and blurry lines that inspire us to realize our human potential to interpret and to create.

Read more work by Dr. Jessica Hoffmann Davis online at