'Embodiment' key element of arts in education

University Park, Pa. — School children are more engaged when involved in artistic activities than they are when involved in other types of curricular activities, according to a Penn State researcher.

Kimberly Powell, assistant professor of curriculum & instruction and art education, has done extensive research on the role of arts in education. Her work supports the notion that integrating the arts into school curricula can enhance classroom learning.

“In an era of NCLB [No Child Left Behind] and its promotion of standardized tests as the ultimate measure of educational success, the arts offer a vastly different vision and version of educational success,” says Powell. “The arts allow for the opening up of imagination, raising our awareness of other modes of possibility. Once we see the givens, then there is an opportunity to posit alternative ways of experiencing and being in the world.”

Among Powell’s research concerns is embodiment in arts-based settings, whereby the body is an inseparable part of cognition, and sensory engagement configures knowledge and experience. “A growing number of written and artistic accounts of and through the body are challenging previously held theories about the nature of being, in which the body is seen as separate or indeed absent from cognition,” she said.

“Anyone involved in the arts, particularly the performing arts, knows how central the body is to learning,” continued Powell. “The body is both a mode of knowing and a field for inquiry in arts education.”

Powell is section editor and author of two chapters in the International Handbook of Research in Arts Education (Springer, 2007). The handbook, edited by Liora Bresler, centers on various issues in arts education research, including history of arts education, curriculum, evaluation, creativity, the body, and technology.

Powell edited the handbook’s section titled “The Body” and wrote the section’s prelude, “Moving from Still Life: The Body in Arts Education.” She also co-authored a chapter with Wayne Bowman, of Brandon University in Manitoba, titled “The Body in a State of Music.”

Much of Powell’s research focuses on the process of artistic learning, practice, and the construction of identity—“the ways in which aesthetic and artistic engagement bring about unique ways of experiencing and being in the world,” she says.

Her work contributes more generally to the collective findings—across a variety of other research studies—of the importance of the arts in personal growth and the development of healthy self-esteem, motivation, and other affective gains. Several studies have shown that children are more engaged when involved in artistic activities in school than when involved in other curricular activities. “The arts offer opportunities for expression—for example, story-telling, visual and performing arts—that are not necessarily available through other means,” she noted.

Powell noted that “the body as it is involved in learning is always present, but in a variety of different ways. We often don’t think about the body in schooling very much, and this is because we generally use the body in utilitarian ways in everyday contexts—like holding a pencil or typing at the computer. But the body is always involved in making sense of knowledge by virtue of our sensory engagement with the world. In the arts, sensory engagement, whether through sound, movement, or visual forms, is primary and is directly involved in how we learn.

“While I’m not advocating that every school subject should integrate activities focused on the body, I am suggesting that we pay attention to the environmental features in classrooms and the way they construct a rich environment for learning,” added Powell.

Powell believes that creativity can be taught, or at least nurtured and developed. “Each of us harbors the potential to think and act creatively—that is, to envision something different from what has come before, to break with tradition or convention in order to develop new insights, innovative solutions to a problem, or new visions of what is possible. Individuals can immerse themselves in a particular practice—mathematics, music, civics, science, writing—with teachers and mentors who can guide them in the knowledge and skills of that particular practice, so that they develop the competence and expertise to push beyond the given,” she said.

The benefit of artistic learning extends well beyond the classroom, says Powell: “Ultimately, I see the arts as related to the development of a healthy democratic society, a primary goal of education. Healthy democratic communities, both in and outside of schools, can only be made viable through a connection with aesthetic experience and a reclaiming of art as a part of everyday life.”

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Last Updated November 18, 2010