I just read this article from 2007, originally posted in the Boston Globe, but available here online. The point of the article is that participation in an Arts class helps students learn skills which may not be present elsewhere in their school as a result of a narrowing focus of schools on standardized testing. To summarize the article, students can learn reflection, "such skills include visual-spatial abilities, reflection, self-criticism, and the willingness to experiment and learn from mistakes" (Hetland & Winner, 2007).
It sounds to me like this list of skills closely resembles what we would consider critical thinking skills. Certainly it is an important set of skills and if this is the only place students are learning these skills, then Arts classes are critically important. However, I know that I teach these skills in my own academic area of mathematics, and that this is possible for me because I do not have to focus on a huge standardized test at the end of the school year.
In my mathematics class students are expected to write out their solutions to problems, and to reflect on what we do. Students take turn blogging about what happened in class, and commenting on each others’ summaries. Assessment is done using projects for which students are given time to detail complete solutions, and more importantly detail the thinking the students did to arrive at these solutions. Students have to evaluate their own work, and look for ways to improve it.
We take the time to do experiments in class to verify accuracy mathematical formulas. For example, we will go out to the soccer field and use cones to create right triangles, and then compare the actual lengths of the triangles to what trigonometry and the Pythagorean theorem say the lengths should be. We talk about experimental error, and the importance in accuracy of measurements. Students whose results differ greatly from the theory go back and do it again. If no one in the class were able to achieve the theoretical results, we would revise our experiment as a class and do it again. All sorts of mathematics can be taught through experiments and I find these experiences invaluable for the learning of the students.
Fortunately at the school I work at, Arts education is not in danger. We are a small private school and our head has recently invested in our students’ learning of art by hiring a full-time learning specialist for art. However I know this is not typical of schools, more and more Arts and Music are being removed from schools because of budgetary concerns and a desire to improve students’ performance on standardized testing. There just isn’t the time to devote to the Arts in the school-wide curriculum.
You can change your own classroom so that the Arts is embedded in what you do if your school district is too short-sighted. Critical thinking skills are too important to be discarded in favor of standardization of education.