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«Edward P. Clapp Towards a New Concept of Arts Education: Second World Conference on Arts Education; Seoul, Korea Harvard University, USA ...»

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Envisioning the Future of Arts Education: Challenging Core

Assumptions, Addressing Adaptive Challenges, and Fostering the Next

Generation of Arts Education Leaders

Edward P. Clapp

Towards a New Concept of Arts Education: Second World Conference on Arts Education; Seoul, Korea

Harvard University, USA


In the United States the field of arts education experienced a period of rapid growth

following the establishment of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in 1965. As a result, arts education programs in schools and arts education organizations offering a wide array of arts teaching and learning experiences for a broad constituency group began to flourish throughout the late-1960s and 70s. While the field of arts education has made great strides towards honing its practice and developing itself as a profession, both the arts and arts education must now assess their contemporary significance and consider drastically re-conceiving themselves in order to meet the demands of a post-modern era.

Since the founding of the NEA the rise of globalization and the rapid pace of digital technology have changed the way we know, experience, and participate in our sociocultural surround. While many individuals in the field of arts education have worked hard to stay abreast of cultural changes, some may argue that the field as a whole largely adheres to a set of core assumptions that may no longer be applicable to our contemporary cultural landscape. In this essay I argue that the field of arts education must undergo a radical transformation in order to maintain its relevancy. At the heart of this transformation lies the task of reassessing the field’s core assumptions.

To begin this process, the field of arts education must first identify its core assumptions to gain an accurate understanding of the underlying purposes, procedures, and principles by which the field operates. Having identified these core assumptions, the field must then test the validity of these foundational understandings. Where necessary, the core assumptions of the field must be defined anew in order for arts education to not only survive, but thrive in the decades ahead.

Identifying and challenging the field’s core assumptions, however, are no simple tasks.

This process will require field leaders to step outside of their practice to recognize (read:

“re-cognize”) what presumed truths inform their every decision. Who does this work, however, is just as important as what the work is that needs to be done.

At the same time as the field of arts education is struggling to play catch-up with digital technology, globalization, and its own attempts at professionalization, there is yet another challenge that looms over the field. In 2011 the oldest members of the Baby Boomer generation (individuals born 1946-64) will turn 65. As this generation reaches retirement age, the field of arts education will be facing a dramatic generational shift in leadership.

While this anticipated shift in leadership is not unique to the arts sector, it is important to point out that unlike many corporate industries with long-standing histories of practice, the field of arts education (as with many other non-profit sectors) was largely established in the 1960s and 70s by Baby Boomers (Saunders, 2006). The core assumptions of the field, it can be argued, have both been conceived and continually ratified from Baby Boomer perspectives. While the beliefs, values, and operating mechanisms instituted by this influential generational cohort once propelled the field forward, continuing to rely on the dominant voice of Baby Boomer arts education leaders may actually impede the field from progressing into the 21st Century. 1 In order to most accurately identify and challenge the field’s core assumptions, it is imperative that the perspectives of younger arts education professionals be brought into dialogue with the Baby Boomers who have traditionally served as the field’s leaders.

Naturally, conflicts may arise in how arts education professionals from different generational cohorts make meaning of the world—but conflict is good. As leadership

theorist Ronald Heifetz (1994) notes:

…the ability to adapt requires the productive interaction of different values through which each member or faction in a society sees reality and its challenges. Without conflicting frames of reference, the social system scrutinizes only limited features of its problematic environment. It operates at the mercy of its blind spots because it cannot prepare for what it does not see (p. 33).

In order to successfully identify and challenge its core assumptions, in order to see beyond its blind spots and pursue a path of adaptive change, it is necessary to engage not just the field’s most time-honored and trusted authorities, but its emerging and most radically thinking young professionals as well.


1 Using the cultural evolution of Easter Islanders as a case study, Ronald Heifetz discusses how “the beliefs that once played a central role in a robust society became impediments to further adaption” (Heifetz, 1994, p. 32).  Identifying Adaptive Challenges in Arts Education Now a decade into the 21st Century the field of arts education faces unique challenges that divide its constituents, stifle its progress, compromise its relevance, and threaten its survival in the decades to come. At this very moment the way we experience, understand, teach, fund, and advocate for the arts are in flux. Change is not necessarily a bad thing, but the changes now faced by arts education are of the variety that challenge the very nature of what we do, how we do it, where we do it, and why we do it (See Appendix A).

Heifetz and Laurie (1999) identify such challenges as being adaptive challenges. Adaptive challenges differ from technical challenges in that routine procedures cannot be called upon to solve problems that go beyond the capacities of traditional technical expertise.

Differentiating Between Adaptive and Technical Challenges

Technical challenges are the types of problems we know how to solve using technical expertise—routine know-how or common procedures we’ve previously established to maintain the systems we’ve become accustomed to working within. Adaptive challenges, by comparison, are much more problematic than technical challenges. Whereas technical challenges can be solved with technical expertise, adaptive challenges “require experiments, new discoveries, and adjustments from numerous places” (Heifetz & Linsky, 2002, p. 13). In essence, all one needs to do to solve a technical challenge is to employ skills one already has. In order to address an adaptive challenge, it is necessary to develop entirely new ways of conceiving the system within which the challenge is taking place. Technical expertise cannot be employed to address an adaptive challenge for the simple fact that, by nature, adaptive challenges go beyond the scope of the system within which technical expertise resides. The only way to address an adaptive challenge is to reconstitute the system that it is challenging. Of course, this is easier said than done. Not only are systems difficult to change, but having the clarity to be able to identify what to change in any given system is a hard enough challenge all on its own.

One of the first steps towards addressing an adaptive challenge is to engage in what Heifetz and Linsky (2002) describe as “getting on the balcony” (p. 51). Using a dance metaphor, Heifetz and Linsky suggest that in the thick of a dance party revelers spend all of their energy focused on the whirling and spinning of their bodies on the dance floor—a process of engaging some dancers while attempting to respect the personal space of others. Lights are flashing. Music is pulsing. Bodies are coming into contact with one another. Space is being negotiated and then renegotiated… with all of these sensory experiences happening at once, it’s hard for any given dancer to see what’s going on across the dancehall outside the small space that he/she may occupy at any given time.

By “getting on the balcony” and looking down on the party below we are able to view a problem from above for the purpose of understanding how broader systems function and, therefore, how those systems may be entirely reinvented, rewired, retooled, and otherwise made anew. After gaining the perspective of a “balcony view” we are then able to head back down to the party and—potentially—change the nature of the dance entirely. The first step, then, towards developing an adaptive approach to problem solving is to gain some perspective—to see what’s really going on.

Gaining Perspective: Identifying Our Core Assumptions

Identifying our core assumptions is a lot like getting on the balcony. Whereas gaining perspective on a problem may seem pretty obvious, gaining perspective on the foundational understandings that define the field of arts education can be quite tricky.

Tricky because it requires us to step outside of our practice and identify what we hold as the truths by which we operate—trickier still because different practitioners will identify different core assumptions as being at the heart of their daily practice.

What is a Core Assumption?

In casual terminology an assumption is an idea held to be true without any proof of its truth. Assumptions appeal to us as commonsense truths to such a degree that, without deep reflection, we may never question their validity. Before Columbus sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in 1492, there was a largely held assumption that the world was flat. Before Copernicus proposed a heliocentric model of the universe in De revolutionibus orbium coelestium in 1543, there was a largely held assumption that the Sun revolved around the Earth. Before Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species in 1859, there was a largely held assumption that humans and apes had separate origins. In all cases, the assumptions that were held were largely accepted as truths. 2 These truths were maintained for centuries with little evidence to support their validity. If for no other reason—commonsense was the


The author notes that the in each case, the ideas of Columbus, Copernicus, and Darwin were indeed explored by thinkers before them.

foundation of these truths. 3 Once science debunked what seemed to be true the assumptions that the world was flat, that the Sun revolved around the Earth, and that man and ape have separate ancestors were then replaced with new assumptions—or theories—that were not based on common sense, but on careful consideration of what could be observed by gaining a new perspective on dominant assumptions.

What did Columbus, Copernicus, and Darwin all share in common? They each were able to get on the balcony in a manner that helped them gain a new perspective. They each then used their new perspectives to question the core assumptions of their respective fields, conducted experiments that tested these assumptions, posited new approaches to practice, and then ultimately headed back down to the party to instill conceptual change.

In their book Immunity to Change Kegan and Lahey (2009) suggest that “Big Assumptions” are at the core of what prevents individuals and organizations from reaching their

improvement goals:

We call them “big assumptions” because they are not currently viewed as “assumptions” at all.

Rather, they are taken as true. They may not be, but as long as we simply assume they are true, we are blind to even the question itself (original emphasis, p. 58).

Dick Deasy, founder and former director of the Arts Education Partnership (AEP) identifies a set of “foundational assumptions” held by the field of arts education (Deasy, 2009).

Deasy’s assumptions include such profound notions as the following:

Students learn in multiple ways and the arts provide multiple pathways for their doing so.

Quality arts programming can transform the culture and performance of schools.

Arts education is underfunded at federal, state, and local levels.

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