mentoring after school

Arts-Based Mentoring Trumps Standards-Based Education

Imposed knowledge never becomes real knowledge; that can only come from within.

Arts-based mentoring empowers students to learn creatively, from the inside out. In this post I compare arts mentoring with standards-based education, and why I think the change that’s needed will be a long time in coming.

With its focus on a narrow, one-dimensional performance, standards-based education not only misses the point, but it also compounds the mistakes of traditional education by discouraging and repelling those students who can’t relate.

Perhaps it’s the perceived need to be efficient that drives standards-based education to approach students as if they all learn in the same way. Unfortunately, this happens both in school and with after-school programs.

Treating all students the same can put students at risk because it doesn’t allow them to learn in the way that’s natural for them. As a result, we deny them the positive experiences they need to develop their unique talents and build their self-esteem.

When we deny them the authentic experience of what is positive within them, we diminish and even disable them: they have nowhere to go but to the negative.

Information Silos?

Human beings are dynamic organisms designed to be creative and to learn on their own.

Standards-based education also teaches students what to learn instead of how to learn. It treats them as if they were silos for information instead of dynamic organisms designed to be creative and to learn on their own.

Suffocating this healthy dynamic and substituting information for knowledge not only deflates the creative process, but it also disallows the opportunity for students to put the world together in a way that is meaningful and sensible to them.

It’s no wonder that students become anesthetized from being “talked at”.

A focus on imposed knowledge greatly minimizes students’ chances to develop into whole human beings. Knowledge that’s imposed from the outside never becomes real knowledge; this can only come from within a person. By primarily teaching information, education can break the spirits of students who learn differently or have learning disabilities.

An experience I had early in my teaching career is an excellent example of how very differently students can learn.

Comparing Strengths-Based (Arts Mentoring) to Standards-Based

One of my after-school music students was what we traditionally identify as a quick learner. As I gave him the parts to a song, he systematically put them together in good order and quickly accomplished the learning of the piece.

The “Spacy” Student

The second student was not as quick to put the pieces together and would pause and sometimes seem to be out in space. He couldn’t make the connections as quickly and seemed to approach the tune with trial and error, initially content to explore it and not particularly concerned about playing it back perfectly.

This continued for a few lessons until I began to wonder if he was ever going to get it, but he then completely surprised me and taught me a most important lesson which has become an underpinning of my approach.

Not only did he come to his lesson and play the entire piece of music with a depth that surprised me, but he also played it more fully and creatively than the other student had. There was richness in the way his hands produced the sound, he was all there and hearing everything he was playing, and he could play variations that included louds, softs, and inflections that were not in what one might call the “better” student’s playing.

Spaciness … or Deep Listening?

I came to realize that the second student’s spaciness was not spaciness at all. He was listening at a deep level, allowing himself to give in to what he was hearing and then processing this information in his own way.

He taught me how important it is to give students the ground to do this on their own and not impose upon them a uniform way of learning or expect that they should learn in any one particular style.

I also began to develop into a far more effective teacher as I learned to approach my students from the perspective of understanding the often subtle nuances of the ways they learned.

I call my teaching approach arts mentoring, but it’s effective with all subjects. This arts mentoring approach could greatly enhance learning in traditional academic settings, but I don’t foresee that in my lifetime.

After-school programs have more latitude in how they approach their students — they’re a great place to implement strengths-based arts mentoring. The benefits will carry over, too: as students develop their unique talents they’ll start to relate to their schooling and learn better during the day.

Empowering students to develop their talents opens the door for them to become self-learners. Perhaps more creative thinkers today will rise to the challenge.

Read Venturing Together: Empowering Students to Succeed for more.

Bill Rossi
Bill Rossi
Bill is an educator and a BluesJazz pianist, composer, and performer.