Podczas inauguracji roku szkolnego w liceum jednym z trzech wystąpień była prezentacja przygotowana przez nasze dwie cudowne nauczycielki – Renatę Słowińską i Martę Pokorską. Poniżej tekst wystąpienia, podczas którego powstawały także ilustracje, tworzone równolegle przez Martę Pokorską… Tych niestety nie mam i nie mogę ich opublikować…

On the benefits of artistic experiences in education. Or why schools should not become factories.


We live in a fast-paced, demanding world, fixated on progress, efficiency and productivity. our education system seems to be evolving in that direction too. Let’s face it. There is immense pressure on young people like you to always do your best, to always pass those exams in flying colours, so that you can secure your dream careers. It’s no wonder that schools can sometimes feel a little bit like factory production lines where the focus is on the quality of the product- your grades and exam results, on efficiency and time management. And where you as student are supposed to perform almost like a sophisticated machine. With little room for error, or personality.

It doesn’t sound nice, does it?

We are here to make a case for a different kind of education. One that helps you become your best self not despite the fact that you are human but because of it. And one that makes room not only for textbook knowledge, but also for holistic development of all your strengths: in art, music, theatre, literature etc.

Just to clarify. It is not my intention to claim that striving for academic excellence is not a worthy goal, quote on the contrary. Neither do I wish to claim inherent superiority of art over other potential extracurricular activities, such as sports and volunteering. The focus today will be on the arts, but if you personally prefer to spend your afternoons playing tennis, horseriding or volunteering, that’s just as fantastic. What matters is to challenge the idea, that any activity which does not lead straight to a grade in Librus is a waste of your precious time. 

And here are 4 reasons why we believe this is the right way forwards.

  1. Appreciation and creation of art is part of human nature.

Let me start with a story of an 18-year-old boy, Marcel Ravidat, who on the 12th of September 1940 took his dog for a walk. I presume this is an activity, which many of you do on a regular basis, maybe you have even done it today? So on that day, Marcel is strolling with his dog, named Robot, in Lascaux, in Dordogne, France. A beautiful region. Robot becomes interested in this opening under an uprooted tree, he is sniffing around it, and Marcel notices that this opening is in fact an entrance to a cave. Excited about this discovery, he later returns to this place with his three friends, and together they climb down a 15-metre-deep shaft, which sounds like a very safe activity by the way. At the end of this shaft, they discover a cave, the walls of which are covered with hundreds of stunning, colourful paintings of animals: horses, red deer, cattle, but also various abstract signs and one human figure. One week later, they convince Abbe Henri Breuil, a priest, but also an archeologist and geologist, to examine these caves. Careful scientific analysis concludes that these paintings were created by humans 17-15 thousand years BC.

That is a really long time ago, right? And these aren’t even the oldest prehistoric paintings. A bit to the south of France, in Ardeche, you’ll find the equally famous Chauvet Caves, with wall paintings which are thought to be 30,000 years old. And the paintings in the Spanish Altamira cave are believed to be 36,000 years old. Similar discoveries were made in other places in Europe, but also in Indonesia, Argentina, and other sites around the world.

So, why am I rambling on about these caves? Because I want to present the first argument: creating art has been a part of human nature for tens of thousands of years. Humans were painting long before they invented the written word. Scientists are still debating the true purpose of these paintings. Were these illustrations of hunting strategies? Or graphic novels about past adventures? Or perhaps depictions of religious, or magical rituals? Whatever the reason, we know that humans felt the need to create art, and that it became part of their life.

Perhaps you are wondering, how about different kinds of art? How about music, dance or theatre? Well, the oldest musical instrument, a flute, discovered in a Stone Age cave in Germany, is thought to be 40 thousand years old. But it is highly likely that people were creating music with their voice way before that. Many scientists, for example Robin Dunbar at the University of Oxford, also believe that language itself possibly evolved from wordless singing, as a powerful bonding ritual. In other words, he is arguing that humans were singing long before they were speaking. Interestingly, there are no known human cultures that do not have music. Other evolutionary psychologists also stress the role of gestures: mimicry, pantomime, rudimentary acting, in the evolution of language. In other words- acting. Let’s add ritualistic dance to the mix, and we can start to visualize what prehistoric life looked like.

There we have it. Music, theatre, painting. Clearly, even if the word “art” has close connotations with “artificial”, it is by all means a natural ability, it is simply a part of human nature. 

  • Benefits for the brain

This is a fantastic argument, right? Except that not everything which is natural is good for us. Think about the appendix, our fondness of sugar, or aging. Is there any evidence that appreciating or creating art is beneficial for our brains?

Well, this one is easy. Haven’t we all heard about The Mozart Effect? We know that listening to classical music, most notably Mozart, can actually boost your IQ. It makes you smarter. The problem with this finding is that it is largely misunderstood and blown out of proportion. The original study by Rauscher and colleagues, published in 1993 in the prestigious scientific journal Nature, only found a slight improvement in spatial reasoning tasks, such as folding paper and solving mazes. This improvement was observable only for 15 minutes after listening to music, and it vanished later on. Moreover, it was shown in a small group of 36 students, not children. Subsequently, numerous researchers had trouble replicating this findings, while others found that comparable effects can be observed when participants are played a Stephen King novel. So no, listening to Mozart does not increase general intelligence.

However, this doesn’t mean that appreciating art is a waste of time, it’s just that it has different kinds of benefits. Art can help in emotional regulation, decreasing stress and enhancing mood. Neuroimaging studies have demonstrated that watching art leads to activation of the reward system in the brain, and the release of dopamine- in other words, it makes us experience pleasure. One interesting study conducted in London showed that participants’ level of the stress hormone cortisol was lowered after visiting an Art Gallery. Clearly I should have gone to a gallery before this. And another study in Rome found that appreciating figurative art can lead to lowering of your blood pressure. The mechanism behind it is not fully understood, but one theory suggests that art invites a certain psychological distance and generates a state not dissimilar to mindfulness or meditation.

Still, these benefits of appreciatingart are relatively small compared to what has been discovered about creatingart. You see, our brains have this amazing property of adapting and responding to what we do in our life, by reorganizing the grey matter, and increasing the volume and density in the areas that are most “busy”. Many studies in neuropsychology have found that expert musicians, who started playing an instrument in childhood, have significant structural differences in their brain, particularly in the motor, auditory and visuo-spatial areas, as well as the cerebellum. By looking at a brain scan, researchers can literally tell, whether it is an experienced musician or not. They can even sometimes tell, what instrument they are playing, This has been demonstrated for the violin, piano, drums, but also for ballet dancing, walking the tightrope, juggling. In other words, by deciding to play an instrument, you are literally growing new neuronal connections and expanding your brain.

  • Creating synergies- the Renaissance Man

So far we have shown that art is part of human nature, and it has far-reaching benefits for our brains and overall well-being, especially when we get to create art, not just observe it. This is likely that the positive impact spills over to other areas of cognitive activity. In other words, learning to play an instrument or going to an arts class can boost your abililties in other areas too. However, there are many things which are known to be good for us, but we simply cannot do them all due to lack of time. This is particularly important today, where the professional workforce is more and more specialized. In order to become a lawyer, a doctor, or a nuclear physicist, you have to invest years and years of intensive study. There is simply so much to learn to become an expert in a field. Maybe we no longer have time in the day to play in a school band or act in a school play?

Take Leonardo Da Vinci. He is arguably the most famous Renaissance Man- a painter, scientist and inventor. Da Vinci was genius, but also a man of his era, where fields such as science or engineering were not as advanced as nowadays. Maybe we can no longer have Renaissance Men. Well, maybe except for Brian May, who you might know as the guitarist from the legendary music group Queen, and the author of many hits, such as “We will rock you”, “Who wants to live forever” and “I want it all”. But did you know that some years after Freddie Mercure died, Brian May completed a PhD in astrophysics at Imperial College London, and he later collaborated with NASA? He even has an asteroid named after him. Just this year he was knighted by Kind Charles III, so he is now Sir Brian May.

Impressive as it is, this is not quite the same league as Leonardo Da Vinci. Is „Bohemian Rhapsody” as exceptional as the “Mona Lisa”? Hard to tell. Still, the story about Brian May is worth telling, for a different reason. Maybe the modern Renaissance Man is not about becoming “the best” in several domains, but about exploring them, and pursuing what seems right. It’s about finding who you really are, what you are good at and what brings you most satisfaction, which is something that you all need to do on your path to adulthood. My guess is that you spend way more time thinking about that, dreaming about your future, and maybe worrying about it, and much less time worrying about the number of your brain cells.  Therefore my third argument is that “wasting time” on extracurricular activites, on playing in a school theathre, or writing for the school magazine, can make wonders to help you find your identity. This journey of self-discovery has some bonus features too. It can boost your self-esteem, improve your social skills, reduce stress and increase social connectedness.   It can even provide you with a backup plan, in case your career plans change. Think about it. What if you train for a job, focused on it like nothing else matters, and in 10 years-time our dream job disappers,  replaced by Artificial Intelligence? Perhaps your extracurricular activities will help you find another way forward.

  • It makes for a more interesting word.

To sum up, engaging in creative activities is innately human, it is beneficial for our brains, and generally useful in our lives. But I don’t want this to be the conclusion of my speech. I would like you to think about what makes you pick up a guitar and play? What motivates you to go on stage, all stressed in front of the audience, and act? What inspires you to pick up a paintbrush? Is it the usefulness of it, or rather it’s magic? The fun, excitement and happiness, that it ultimately gives you? I am also curious, what is your vision of an ideal world? Would you prefer for all people to be entirely pragmatic, exclusively focused on their single, chosen area? Or would you prefer people to be more versatile, to be open-minded explorers, not obsessed with time-efficiency, valuing creativity and play, in other words, being fully human? I know my answer to that question.

So at the beginning of this school year, I wish you the courage to find the time … to waste some time on fantastic, creative, fulfilling activities, and to enjoy all of the benefits.

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