09/21/2012 01:38 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Art and Education: An Interview

Introduction by David Galenson

I met Richard Erdmann and Christine Drew in 2008, when they invited me to speak at a retreat their company, Syfr, ran for school administrators. The theme of the retreat was Creativity, and the discussions ranged widely over ideas drawn from a number of different disciplines. A year later, I was startled when Richard told me he and Christine were developing a new curriculum about education and creativity, using art history as the vehicle. Earlier this year they sent me a product of this, an electronic book aimed at teachers, titled The Art of Learning. I enjoyed reading it, and Richard and Christine agreed to do the following interview about it by email.

Q: What is Syfr? What led you to create it, and what do you want it to accomplish?

A: (Richard Erdmann) Fifty plus years ago, when urban superintendents formed organizations like the Council for Great City Schools, they were proactive in public policy. Today, they are not. Initially, Syfr's goal was to re-engage school district administrators to become proactive again, rather than reactive, in these public policy debates. Over time, our audience changed and Syfr's focus shifted to improving school and classroom practices. Today we would like to see Syfr create a new discussion about classroom practice. We wrote The Art of Learning to create a platform for those discussions that focuses on learning rather than teaching. Beginning with a 21st century emphasis, we were interested in designing learning that encouraged creative and innovative thinking. We used the word art because we studied how creative people, initially just artists, learned. The Art of Learning will form the basis of our future books, public speaking, and creating some lighthouse districts as models through our professional development.

Q: Each chapter of The Art of Learning closes with an ArtWalk - a narrative based on Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, that relates to the ideas treated in the text. Why did you organize a book about education around the history of art in the 19th century?

A: (Richard Erdmann) First, the changes in the 19th century are similar to what we are experiencing in society today - globalization, massive technological change, and new countries entering the global economy. We already wanted to use that time period as a research base. Second, you suggested a book of letters between Pissarro and his son for us to read and we became hooked on 19th century art as a vehicle to understand creativity. Third, these artists provide a visual history about how they learned. You can see them repeat, experiment, play, work with peers, take risk and persevere. It is really a fascinating history of learning.

For example, we suggest that schools create better learning environments for their teachers and, in turn, in their classrooms and that these environments include structures that allow teachers and students to learn together - to collaborate in learning. The seed for that idea came from looking at how the art of Monet and Renoir evolved as they worked together while defining the platform that became Impressionism. These two paintings were done together and provide just one example.


Renoir, La Grenouillere (1869), Collection of the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm


Monet, La Grenouillere (1869), H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art

We could have used Pissarro and Cezanne, Manet and Monet, or even the brief collaboration between Van Gogh and Gauguin. As a result of studying these artists, we have a chapter on Learning in Pairs and most of our teachers now pair students often for learning.

Q: Your approach is eclectic: every chapter draws on a number of different studies, from scholars in a variety of disciplines. What do you consider the unifying theme, or themes, of the book?

A: (Christine Drew) I like this question about themes a lot because we are finding that the application of the theme works so well in so many ways. Breaking the answer down to the simplest statement, our theme is Observe-Connect-Simplify. The application of this theme to life is to Learn-Adapt-Act. We believe that no matter what the situation, whether you are a teacher, an artist, a scientist, you must observe-connect and simplify to learn or even to become educated, so to speak. If you observe carefully you will learn many things that you can adapt to your situation. To change yourself, or a student, you have to simplify what you have observed and connected so you can act in a way to make a difference.

We also broke the book into four parts – Perspective, Cognition, Relationships, and Motivation – and these parts allow us to structure professional learning around today's biggest educational concerns: implementing the more rigorous Common Core State Standards, Assessment for Learning, and College and Career Readiness. This brings us to one of our major recommendations. Schools will fail unless they broaden learning beyond cognition and include relationships and motivation as topics to be taught and experienced.

Q: You have a chapter about what you call Centers of Excellence. What are these?

A: (Richard Erdmann) In the common vernacular these are geographic centers, probably today being augmented and possibly replaced by web centers, in which people with like interests work, collaborate and often compete. Their presence and interaction, their connectivity, seems to spur them to levels of achievement that they would not likely have had in any other environment. We think that classrooms, schools and even districts need to create these kinds of environments for students and teachers.

Q: Creativity is a central concern of the book and some teachers have already begun using The Art of Learning. Have they proven creative in how they use the book's ideas in their classrooms? What results have they reported?

A: (Christine Drew) They have been very creative. We have a chapter on models and in our training look at Manet's trip to Spain, or his work with Monet, Monet's time in London in 1870, Cezanne's relationship with Pissarro and others. An Advanced Placement English teacher, Susana Rodriguez, transformed that idea into having students work with model texts for writing. When she began to provide models, she was able to accelerate the curriculum she delivered by about 3 months time. The students could learn from observing the model, connect the text to their own fresh ideas and it simplified so much that she formerly tried to explain, that she was able to have more time for responding to their work. She also reported that for students who were less advanced in their writing, the models gave support and structure so that they could work more independently.

Another example from San Antonio ISD is from Debra Mentzer. She has seen significant improvement in summarizing from an adaptation she did with an activity we borrowed from Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein. She worked with summarization as a form of abstraction and used art with students to get her point across. She has also seen a marked improvement in vocabulary scores from lessons crafted from her exposure to John Medina's work concerning multisensory learning and variety within practice. Today her lessons have been modified and improved by other teachers in the building with similar results. This is the kind of creativity we have found with teachers and the kind of collaboration that we think will work.

There are stories from mathematics, chemistry, and kindergarten, all equally inspiring to other teachers, who end up becoming models for each other.

Q: What have you learned about art while writing The Art of Learning?

A: (Christine Drew) Each of these paintings and their creators had a whole story they were waiting to tell, seemingly just for me. We have learned about the importance of practice and perseverance and how long it often takes to become truly great at anything. Motivation and inspiration are less mysterious ideas now. We have learned, most of all that art is work as much as inspiration, and that has been a surprise to our audiences as well.

(Richard Erdmann) Art is far more connective than I originally thought. Artists imitate and improvise based on other works. They are inspired by other works. They learn with other artists. They support and compete with each other. While they may create alone, the creative process is a very connected one.

Q: What are the most important things in general you've learned from writing The Art of Learning?

A: (Christine Drew) I have learned to have faith in teachers as creative individuals capable of processing very complex ideas and applying them as well; and that we can trust them to do a great job if we will give them time and opportunity to learn and change and grow.

(Richard Erdmann) The artists learned by doing. I certainly learned about artists by viewing their work, talking to people and reading but I truly learned critically when I wrote. Writing this book was a very intense learning experience and it needs to become a more critical part of the learning experience in schools rather than one more opportunity to evaluate the student. We need more complex thinking from our students, and writing is a form of thinking, not just of expression. The Common Core may actually help us to accomplish this.

Q: How would you like it to change our schools?

A: (Richard Erdmann) Overall I think that teachers need a support structure that is more conducive to greater autonomy and that autonomy needs to be used to both draw and develop a constantly improving cadre of teachers. By autonomy I do not mean independence, but the freedom and ability to choose. The supportive environment needs to blend collaboration and competition, working together and alone, groups and pairs, and the structure should include expected outcomes and suggested pathways, feedback and correction.

I would also reinforce a comment Christine made earlier. Education needs to broaden its definition of learning beyond cognition and include interpersonal relationships, the third part of The Art of Learning, and igniting and sustaining motivation, the fourth and final part of the book.

(Christine Drew) Like most other people, I suspect, I would like to see a return to a focus on teaching as an art, based on knowledge and skills. By that I mean that we would trust teachers to teach the curriculum and tell them to worry most of all about inspiring and engaging students in the subjects and content they teach. I'd like to suspend the focus on "the test" and focus on the way the content is taught. I'd like to see how test scores look when we remember that teaching is an art and learning is something that requires practice. To do that, we will have to rethink the curriculum and include time for motivating our students and developing relationships with them and with each other. I would challenge us to remember that there is joy in learning, and it is intrinsically satisfying, and perhaps, most of all, I would like for our schools to be places where students leave with a feeling of curiosity and wonder, and the confidence that they can learn whatever it is they need to know, because some teacher taught them how to learn.