x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Arts education for critical thinking

The Emirates needs students well-versed in the cold certainties and sterile calculations of the harder sciences. But it also needs well-rounded students, with training in the arts, to excel.

What makes a well-rounded student? That question has perplexed parents, educators and academics for as long as children have gone to school.

The consensus in recent years has been that rote-based learning might instil specific facts, but there is a better way to teach pupils how to think for themselves. Similarly, most will agree that a quality primary school education must be rooted in basic maths and sciences, but with a healthy dose of arts, humanities and physical education.

Yet in the UAE, schools' focus on the finer arts - like drama and music - have generally lagged behind traditional disciplines. Under the current curriculum, music instruction in state schools stops after Grade 6, while art classes end after Grade 10. As we report today, there is a growing realisation that children's education is suffering as a result.

There is an unquestionable demand for well-trained engineers, scientists and technicians - disciplines that obviously depend on maths and sciences. It is understandable that state schools feel compelled to gear curricula towards that end of the educational spectrum. But there is also a growing body of evidence that suggests the inclusion of softer sciences in a student's daily grind - and arts and drama in particular - facilitate the learning process. In short, a balanced education teaches pupils how to learn more efficiently in every subject they embrace.

A 2011 American study prepared by the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, for instance, found that students scored higher in maths and reading at schools with stronger arts and humanities programmes. And as the Abu Dhabi-based arts educator Maggie Hannan said, drama classes not only create more cultured children, they also improve basic skills like problem solving and cooperation.

Arab heritage reflects this recognition, particularly in the near-universal esteem granted to Arabic-language poetry weaving the personal and collective narratives of the region. From Nabati poetry that began centuries ago to the Million's Poet television show today, this is a tradition that speaks to the region's soul.

Without the arts, culture and society are reduced to the cold certainties and sterile calculations of the harder sciences. The irony is that even those disciplines need creative thinking to excel.