The Importance of Arts Education and Why the Arts Matter

In remote learning, arts education has never been more fragile. Here's how these educators are sparking creativity in their students and learn how you can too.

By Anna Sudderth

Sometimes, a song is more than a collection of sharps, flats, and chords. It can be a gateway to joy, empathy, and empowerment. Arts education teaches students to explore the world and their place in it courageously. Through the arts, students can develop the imagination to envision a better future—and the creativity to put that vision into action

It’s the same with images. In 2022, ten winning billboards by teens were displayed in their communities across the country. Some had messages promoting love and tolerance; another by a North Kingstown, Rhode Island student said, “Stop Policing Female Bodies.” XQ partnered with For Freedoms, an artist-led organization aimed at increasing creative civic engagement, to sponsor this billboard challenge. They invited 14-21 year-olds all over the U.S. to design billboards addressing topics such as how to improve their schools, how they envision their future, or how to support social justice in education.

The challenge also served a purpose: bringing the voices of students to policymakers. Rhode Island was examining its high school graduation standards in partnership with XQ and Steve Osborn, strategy and student opportunity officer for Rhode Island’s Department of Education, said hearing from students made an impact.

“Our young people had very clear, very thoughtful ways of expressing things that we as adults are struggling to talk about with each other,” he said.

Why Arts Education is Crucial: Giving Students a Space to Voice Issues Close to Their Hearts

Arts education benefits students by showing them that their perspective matters. One of our core XQ Design Principles is youth voice and choice: the ability for students to bring their full selves to school, and to have agency and autonomy in their learning. Art supports youth voice and choice by celebrating students’ identities and empowering them as creators and decision-makers in their learning.

This emphasis on student voice and choice was a driving principle behind XQ’s Music and Activism Challenge. XQ launched this first-of-its-kind learning experience in 2021 when pandemic-related school closures and budget cuts put arts programming at risk. Students rose to the challenge, creating powerful songs on topics like self-confidence, community, and racial justice. Their amazing work is a testament to the value of arts in education, and how the arts can transform learning to feel relevant and engaging for all learners. This way they’ll be true learners for life, achieving one of XQ’s Learner Outcomes.

This XQ Challenge was particularly relevant during the pandemic when so many students felt  uncertain about the future and disconnected from their peers because of campus closures. It gave them a way to express themselves artistically and share their ideas and emotions about the issues impacting their lives, collaborating with their classmates in the process. In doing so, this challenge showed the importance of arts education during tough times. The arts can help students find their voice in difficult conversations, imagine creative solutions to big challenges, and find community.

Check out this article to learn how students found their voices during the 2020 election season.

Empowering Students Through Creativity

In Ty Boyland’s music production class at Crosstown High in Memphis, Tennessee, students learned to write meaningful lyrics, merge words with a melody, and think about issues like the Black Lives Matter movement, sex trafficking, and gender equality. 

It was a perfect fit for Crosstown, an XQ school that focuses on community connections, diversity, and student voice.

“It’s led us to have a lot of conversations, very deep discussions about all kinds of issues,” Boyland said. “For a lot of students, creating music and art is really about character development. I tell my students, are you able to speak your truth? If you’re able to do that, you’ll do well in life no matter what you do.”

During one class, students practiced writing raps on two subjects: the concept of chivalry and mental health. The topics led to discussions about courtesy and respect, and the anxiety and depression so many young people experienced during the pandemic.

Vanessa, a student in Boyland’s class, said discussions like those helped her learn to express herself and process her emotions.

“I really enjoy how we’re talking about real stuff. We’re not sugar-coating anything,” she said. “And this stuff needs to be talked about.”

Her classmate, Dre, said he was so inspired by the class that he visited a Memphis music studio to watch local rappers practice their craft. 

“Just the thrill of being able to spread your words and inspire others…it was riveting,” he said. “I feel this class is about freedom of speech. There’s no hate. There’s no bad feedback. We’re learning how to express ourselves.”

Boyland encourages his students to take an idea or an emotion and explore it on multiple levels, looking for connections and broader meaning. His class feels like a combination of English language arts, politics, current events, and history—all set to a hip-hop soundtrack.

“I tell my students, just because something sounds good, that’s not always enough,” he said. “We want to go beyond. We want people to feel it. We want to tell a story…That’s how we can breathe some life into our songwriting.”

Similarly, Brooklyn, a student in Boyland’s class, said the class helped her become more comfortable speaking up and sharing her thoughts about sensitive issues, not just at school but in her life generally.

“I’m usually a nervous person,” she said. “But now I’m more self-confident. Here, someone actually wants to listen.”

Check out how this school used project-based and placed-based learning during COVID.

How to Bolster Arts Education 

The XQ Music and Activism Challenge was the first of several arts-related initiatives. XQ also launched a visual arts challenge with New Orleans artist BMike Odums, and a dance challenge with Misty Copeland, the first Black female principal dancer with the prestigious American Ballet Theatre. In each challenge, students created art around issues that mattered to them, with the goal of empowering students and building community.

Teachers looking to bolster arts education in their own classrooms can consider:

  • How can I design art projects around issues my students are passionate about?
  • How can I apply the arts to other subjects, to promote interdisciplinary learning?
  • What finished products—songs, poetry zines, visual arts pieces—will be most meaningful for my students and community?

Janet Hollingsworth, a director at Washington Leadership Academy—an XQ school in Washington, D.C.—embodies this approach in her class called “Engineering with Empathy,” which merges practical concepts like circuitry and computer-aided design with creative skills that require resourcefulness and an ability to think outside the box. It’s part of WLA’s overall emphasis on computer science and technology.

Even during the pandemic, Hollingsworth found opportunities to engage students in hands-on arts learning. For one project fusing arts and STEM, students used DIY kits Hollingsworth compiled and mailed to students’ homes to make robots of motors, LED lights, coin cell batteries, and recycled materials. At the end of the project, they held an online robot dance party.

For their next project, students designed holiday gifts for family and friends, such as key holders, bedroom door signs, and 3-D avatars. Students designed the gifts at home, then Hollingsworth fabricated them in the school’s maker space using a laser cutter, vinyl cutter, and 3-D printer, and mailed the projects to the students’ homes.

The students loved it, she said—especially the gift project.

And during a tough time, “Why not let the school play a supporting role?” Hollingsworth said. “Students are invested because what they’re making matters. It’s useful, it has an immediate impact, it’s for someone they love.”