Writing and Art, Picasso, and the Common Core

The teaching of the arts and music is disappearing from curricula in schools.

Posted Jan 27, 2015

What would Picasso have to say about Common Core State Standards now driving the curriculum—and leaving art behind—in over 40 states? How would he view the wrenching removal of art and music from the curriculum in favor of teaching for the test? As it turns out, both Picasso and psychological studies support a call for cross-disciplinary connections at all levels of education.

Picasso created his work and lived his life across disciplines. He’s a prime example of why cross-disciplinary studies, such as the study and teaching of writing and art, are reciprocal and beneficial. Were Picasso alive today, I suspect he would approve of a curriculum that includes art and music and frown upon many districts across the country that are cutting the budget and the schedule for enrichment in art and music. The trend is so pervasive that there’s a movement afoot spearheaded by The National Coalitional of the Arts to establish National Core Arts Standards for Dance, Media Arts, Music, Theatre and Visual Arts.1 Thirteen states are considering or have already joined this effort.2

Picasso, himself, didn’t just study art. Cross-disciplinary study and achievement in music, the performing arts, and writing were all essential contributors to his life and accomplishments. You may know that he was an accomplished painter, sculptor, ceramicist, printmaker, stage designer, and one of the inventors of collage and new artistic styles, but did you know that he wrote poetry and was a playwright?

Picasso’s quotes and the way he developed college and career readiness himself chart a path for cross-disciplinary studies including art and music in the curriculum. This especially holds sway for writing and art—both creative processes for making meaning. Both processes sharpen the mind of the child writer or child artist following the exact same supportive structures and conditions for creation. If we want to give a child a pathway to follow for thinking and creating something meaningful as a writer, an artist, or in life, perhaps we should consider Picasso’s process.

Parallel Paths for Creation in Writing and Art

The supportive structures and conditions for creation in art and writing researcher Donald Graves’s revolutionary research-based process for teach writing3 are one and the same:

  • Develop skills under the tutorship of a coach.
  • Select topics that are personally relevant.
  • Study the work of others.
  • Add one’s own personal meaning and interpretations.
  • Share with an audience.

These parallel processes matter in an era of Common Core because Common Core calls for much more emphasis on the study and teaching of writing: CCSS makes the study and teaching of writing equal to reading for college and career readiness.

Each of the steps listed above are clearly marked in Picasso’s pathway to college and career readiness. Throughout his career, Picasso continued to select topics that were personally relevant—perhaps the most famous being Guernica. Picasso studied the work of others such as the paintings of Velázquez, Goya, and El Greco at the Prado in Madrid, Spain, and he studied African art. The influences are seen in his paintings.

As an amateur watercolor artist and a teacher of writing, I’ve charted parallels between best practices for writing ala Donald Graves and what I consider to be best practices for producing a watercolor, which is my personal hobby. The following chart includes Picasso quotes that apply equally to both writing and art.


Psychological Studies Support Art and Music

Even in preschool there is evidence for the need to bring back the arts and music grounded in psychological study. For example, studies show that music in preschool enhances language skills, pre-literacy skills, cognitive skills, social-emotional skills, and executive functioning skills such as decision making and self-control.4 An interesting study in Psychological Science reports: “Our data show that the capacity to realize on paper the salient features of a person, in a schema, is an intelligent behavior at age 4. Performance of this relies on various cognitive, motoric, perceptual, attentional, and motivational capacities … [The finding] demonstrates that the study of art and the study of science have much to offer each other.” 5 Studies such as these are the tip of the iceberg.

Turning Around Failing Schools

In practice, music and art have been shown to be powerful in turning around failing schools at all levels including elementary, middle school, and high school. “Infusing every area of its curriculum with performing arts, fine art and music yielded better discipline and learning,” reports journalist Marian Brown describing successes in one low-income minority district with children of color. Cross-disciplinary study of music and art in the curriculum not only matters, it works.

Beyond the Common Core to Graduate and Post Graduate School

Common Core promotes the teaching of writing at every grade level in every discipline. Even research universities are picking up the banner for teaching students to write at all levels of education. The following quote from Ian Baucom, Dean of the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences at University of Virginia, calls upon us to commit to teach students in all content areas at all educational levels to learn by writing:

"Writing is fundamental. It’s key to sharpening the critical and analytical capacities of our minds, in our worlds of work, and in our worlds of civic commitment, so we should recommit ourselves in intensified fashion to the study and teaching of writing." 6

I agree with Baucom and Common Core about the importance of teaching writing even through graduate school. Picasso and I would make Baucom’s same statement about recommitting ourselves in intensified fashion to the teaching of the arts. Let’s all recommit.

[1] National Coalition for Core Arts Standards web site, http://www.nationalartsstandards.org/

[2] Barshay, Jill, “The Push for Standards is Seeping into the Arts,” The Hechinger Report, January 12, 2015. http://educationbythenumbers.org/content/arts-education-data_2636/

[3] Gentry, J. Richard, “Will Common Core Wreck Writing in Schools,” Psychology Today blog. May 30, 2013. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/raising-readers-writers-and-speller...

[4]Lester, Margo Carmichael, “The Value of Teaching Art in Preschool,” http://www.staples.com/sbd/cre/education/early-education/the-value-of-te...

[5] Rosalind Arden, Maciej Trzaskowski, and Robert Plomin at King’s College London, along with Victoria Garfield at University College London, summarized their findings in a paper titled “Genes Influence Young Children’s Human Figure Drawings and Their Association With Intelligence a Decade Later,” published in Psychological Science. http://hyperallergic.com/145432/study-suggests-childrens-drawings-reveal...

[6] Baucom, Ian. (2014). “Making the Case for College,” an interview by Robert Viccellio, Virginia: The U. Va. Magazine. Winter 2014, Volume CIIII, No. 4, page 45.

Dr. J. Richard Gentry is the author of Raising Confident Readers: How to Teach Your Child to Read and Write–From Baby to Age 7. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn and find out more information about his work on his website.