I started my art education sitting on the kitchen floor banging on pots and pans. My mom, a storyteller herself, encouraged me to create stories, songs, and dances – and then perform for family members. From the earliest age, creativity was expected of me, not just appreciated.

Most of us who choose to work in the arts education field have a story like this – the teacher who inspired you, the art or music class that got you through high school. But these stories only illustrate one piece of an education in and through the arts. Creative expression – the dance, the concerto, the play, the painting – is only part of the process. It may get you through school, but it will not in and of itself teach you how to see the world in a new way; to think critically.

After each living room performance, mom would always clap, pause, and ask the questions that made me think about my creation. Why did you choose this movement over that? How do you feel when you dance? What does it remind you of?  What would happen if…? At school, they didn’t teach me how to answer this type of question (the open-ended kind).

A true education in and through the arts is an education based in inquiry. It doesn’t stop with creative product. It is more than a painting on the wall or a piece of music that your child can play to a T. This process of creation, reflection, and revision is something I missed in my formal education, but found at home and in theatre class. I owe my professional career to the critical thinking skills I learned through art making.

Today, I work for Performing Arts Workshop, which brings the performing arts to students in San Francisco who might not otherwise experience them. For forty-five years, we have been teaching the arts, asking questions, and encouraging students to move beyond expression to reflecting on and revising their creative work. We work with many classroom teachers who don’t have the time to ask deep questions of their students as they prepare for exams or school-wide performances. In this current educational reality, arts education provides the education that students need and deserve for the 21st century; one based in critical thinking.

So, ask your children or students about their art making process. Ask them questions.  You’ll be surprised at their answers.

Read full blog post at Americans for the Arts’ Arts Education Blog.