In the year of innovation, don’t forget the arts

Arts education has proven to be as important to a society's development as more science-based subjects, writes Ayesha Almazroui

Some research suggests students in the UAE should do more art-based study. Photo: Charles Crowell / The National
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This year has been officially declared the Year of Innovation in the UAE. Near the end of 2014, the Government launched the National Innovation Strategy that aims to make the country one of the world's most innovative nations within seven years, focusing on education as one of the key sectors.

The question is: are seven years enough for the education system to reform and develop to meet the country’s needs? There is still a long way to go to make the UAE education system capable of producing individuals who are not only skilled and knowledgeable but also creative in what they do.

Research says that one of the best ways to foster creativity in young people is through an arts education – including performing arts (dance, drama, music), literature and poetry and visual arts. But to what extent are local education authorities paying attention to this kind of learning?

It’s great to see initiatives like the Cultural Excellence Fellowship Programme, run by the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation in partnership with the British Council, which is offering young Emirati artists artistic and business workshops. Artists need all the support to transform their skills into viable businesses that contribute to the economy of the UAE.

But the benefits of arts education should extend to include all young people in the country, even those who wish to pursue careers in non-arts fields, such as engineering, business and IT. Art education should be essential in schools from a very young age. It should be given the same amount of attention as science.

A 2013 study by the US-based Centre for Educational Research and Innovation, titled Art for Art's Sake? The Impact of Arts Education, shows that an arts education can have a positive impact on the three subsets of skills that they define as "skills for innovation": subject-based skills, including in non-arts subjects; skills in thinking and creativity and behavioural and social skills.

The study confirms the scientific view that an arts education can have a positive impact on young people’s overall academic achievement.

One of the earliest studies on arts education in 1998, conducted by Stanford University and the Carnegie Foundation For the Advancement of Teaching, found that young people who are engaged in arts are four times more likely to be recognised for academic achievement, three times more likely to win an award for school attendance and more likely to read for pleasure and perform community service.

Many studies have established a strong link between creativity and arts education. An arts education sometimes allows young people to communicate more clearly and creatively and challenge conformity.

The benefits of arts education on personal growth and social coherence are proven. Studying art subjects increases young people’s awareness of themselves and others and provides them with a deeper understanding of human behaviour, history and diversity of cultures, which may help them to be more tolerant and more open-minded.

Arts education programmes targeted toward delinquency prevention can also have a measurable impact on at-risk youth, according to a 1996 report by the Youth Arts Development Project at the US department of justice, because it helps deter truancy problems and delinquent behaviour.

Developed countries have recognised the important role arts education plays in the development of the economy and the need to invest more in arts education. In the United States, a 2012 book, titled Arts Education in America: Declines and the Need for Reinvestment, discussed arts education as essential to the future of the economy.

According to Arne Duncan, the US secretary of education, “education in the arts is more important than ever. In the global economy, creativity is essential. Today’s workers need more than just skills and knowledge to be productive and innovative participants in the workforce.”

The UAE’s economy needs a sustainable flow of young people who can contribute affectively and adapt to innovation.

Accordingly, there should be more effort to increase young people’s access to arts education through arts classes and arts-integrated classes in school. There could also be more investment in arts lessons after school, as well as summer arts programmes.

“Today, more than any other time, we need to boost innovation among young people,” said Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President, prime minister and Ruler of Dubai, during the Cabinet meeting in November. How about we start by adding strong and solid arts education programmes to the school curriculum?