Dr. Gail Humphries Mardirosian

American University (AU), Washington, DC


This article speaks of a "quest"—a quest borne of a conviction that all children have a right to a full and rich education and a belief that there exists a process of education that can empower teachers to fulfill that right.  The quest is a journey that compels teachers to do what they must to seek out potential and giftedness in all children: examine the essence of what they do; explore new and different vantage points in their classroom methodologies; and have the courage to attempt new pedagogies to enhance their effectiveness. The quest harks back to Don Quixote's pursuit of his dream: it is worthy, important, and significant.


The State of Education: Impetus for the Quest

National achievement reports paint a dismal picture of formal learning among young Americans, i.e., many American children are at risk of academic failure or underachievement.  They consistently do poorly on tests that require “complex reasoning, inference, judgment, and transfer of knowledge from one type of problem to another (Elmore, 1996, p. 1).  The National Center for Educational Statistics' (NCES) Nation's Report Card: Reading Highlights of 2003 shows that the achievement of 8th grade students in reading has been depressed for some time and gives little sign of improving.  In 1998, 8th grade students were reading at an average of 263 out of a possible 500 (the minimum basic scale score is 243).  In 2003, 26 percent of 8th grade students were still reading below the basic level—a decrease of 1 percentage point from the 2002 reading level.  Further, 37% of 4th grade students were reading below the basic level in 2003.  This represented a slight improvement from the 1998 percentage, but no detectable change between 2002 and 2003.  This low and vastly unchanging academic achievement of America's youth is a problem of significant proportions, requiring a focus on and innovation in classroom instruction.


The Teacher as Conduit


An analysis of achievement scores of more than 100,000 students in hundreds of schools across the United States indicated that “the most important factor affecting student learning is the teacher” (Wright, Horn, & Sanders, 1997, p. 3).  Goldberg, (2001) stated that the teacher is a key figure in the process of education and perhaps the most important determinant of student success.  Barth (1990, p. 49) noted, “Probably nothing has more impact on students' skill development, self-confidence, or classroom behavior than the personal and professional growth of their teachers. 

It has ever been the mission of teachers to seek out the potential of the students in their charges and to teach to that potential.  It is a mission that has engendered success for those teachers whose students respond well to traditional verbal/linguistic, logical/mathematical forms of instruction.  Increasingly, however, the mission has been fraught with failure for those teachers whose students, for a variety of reasons, find themselves unable to respond to traditional instructional strategies.  Today, more than ever, teachers face complicated and intense challenges.  Our multicultural society spawns diverse learners who require varied and alternative instructional modes to acquire knowledge and creates new expectations for teachers.  In order to empower diverse learners, teachers must understand how students think to create experiences that actually work to produce learning (Marzano, Pickering, & Pollock, 2001).  The nature of knowledge, the student's role in learning, and how these ideas are manifested in the classroom are central to an understanding of teaching and the fundamental changes occurring in today's educational environment (Elmore, 1996).  The classroom can be a vulnerable place—a panoply of all the intelligences.  Nevertheless, it is the “teacher’s most important skill to find the intelligence and understand the knowledge that each student possesses.  This is not an easy matter…it is really a challenge” (Oakes & Lipman, 2002, p. XXI).  The teacher's very role in the classroom is changing.  In a book on teaching effectiveness, researchers Oser, Dick, and Patry (1992) wrote: "The role of the teacher is shifting from one of the deliverer of information—the solo player of a flute in front of a less than appreciative audience—to a designer, tour guide, and orchestra conductor.

Now, after over a decade, the shift in the teacher's role has been realized.  Theoretically and practically, what does this mean?  How do teachers assume the multi-faceted role of guide, facilitator, and conductor?  How do teachers "teach to reach" their students? 


The Arts as the Journey: Arts -Integrated Instruction


One of the most often asked questions in education today appears to be "what practices can be changed to address the pressing issue of deficiencies in student achievement?"  Robert Rauschenberg has stated, in the Foreword to The Power of the Arts (2000), that "The hope for a fuller world lies in the recognition of many more ways to teach and learn." Nova Institute (2001) supports this statement: "when teachers develop new and diverse capacities, they are “empowered to transform [their] work in the classroom, and [their] teaching becomes more dynamic, creative, and ultimately, more effective.”  Admittedly, teachers must teach to the standards…they have an obligation to do so, no choice really.  But standing out among Rauschenberg's "many more ways to teach and learn" is a pedagogy that champions teaching in, through, and about the arts, with all the possibilities inherent therein.  The arts have been shown to captivate and reveal the hearts and minds of children, providing a direct pathway to their giftedness.  Through both cognitive and affective domains, the arts have opened doors to multiple aspects of learning, enhancing teachers' ability to mine children's untapped potential. “One of the arts’ most important contributions to the development of young people,” notes Fowler (1996), “is the cultivation of their emotional and spiritual well-being.  The human spirit is central to the arts."  "When I play music," a young student has said, "I feel better about myself."

As well, the arts have opened doors for teachers themselves, empowering them to "teach to reach" their students through instruction that respects the multiple intelligences.  The teacher, it has been shown, is the single most important factor in student learning and is the essential conduit in arts-based instruction and arts learning.  When teachers infuse instruction with a multi-sensory approach and the arts are integrated into the curriculum, research shows that students demonstrate both greater motivation and greater mastery of curricular objectives (Deasey, 2002).  Identifying key concepts in content areas and finding ways that the arts can be used in both learning activities and assessment is essential if we are to fully empower gifted students and those at risk for academic failure or underachievement.  In a word, teaching through the arts can lead us to Rauschenberg's fuller world, teaching to the standards and beyond.


Arts as the Journey: Arts-for-Arts-Sake Instruction


In Critical Links: Learning in the Arts and Student Academic and Social Development, a compendium of 62 studies published in 2002 by the Arts Education Partnership, a strong point is made for the positive academic and social effects of learning in the arts.  As noted in the introduction to the book, “Particularities lie in each of the 62 studies” but the commonalties place the “arts firmly within current discussions and debates about the education policies and practices that will best bring about school reform and improvement as well as high achievement for students.”  Research shows that when students study the arts, academic performance improves in subjects such as mathematics, reading, and writing.  This is particularly true for students who are most at risk of struggling with their school work or dropping out, including students with physical or learning disabilities and those with English as their second language  “Weaving the arts into the school day can be a powerful tool to help close the achievement gap,” as noted in a Learning Channel broadcast on Tuesday, March 15, 2005.  With the arts, we can help ensure that no child is left behind.

Arts-for arts-sake instruction has two important roles: it is critical to the experience and the beauty of making art and for the development of the artists of tomorrow and it can function for some children as a powerful introduction to success in learning.  As noted in Renaissance in the Classroom (2001), arts integration is “a powerful vehicle to cross the boundaries of core subjects and arts concepts, affective and cognitive modes of expression, form and content, processes and products, the self and the world.”  In his book, Strong Arts, Strong Schools, Fowler (1996) has noted that more and better arts education is needed to produce more and better artists, but more and better arts-integrated education is also needed to produce "better-educated human beings, citizens who will value and evolve a worthy American civilization" (and, it should be added, will function as global citizens).  Fowler (1996) affirms the capacity of the arts to teach children to “think receptively, aesthetically, creatively, communicatively, and culturally.”  The arts can serve their own purposes and be useful across the curriculum.  They should not be thought of as a luxury, they are essential to enhance academic education, enrich lives, and a means to foster giftedness in all children.  As author, Sally L. Smith (2001) notes, "the arts have great power and can empower." 


A Rationale for the Journey


Several current cognitive learning theorists offer scaffolding for designing practical experiences to reach children using diverse pathways towards knowledge.  Theorists such as Howard Gardner, Jerome Burner, and Lev Vygotsky provide justification for arts-integrated instruction, as well as a focus and springboard for shaping arts-based methodology.  The educational theories of these three individuals focus on the means by which individuals process and think about what they study (Borich & Tombari, 1997).  They also proffer intelligence as a consequence of experiential, cultural, and motivational factors, critical frameworks in the process of arts-based instruction.  Viewing intellect as pluralistic encompasses a broad spectrum of psychological constructs, rather than as single, intractable measures, and affords the interconnection of mind, matter, and meaning.  Intelligence is multidimensional.

The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, presented by Howard Gardner in Frames of Mind (1983) and Intelligences Reframed (1999) and Jerome Bruner’s constructivist theory of learning—whereby knowledge is constructed by experience—posited in his many works, including Actual Minds, Possible Worlds (1986), offer conceptual frameworks for arts-based instruction.  Gardner’s eight identified intelligences—entry points for knowledge, i.e., the frames of mind—offer multiple lens through which we can view teaching and learning.  They can—and should—shape instruction.  Such instruction would have the student respond through:

  • Verbal-linguistic skills—e.g., describe, write, tell

  • Logical-mathematical skills—e.g., organize, encode

  • Spatial skills—e.g., design, visualize

  • Musical skills—e.g., listen, play

  • Bodily-kinesthetic skills, e.g., demonstrate, physicalize

  • Interpersonal skills, e.g., interact, collaborate

  • Intrapersonal skills, e.g., imagine, individualize

  • A naturalist perspective, e.g., explore, relate.


Constructing lesson plans and implementing them within this multi-faceted framework makes learning exciting and comprehensive.  And it is especially through the arts that this framework can be achieved. 

Lev Vygotsky stresses social interaction as an essential component linking knowledge to comprehension.  In Mind and Society (1962) he stresses the importance of children’s interaction with peers and learning by doing within the social community of the classroom.  Arts-based teaching, manifested in multiple symbols, allows the student to interact with ideas and words in a social context. 

Finally, Stanley Greenspan’s view of emotional experience as the foundation of intelligence provides important rationale for arts-based instruction.  Greenspan stresses the link between behavior and emotion that inheres within the very process of “learning by doing” (1997). He emphasizes emotional experience as necessary for developing the highest qualities of the mind and views the arts as a venue for enhancing and respecting emotional experience within self and for others.


An Arts-Integrated Teaching and Learning Model: Imagination Quest (IQ)


In 1997, Imagination Stage, Inc., a premier professional children's theatre and theatre arts education center in Bethesda, Maryland, joined forces with professors and arts education consultants from American University in Washington, DC, to launch an arts-integrated teaching and learning outreach program for the public schools.  The program, entitled Imagination Quest (IQ), has, since 1997, reached close to 1,200 students, 1,500 teachers, 400 parents and 50 school administrators in schools in Maryland, Virginia, the District of Columbia, and California. 

In 1997, IQ was a response to a rather depressed picture of academic achievement painted by national and local data.  More recently, IQ has turned its eye to another statistic.  A study by the Education Commission of the States (ECS)(USA Today, July 5, 2004) reported that while many states are complying with the No Child Left Behind education reform law, no state has assured that there is a "highly qualified" teacher in every classroom, as the law requires, and only 23 states even have a definition of what "highly qualified" means.  Further, many teachers can be called "highly qualified" by receiving as little as 5 hours of training—even if the training isn't in the field they teach.  IQ has responded by intensifying its training of teachers in innovative arts-based instructional strategies and techniques that are solidly linked to the requirements of their curriculum and to established standards of learning—both in content and in the arts, thereby placing "highly qualified" teachers in the classroom.

IQ is based on the arts as an integrative element in instructional pedagogy.  Four key points inform IQ:


  • All children have the right to succeed in the process of learning;

  • An unshakeable respect for the varied ways that children learn;

  • A commitment to the arts as an important pathway to knowledge; and

  • A belief in the value of studying the arts for their own sake to uncover and stimulate creativity in all children.


IQ's philosophical perspective is strongly grounded in the current research and current cognitive learning theories described above: Gardner’s eight intelligences are applied; knowledge is constructed per Bruner; meaning is made while functioning socially in the communal context that Vygotsky stresses for learning; and emotional growth, connection, and development is considered and experienced as Greenspan would have us do.  The very essence of each of these theories is applied through arts-based instructional mechanisms (Body, Voice, Mind, and Imagination); techniques (characterization, creative movement/dance, design of set/costumes, artwork, dialogue and script writing, improvisation, musical composition and instrumentation, oral interpretation, pantomime, role-playing, sign language and gesture, and storytelling); and tools (art objects, costumes, masks, music and instruments, poetry and stories, properties, puppets, sets, and scripts).  

For example, an IQ arts-integrated third grade literacy learning lesson, based on the core reading book, The Rough Face Girl (an Algonquin version of the Cinderella story), might use an activity called "juicy words."  In a sentence from the story, "The step sisters walked haughtily through the town," the word "haughtily"—a new vocabulary word—is the juicy word.  To strengthen the students' understanding of the juicy word, a student is asked to read the sentence aloud, then "become" the haughty stepsister, physically interpreting the meaning of "haughtily" by strutting around the classroom in a haughty manner. 

In an IQ arts-integrated sixth grade science lesson, entitled, "Motions of the Ocean," developed by an American University IQ intern, a living tableau might be created by the students to manifest the vocabulary words and terms that the students use in a unit on Earth’s Waters, e.g., frequency, crest, trough, wave length and height.

An IQ art-for arts-sake high school lesson on Shakespeare might focus on phrases from the plays of Shakespeare to make the bard’s text accessible and exciting, and to introduce the characteristics of iambic pentameter. Students work in small groups, moving creatively in rhythmic patterns and presenting phrases for calculated effect rather than as dialogue, e.g., for "A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse," the groups would speak in unison, moving in a circular pattern, arms linked, and shuffling to the side in the rhythm of a heart beat.




As the world leader Vaclav Havel said over a decade ago “None of us—as an individual—can save the world as a whole, but…each of us must behave as though it were in our power to do so.”  In the quest to captivate the minds and hearts of all students, to serve the unique quality of intellectual and artistic capacities—the giftedness and talent—that reside within each child, teachers must, as Gandhi, advises "be the change [they] wish to see in the world.”  Teachers must embrace the quest.  Like Don Quixote in his pursuit of his dream, they must have their armor scrubbed and on straight; their helmets ready; their Body, Voice, Mind, and Imagination firmly in place, with the full conviction in the value and importance of what they can do to be the change they wish to see in the world…of education…Teaching to Reach.




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Smith, S. L.  (2001). The power of the arts: Creative strategies for teaching exceptional learners.  Baltimore, MD.  Paul H. Brooks         Publishing Co.

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Dr. Gail Humphries Mardirosian is Chair, Department of Performing Arts, and an Associate Professor of Theatre, now in her 22nd at American University (AU) in Washington, DC.  She has directed 104 productions to date, including serious drama, the classics, musicals, children's theatre, cabaret performances, and special events.  She has received several awards for her directing, including the meritorious director award from the AU College Theatre Festival.  She also received an AU award for Outstanding Teaching in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Dr. Humphries Mardirosian is an education consultant, having developed curricula for several colleges/universities and arts centers around the country.  She recently completed the Business Plan for Educational Programming at ISI, a new multi-million-dollar professional theatre and center for the arts for children.  Publications include her presentation in Prague (2004) at the World Congress of the Czechoslovak Arts and Letters Conference (An American Voicing of the Silenced Theatre of Josef Topol); as well as articles in the Journal of Teaching Psychology, a commissioned paper for the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Educational Research and Improvement, National Institute on the Education of At-risk Students, and a handbook for teachers entitled Have You Roared Today?.  In summer 2005, she presented a paper entitled Parallel Power: Periklean Athens and Antigone from Page to Stage at American University for the European Cultural Council in Delphi, Greece, which will be published in fall 2005.  She also co-authored with Dr. Lynn Fox, a paper entitled Literacy Learning for At-Risk Students Through Arts-Based Instruction: A Case Study of the Imagination Quest (IQ) Model, published in the spring 2004 volume of the International Journal of Learning.

Dr. Humphries Mardirosian has served the Washington, DC, arts community as a past member of the theatre panels of the DC and Alexandria Commissions for the Arts, the Maryland State Arts Council, and is a current Board member of the DC Arts Collaborative and the National Society of Arts and Letters.  She is past national president of Theatre as a Liberal Art, the Association for Theatre in Higher Education, for which she continues to serve as the organizational representative for the Arts Education Partnership.


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