Participation in education-based high school activities helps students develop important life skills such as dedication, perseverance, commitment, teamwork and a sense of fair play. Performing arts activities, in particular, provide students opportunities to develop skills needed to be successful both in life and at work. Music, theatre, and speech and debate activities are ideal for developing what has been called the Four Cs of 21st century skills – critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity.
The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), a non-profit group that links college career placement offices with employers, conducted a survey in 2014 asking hiring managers to prioritize skills they consider important when recruiting new employees. Those at the top of their list included leadership, along with the ability to work in a team structure, to make decisions and solve problems, to communicate effectively with people inside and outside the organization, and to plan, organize and prioritize work.
Working effectively in a group, or collaboration, is essential for success in performing arts. Whether raising money for a music festival trip, rehearsing the final small details before a performance, or preparing to defend a debate case against upcoming and unknown opponents, performing arts students must not only work together, they must do so creatively. They also often must work under severe time restraints. You must be able to “think on your feet” to react to some unanticipated occurrence in a stage performance, or to respond to an opponent’s arguments during a debate.
In creating a persuasive argument, debaters are pushed to set a goal and a series of intermediate steps to reach it. They must think critically about how an opponent might respond – and prepare for that as well.
Theatre students, whether actors or crew members, must plan and prioritize their work so that all the basics are taken care of in a timely fashion, allowing sufficient time for polishing the performance and making any adaptations that might be needed.
Performers in music ensembles realize that they must come to rehearsals thoroughly prepared and committed to dedicating rehearsal time to polishing the performance to the best of their ability. Planning and prioritizing work is critical to success.
Being a team player in a performing arts group means students must accept different roles for different situations. At times, a student may be a cheerleader to help and encourage those who are frustrated and struggling to master their part. It could require mentoring of new members who are learning the culture of the group. Sometimes it means becoming a peacemaker when tensions flare between members. And other times it means stepping up and becoming a leader, even if they have not been given that title. Group projects do not end with high school, and the ability to work with diverse people in a variety of circumstances is a skill that will serve these students well.
Performing arts programs provide students countless opportunities to develop strong critical-thinking skills. Musicians must be able to analyze the various parts of a musical score, and also synthesize those parts to understand and appreciate “the big picture” and combine those pieces into an arresting new whole.
Students performing literature must carefully analyze the printed word and work to understand the author’s intent, the historical context and the human motivation of the characters. They must then work diligently in exploring the best means by which they can bring their understanding to life through performance, whether for a critic judge or for a community audience.
Debaters must thoroughly analyze the current debate topic and be prepared to argue both sides of the issues equally well. They learn through intensive research not just facts and statistics, but to consider and understand the forces at play that shape a person’s view of the world. And they learn to listen carefully, because they can’t refute an argument if they don’t understand it.
It is not surprising, of course, that students in performing arts become better communicators, but not just from the self-confidence and fluency they gain through performance or public speaking. Successful performers are good listeners as well. They don’t just hear, but learn to listen to nuances, to silences, to choice of words as part of the message. Effective communication is a two-way process, and learning to truly listen is essential.
In addition, performing arts students develop empathy. Studying music, literature or argumentation opens new worlds for students, exposing them to cultures, people and ideas they might otherwise never know, and broadening their perspective of the world in which they live. They learn to understand what motivates people, to forge relations and to care for others. They become more thoughtful communicators.
In remarks in 2012 to the National Association of Urban Debate Leagues, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said he might list a fifth C skill to those necessary for 21st century education – civic awareness and engagement. He said, “Education is about so much more than what you read in a book or the college you attend. It is about becoming an engaged citizen – and an active member of the community.”
Competitive debate engages students in real, complex public policy decisions, and sparks an interest in staying informed about and involved in civic issues. Music and theatre students serve their communities through sharing art, and they experience the building of community through such performances. Just as with high school sports events, performing arts activities help build and strengthen the bonds between schools and communities to everyone’s advantage.
Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.” Offering opportunities for students to participate in performing arts activities is an excellent way to do so.
Treva Dayton is a former classroom teacher, forensic coach and theatre director. She has served as state director of speech and debate for the Texas University Interscholastic League and as an assistant director for the NFHS. She recently retired as director of academics for the UIL. Dayton is a member of the High School Today Publications Committee.