Eric Hall wonders if focus can be taught.
The founder of Hall Spars & Rigging in Bristol served as one of five panelists for the second annual Economic Development Forum held on October 13th at the Bristol Statehouse on High Street this year. Drawing professionals from the business and education sectors along with others interested in the economic and educational future of our community, the well-attended event sparked discussion of how we can better prepare graduates for the workforce.
While discussing the qualities he looks for in prospective employees, Mr. Hall said*, “I don’t know if you can teach focus.”
Well, you can. The arts teach focus, along with a host of other 21st century skills in high demand from business leaders and CEOs around our state and around the world. Skills like creativity, flexibility, collaboration, innovative thinking, looking at a problem from multiple perspectives and finding more than one solution, being able to discern the best solution to a problem, persistence, empathy, and motivation.
But let’s focus on focus:
Learning in the visual arts (such as drawing, painting, sculpting, photography, and more) teaches people to observe, to look beyond their preconceived notions and see the shapes, shadows, and forms before them. The visual arts require the student to focus intensely on the details and still maintain an understanding of the whole, constantly shifting perspective between the two. Projects in the visual arts also take time and therefore require persistence and commitment on the part of the creator. All of this builds what we call focus.
Music education, in addition to teaching people to sing, compose, play an instrument, and appreciate great music, also offers significant attention-building benefits. The active listening required to play a piece of music in concert with other musicians, the practice necessary to master a composition, and the persistence it takes to push through the frustration and impatience and keep trying (especially in this world of instant gratification) – all these experiences help to strengthen focus.
Dance education, like music education, requires a great deal of practice and persistence to build mastery. A student of dance must also pay close attention to every muscle in their body, to the movement of their own body through space, to the timing of the music and choreography, and to the movement of every other dancer moving through the performance with them. All at the same time. Dancers know how to focus.
Theater, like dance, is also often an ensemble art and requires the student to be mindful not only of their own performance but of the performance of every actor on stage with them. Again, the theater student must spend a great deal of time in practice to achieve mastery (perhaps you’re seeing a pattern here). Theater education, similar to learning in the visual arts, teaches people the skills of close observation, setting aside preconceived notions, and paying attention to detail while maintaining an understanding of the whole. A great performance requires a great deal of focus; in fact, we often remark of a great performance that the actors were so focused they embodied their characters and made us forget, for a short time, that we were watching a portrayal.
We can also lose ourselves in a great story. Storytelling is another art form that demands focus, persistence, attention to detail and mindfulness of the whole from its creator. Learning how to tell a good story requires practice, and the storyteller learns to balance multiple characters and plotlines, weaving them into a tight, sincere, and entertaining story. If the story author loses focus and wanders down a disingenuous path with a character or a plotline, the reader (or listener) will know and the power of the story will falter. Focus is crucial to a good story.
At the recent Economic Development Forum Mr. Hall suggested that internships can build focus, and I agree that internships can be a powerful piece of a great education. But do we really want to wait until our children are sixteen to begin teaching them focus? Angus Davis, founder of Swipely.com and an advocate for education reform, also spoke at the forum, saying* “If we want a different economic outcome we have to challenge our current beliefs that haven’t changed in 50 years.”
Well, If I Ran The School (to paraphrase the great storyteller, Theodor Seuss Geisel) I’d turn it inside out, moving the arts from the periphery to the center. Students in all grades, pre-K through 12, would spend time every day in arts learning, which would include both arts instruction and arts appreciation. I don’t believe everyone should strive to become a professional artist, but I do believe all kinds of learners will benefit from strong arts education. And I would build an arts-integrated curriculum, infusing the teaching strategies used in arts education into every other discipline taught, from math to history to science to English to foreign language and on. Because I don’t think education reform is enough; like many others I believe we must transform education. And because I understand that the arts are the key that will unlock the door to professional success and personal fulfillment in the 21st century. Throw away the key and the door will remain locked to far too many people, and that will affect us all.