Making Art the Heart of Learning

Matthew Badger honors the memory of his daughters with his own Arts-Infused, Inquiry–Based education (AIIBL – pronounced “able”) initiative through the Lily Sarah Grace Fund.


Linda T. Kennedy

10/28/20146 min read

It’s not uncommon to find organizations with the impetus for their birth and purpose to memorialize the accomplishments of well-lived lives. But when an organization takes on a life of its own and has the potential to change entire social systems that impact the very development of humanity, that’s an evolution to behold.

That’s what’s happening with the Lily Sarah Grace (LSG) Fund, a New York, N.Y.-based organization founded in 2012 to honor Lily, Sarah, and Grace Badger, who were lost Christmas morning, 2011, in a Connecticut house fire. Today, LSG Founder Matthew Badger, and LSG Co-Founder and Creative Director Abby Ballin continue awarding art supply grants to educators in impoverished U.S. public schools.

But now, with its own Arts-Infused, Inquiry–Based education (AIIBL – pronounced “able”) initiative, LSG also pulsates in the laughter and expression of children learning academic subjects through the arts. The AIIBL learning model incorporates the philosophy of arts-based learning projects with the philosophy that children also learn through group collaboration.

“The arts are the wheels that move the vehicle of innovative thinking and learning forward,” explains Emily Lopez, principal founder of AIIBL. “In this case, the vehicle is inquiry — research, asking questions and collaborating with others that facilitates learning. Inquiry can be engaging to any person, but when you add in the arts, it creates a learning connection for every type of learner, and learning and innovation go hand in hand.”

Initially, Badger and Ballin had no idea their LSG Fund vehicle would rapidly accelerate beyond providing teachers with paint and paper. But by the end of their first-year school bus tour, Badger and Ballin’s immersion in classroom environments resulted in a swelling passion for doing more by infusing children’s learning environment with art.

“We filmed in all these different classrooms, we made all these different films, we interviewed all these different teachers, and through visiting with those that we gave supplies to, we were able to form a group to collaborate on the future of LSG,” explains Badger. “Through that process, this idea of inquiry-based learning emerged.”

From their school visits, Badger and Ballin identified a group of teachers representing each region in the U.S. who would serve as the LSG Ed Council. Emily Lopez, principal at Magnet Public Elementary School in Norwalk, Conn., would lead the group in taking the organization into its next phase of growth and development.

Matthew Badger filming in Anna Glodowski’s class, Albemarle Road Elementary School, Charlotte, NC

Arts-Infused, Inquiry-Based Learning

The new 10-member LSG Ed Council met in New York for the first time during the summer of 2013. They created the LSG’s future grant criteria and AIIBL, a teaching methodology that takes arts-based learning into another realm. They also defined the criteria for an AIIBL grant, which would be awarded to teachers incorporating the model into their classrooms in the future.

“AIIBL is an inquiry-based learning model that utilizes the arts, but the arts are integrated as a method by which they gain an understanding in some area, as well a way to show what they’ve learned and the thoughts they’ve created on their own,” says Lopez, explaining that other arts-infused education models integrate art into traditional curriculum, but in this model, inquiry allows kids to drive the direction of study. “They are asking the questions and that’s what’s driving the project forward. Project-based learning has the potential to be more teacher-driven, whereas inquiry-based learning is more student driven.”

The Ed Council built AIIBL’s tenets upon Howard Gardener’s Multiple Intelligences. Gardener, Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, developed the theory that all human beings possess several bits of intelligence: visual, verbal, mathematical, bodily/kinesthetic, music/rhythmic, intrapersonal, interpersonal, naturalist existentialist and spatial intellects, and they also have the capacity to develop all of them.

But one of the chief educational implications of the theory is that since each human being has their own unique configuration of intelligence, educators should teach individuals in ways that they can learn. Then, the theory asserts that teachers should assess students in a way that allows them to show what they understand and to apply their knowledge and skills in unfamiliar contexts.

“AIIBL allows as many different access points to content and thinking as possible within a unit of study so that learners of all different types have multiple exposures,” explains Lopez. “They can apply their strengths to expand their thinking and understanding, as well as use their strengths to support and strengthen areas that may be challenging for them. You can take a child who is very creative and has an opportunity to express themselves and what they know about the solar system by means of something other than a written report, or just reading about it.”

AIIBL to Change Education

Several education models are represented in today’s arts-based versus traditional curricula debates, brought forward with the question: “What will students need to evolve into tomorrow’s workforce?” In a Feb. 2013 article, “Can STEM really succeed?” David A. Sousa and Tom Pilecki examine the benefit of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) funding in schools at the cost of art education programs. They acknowledge creative problem solving as a critical skill in STEM and that brain research shows that creativity can be taught – evidence to support the integration of arts-related topics and skills into STEM area courses.

The article says that because there are only so many hours in the school day, one consequence of increasing instruction in the STEM areas has been to decrease instructional time in stand-alone arts classes. Tight budgets and high-stakes testing in reading and mathematics have furthered the trend, it says. But the article also says that the thorough study and application of the scientific, technical, and mathematical principles embodied in the STEM subjects require skills that can be significantly enhanced by training in arts-related areas.

Sousa and Pilecki’s observances chime with Lopez’s thoughts about 21st-century skill sets and tomorrow’s workforce. “When you look at what needs to be done professionally nowadays, you need to be able to discuss, justify your opinion, work in a team, and problem solve – that involves inquiry. And to compete on the global level, we have to be innovative,” Lopez says. “But our current education model was not set up for our current day and age of innovation; it was created to meet the needs of industrialization – it was set up to teach people how to be factory workers. And that’s got to shift.”

Shifting Focus to Innovation

Badger knew education needed a shift, too; his daughters were examples of Sousa and Pilecki’s observations. Badger visited his daughter’s classrooms frequently and could relate to their challenges as dyslexics. “I did badly in school. And my psyche was damaged by that failure,” he recalls. “Experiencing daily failure as an elementary child has lasting ramifications. I dreaded subjects like math, but the arts and sports kept me going at school.”

So, when Badger witnessed Lily experience school as a place of failure, it caused him pain. Yet Grace’s love for school made him wonder what her teacher did differently. “It was Grace’s teacher Amy Schindel’s dedication to creative learning that allowed Grace to shine, “ he says. “Her classroom was filled with activities, projects, joy and education through the arts. She was very happy, and she did very well.”

The Ed Council’s goals now have expanded to include seeing AIIBL adopted as the commonplace method of education in classrooms throughout the country. “I want this model to really help us redefine education in the future.” says Lopez. “I look at my job on a day-to-day basis that I am growing the future members of society. I want it to be one where we know how to live amongst each other and work together and have novel ideas that are powerful and purposeful – and that’s where I see AIIBL. I whole-heartedly believe Lily Sarah Grace has the potential to have big impact and create this for more children.”

Lopez’s wish is rapidly materializing. LSG Fund is now playing a role in classrooms in every state in the country, says Badger, through providing supplies and fueling the drive towards learning solutions in America’s classrooms with AIIBL. The Ed Council is now spearheading teacher training programs in Charlotte, N.C., and Los Angeles. Also, starting with this current fall semester, LSG is conducting a freshman course in AIIBL at the University of North Carolina – Charlotte, and AIIBL professional development is being conducted at Albemarle Road Elementary School in Charlotte, N.C.

“If schools don’t utilize aesthetic learning; which is learning by using your hands and doing things, then 40 percent in the classroom will not learn; that’s insane,” observes Badger. “That’s close to how many kids drop out of school. And it’s just awful when you think about how many kids are going to school hating it; that’s very sad.”

With almost every reference to LSG, Badger stresses it has evolved from one big collaboration from the beginning, a core skill promoted in the AIIBL model itself. “First, it started with Abby and my dear friends, then it became a union of many, including teachers, parents, and artists. We now have volunteers across America,” he says. Essentially, LSG expanded to include all of the most revered people and associations in Badger and Ballin’s network, except for one: their dog Pippi Badger. But that would change soon, too.

Photo courtesy of Matthew Badger