Reflections and Musings

Reflections on Arts Learning

Are you intrigued by the concept of arts learning? Do you enjoy expanding your existing knowledge of arts education and arts integration? Maybe you are just curious about what goes on at the intersection of arts and non-arts academic learning. You are not alone. I am always eager to learn more about this topic.

I just finished reading (again) Champions of Change: The Impact of the Arts on Learning. This report compiles the findings of seven major studies and provides rock solid evidence that when students are involved in meaningful arts experiences, they achieve higher levels of learning. This report is even more exciting when you realize that, though conducted by different researchers and research teams, they arrived at very similar findings.

In general, we can probably all agree that when students enjoy an activity or experience, they are more engaged in the learning process. When they are engaged, we can deduce that they will likely retain snippets of what they have experienced. And when they retain those bits of information, it is conceivable that they might synthesize these pieces of information and come to a new or a clearer understanding. To make it personal – when I learn in a format that I enjoy, I remember more details. When I remember more details, I can apply that knowledge to a new situation. Because I enjoyed the learning process, and because I can now remember those facts/skills/strategies (fill in the blank), I have the mental stickiness needed to apply this knowledge to a new situation and experience new and enhanced learning with greater ease.

When presented well, the arts provide authentic learning experiences that engage our minds, our bodies, and our very souls. When fully engaged, our learning experiences are rewarding and meaningful. When wholly engaged, our learning experiences are memorable.

I do not intend this as an analysis of the research findings in Champions of Change. (I encourage you to read the studies.) There were simply a few clear and exact statements that merit repeating. My re-read of the book reminds me of why I am drawn to my work, and I wanted to share this with you.

#1  The arts reach students who are not otherwise being reached.
I’m sure you’ve heard the statement, “If we can’t reach them, we can’t teach them.” Why aren’t they being reached? Possibly their learning style doesn’t align with the presentation style. Maybe they have struggled in an area for so long that they have simply given up. Perhaps they are bored. For any number of reasons, some students are not engaged and fully present in the learning experience. Champions of Change research found that the arts give students a reason to be engaged in their learning and that the arts can help level the playing field. When students are learning through the arts, they are seamlessly flowing through all levels of higher order thinking skills and activating multiple abilities, strategies and processes.
Engagement in learning is the critical key.

#2  The arts transform the environment for learning.
This is true for students and for teachers. The work is hard, but the learning process is fun. I first encountered this phrase in an article by Seymour Papert, MIT mathematician and one of the pioneers of artificial intelligence. He coined the phrase “hard fun”. Dick Deasy, former Director of Arts Education Partnership, references this when he reminds us that learning in the arts is hard fun. It might well be one of the hardest things you have ever done. But if you are committed to it, the better you are at ‘doing’ it and the more joy it brings upon success.
Learning in the arts takes us to a place of discovery – discovery about the learning, and discovery about ourselves. As schools embrace this concept, students and teachers discover that they enjoy the learning process. Students enjoy going to school. There are fewer discipline reports. There is lower absenteeism. There is increased parental involvement. Students are happy. Teachers are happy. There is a positive change in school culture that is directly correlated to learning in and through the arts. (Don’t just take my work for it. Check out actual studies in Arts Integration Frameworks, Research & Practice: A Literature Review)

#3  The arts provide new challenges for those students already considered successful.
It is no great surprise that boredom and complacency are huge barriers to learning and success. (Does anyone remember the 2006 cover article of Time Magazine entitled Dropout Nation?) The arts can level the playing field for struggling learners, no doubt. The arts also provide unlimited challenges for students who are already successful as they are about imagination and creativity. Profoundly academic, the arts engage multiple levels of thought processing simultaneously. The arts are an adventure of the mind, leading learners to creativity through imagination, curiosity and questioning. A basic example of this could be to list as many different uses as you can think of for a simple tool – perhaps that ruler in your desk drawer. A simple exercise like this stretches our cognitive abilities and challenges us to consider this simple tool on innumerable levels.
Challenging ourselves in the arts also develops our sense of self-efficacy. I remember an early research project I undertook. I had participants rate their skills level in a pre- and post-test and found it quite surprising that at the conclusion of the project, the ratings were actually lower. In the follow-up interviews with the participants, I uncovered the answer to this interesting find. At first, they stated they felt quite confident in their skills level. After going through the arts experience, they realized there was much more depth to the project than they initially recognized. Though the pre- and post-test findings were not what I had anticipated, participants proved they were committed to the challenge of deeper learning and challenging themselves to even greater success.

I encourage you to start digging into some great reading about arts learning experiences. Feed your curiosity. When you uncover something that excites you, be sure to share it. Share it with me. Share it with education leaders and decision makers in your community.

And while you are learning, remember – the arts are fun. Hard fun!