highlights from key national research on arts education

Critical Links: Learning in the Arts and Student Academic and Social Development

Go Back


The nation's schools are being challenged to make sure "no child is left behind" as they strive to help all students reach the level of achievement essential for success in school, work, and life in the 21st century.

This new compendium of arts education research studies explores critical links between learning in the arts and the nation's ability to successfully meet this goal.

  • Critical Links, for the first time, brings together a group of studies focused on understanding the cognitive capacities (thinking skills) developed in learning and practicing the arts and the relationship of those capacities to students' academic performance and social development.
  • Compendium studies also examine achievement motivations, attitudes, and dispositions toward learning and fostered through learning and practicing the arts and the link between these motivations and academic performance and social development.
  • The studies suggest that for certain populations—including young children, students from economically disadvantaged circumstances, and students needing remedial instruction—learning in the arts may be uniquely able to advance learning and success in other areas.

The Critical Links
Studies reviewed in the volume and the interpretive essays point to critical links between learning in the arts and academic and social skills and motivations in the following six major areas:

  1. Reading and Language Development
    • Basic Reading Skills
      Certain forms of arts instruction enhance and complement basic reading instruction aimed at helping children "break the phonetic code" that unlocks written language by associating letters, words and phrases with sounds, sentences and meanings. Since we do not "read reading" but rather texts of various kinds in search of meaning, it is important that forms of arts instruction promote reading skills and the achievement motivation that engages young learners in the reading experience.
    • Literacy
      Young children who engage in dramatic enactments of stories and text improve their reading comprehension, story understanding and ability to read new materials they have not seen before. The effects are even more significant for children from economically disadvantaged circumstances and those with reading difficulties in the early and middle grades.
    • Writing
      Spatial reasoning skills inherent in learning music are needed for planning and producing writing. Dramatic enactments by young children also are shown to produce more effective writing. Other arts learning experiences—in dance and drama, for instance—develop expressive and reflective skills that enhance writing proficiency.
  2. Mathematics
    Certain music instruction, including comprehensive instruction that includes training in keyboard skills, develops spatial reasoning and spatial-temporal reasoning skills, which are fundamental to understanding and using mathematical ideas and concepts.
  3. Fundamental Cognitive Skills and Capacities
    Learning in individual arts forms as well as in multiarts experiences engages and strengthens such fundamental cognitive capacities as spatial reasoning (the capacity for organizing and sequencing ideas); conditional reasoning (theorizing about outcomes and consequences); problem-solving; and the components of creative thinking (originality, elaboration, flexibility).
  4. Motivations to Learn
    Motivation and the attitudes and dispositions to pursue and sustain learning are essential to achievement. Learning in the arts nurtures these capacities, including active engagement, disciplined and sustained attention, persistence, and risk-taking, and increases attendance and educational aspirations.
  5. Effective Social Behavior
    Studies of student learning experiences in drama, music, dance and multiarts activities show student growth in self-confidence, self-control, self-identity, conflict resolution, collaboration, empathy, and social tolerance.
  6. School Environment
    It is critical that a school provide a positive context for learning. Studies in the compendium show that the arts help to create the kind of learning environment that is conducive to teacher and student success by fostering teacher innovation, a positive professional culture, community engagement, increased student attendance and retention, effective instructional practice, and school identity.

Reviews and Essays
Each review of a study in "Critical Links":

  • Summarizes what the study found about the effects of arts learning on aspects of academic and/or social development.
  • Discusses the strengths and weaknesses of the study and its implications for research, practice and/or policy.
  • Comments on the contribution of the study to the field of arts education, which could be:
    • Explicating links between arts learning and academic or social outcomes;
    • Proposing anew and interesting approach to a research question;
    • Generating hypotheses for future study; or 
    • Suggesting new approaches to curriculum and instruction.

Two researchers contribute to the review of each of the studies in the compendium, creating a dialogue from different perspectives about its implications, strengths and weaknesses.

Individual essays explore the implications of the group of studies in dance, drama, music, visual arts and multiple arts experiences. A concluding essay discusses the transfer of learning from the arts to other school subjects and social behavior.

Directions for Future Research
"Critical Links" also aids researchers by pointing to a number of directions for future arts education research that will build on what has been learned from the studies in "Critical Links."

Additional Information and Link to Full Report
The full text of the report is available here: http://www.aep-arts.org/CLhome.html.

"Critical Links" is published by the Arts Education Partnership (AEP), a coalition of more than 100 national education, arts, philanthropic, and government organizations. Funding to produce Critical Links was provided by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Endowment for the Arts. Additionally, those two agencies support the regular work of the AEP through an ongoing cooperative agreement with the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies who administer the Partnership.