highlights from key national research on arts education

Champions of Change: Studies

Imaginative Actuality: Learning in the Arts During the Nonschool Hours

Shirley Brice Heath with Adelma Roach
Stanford University and Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching

The report featured in Champions of Change explains that "this report of empirical data on imagination�explores how young people and professional artists in economically disadvantaged communities make learning work in community-based organizations devoted to production and performance in the arts." (p.20) "The scholars carrying out this study were not arts educators or advocates, but social scientists working to understand learning and language development and organization environments that enhance these for young people likely to be labeled �at-risk' in their schools." (p.20)

Linguistic anthropologists observed student learning in non-school environments that students chose for themselves and were surprised to find a compelling pattern emerge among those students who participated in arts organizations, as opposed to community service or sports-academic initiatives.(p.20) The arts pattern revealed that the environments of arts organizations were different as were attitudes and behaviors of the young people involved. (p.24)

Young people in non-school arts organizations participated in planning, practicing and critiquing individual and group projects and thus had opportunities far in excess of other students to engage in complex thinking and speaking around those activities with each other and with adults. "Young people in arts-based organizations gain practice in thinking and talking as adults. They play important roles in their organizations; they have control over centering themselves and working for group excellence in achievement. Their joint work with adults and peers rides on conversations that test and develop ideas, explicate processes, and build scenarios of the future." (p.26)

The researchers explain that, "The high risk embedded in the performances and exhibitions of these organizations creates an atmosphere in which students know how to solicit support, challenge themselves and others, and share work and resources whenever possible." (p.26) The use of individual and group critique throughout the production process develops strategy-building and strengthens the young person's ability to assess and learn on his or her own. One participant who went on to architecture school noted, "The place enabled me to put together a capable portfolio to get accepted at a good institution, to make sure I had the tools to look at something and crit it by myself and say 'is that good enough? What's good and what's bad about it?'" (p.27)

From these findings the researchers developed a new understanding of the "three r's" and named them: roles, risks, and rules. (p.22)

Some of the findings from the report include:

  • Students involved in afterschool activities at arts organizations showed greater use of complex language than their peers in activities through community-service or sports organizations. Linguistic anthropologists found that "the influences of participation in the arts on language show up in the dramatic increase in syntactic complexity, hypothetical reasoning, and questioning approaches taken up by young people within four-to-six weeks of their entry into the arts organization." "Generalized patterns emerged among youth participating in afterschool arts groups: a five-fold increase in use of if-then statements, scenario building followed by what-if questions, and how-about prompts, more than a two-fold increase in use of mental state verbs (consider, understand, etc.), a doubling in the number of modal verbs (could, might, etc.)" (p.27)
  • Students in afterschool arts groups "had nine times as many opportunities to write original text material (not dictated notes) as their classroom counterparts." (p.28)
  • Environments of afterschool activities at arts organizations "emerged as somewhat different from those of groups engaged primarily in community service or sports." Linguistic anthropologists found that in the arts organizations, "Students participated in planning and preparing as a group, their sentences peppered, "with 'could,' 'will,' 'can,'�asserting possibility." (p.24-25)
  • Troubled students involved in afterschool programs at arts organizations felt better about themselves than less troubled students in a national sample.  Though the students observed and studied in after school arts organizations were twice as likely as those in a national sample (U.S. Department of Education, NELS:88) to be undergoing uncertain and insecure family situations, they were 16 percentage points more likely to feel good about themselves (92.3 percent to 76.2 percent). (p.30)
  • The arts develop skills and habits of mind that are important for workers in the new "Economy of Ideas" (Alan Greenspan). The SCANS 2000 Report links arts education with economic realities, asserting that "young people who learn the rigors of planning and production in the arts will be valuable employees in the idea-driven workplace of the future." (* The Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) was established in 1990 by the Secretary of Labor with the goal of encouraging a high-performance economy characterized by high-skill, high-wage employment. It defined critical skills that employees need in order to succeed in the workforce and, indeed, in life. In addition to basic literacy and computation skills which workers must know how to apply, they need the ability to work on teams, solve complex problems in systems, understand and use technology.) (p.32)

Imaginative Actuality: Learning in the Arts During the NonSchool Hours is one of seven major studies compiled in Champions of Change produced by the national Arts Education Partnership, the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities, the GE Fund, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.