highlights from key national research on arts education

Champions of Change: Studies

Why the Arts Matter in Education or Just What Do Children Learn when they Create an Opera

Dennie Palmer Wolf
Performance Assessment Collaborative for Education, Harvard Graduate School of Education

This study examined four classrooms of students who participated in the Creating Original Opera program in contrast to peers who did not participate in the opera program. Creating Original Opera is a program of the Metropolitan Opera Guild and draws on the discipline of opera to help students grow in all of the arts—music, theater, dance, and the visual arts—as well as history, literature, and foreign language. In the process of creating, producing, and performing their opera the students write a script, compose music, design costumes and make-up, build sets, light and props, manage, promote, assess, and perform. Researchers observed both opera and non-opera classrooms and noted student participation in general and particular aspects that reveal the quality of that participation.

The researchers also worked with teachers, asking that the teachers point out instances of learning that they believed were specific to the opera-creating experience. In general teachers claimed that, "the opera makes students work harder and smarter." The report includes transcripts from such learning exchanges that demonstrate the high level of engagement, imagination, and reflection that take place among students and teachers. (p. 93, 95-96, 97) The persistent nature of the students' quest to solve problems led the teacher to believe that the process created a context for learning in which quality of work was a high priority for the students. (p.93)

Some findings from the report include:

  • Elementary students involved in creating original opera showed higher rates of classroom participation and quality of participation than their non opera-creating peers. Students involved in reflecting, collaborating, and making the choices necessary to create opera participated more in class (50 percent vs. 33 percent) than their non opera-creating peers. The participation of the opera-creating students was more coherent and responsive to the flow of others' comments. The researchers note the pattern in three opera-creating classrooms, "breaks down in the fourth, where students were more often a work force doing teachers' bidding than a company of individuals in charge of making choices and decisions." In other words, the responsibility for and engagement in creating art is crucial to yielding its broader benefits. The longer students are engaged in the opera-creating process, the more substantial the effects on the quantity and quality of their classroom participation. (p. 94, Table 1, p.95, Table 2)

Why the Arts Matter in Education or Just What do Children Learn When They Create an Opera 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.