Artistic choices: A study of teachers who use the arts in the classroom

Oreck, B. (2006). Artistic choices: A study of teachers who use the arts in the classroom. International Journal of Education & the Arts, 7(8).

Abstract:

In a climate of increased education standardization, this study examines what the personal characteristics and factors are that support or constrain arts use in the classroom. This is a qualitative investigation that examines six New York City elementary school teachers, chosen from 423 teachers who completed a survey in a quantitative phase of the study, who found ways to use the arts in their classrooms on a regular basis despite external pressure. The results found that teachers had a willingness to push boundaries and take risks. They recognized obstacles and challenges to arts use, but made choices that helped them maintain a sense of independence and creativity in teaching. They also articulated the importance of arts-based professional development in enabling them to make the arts an essential component of their teaching.

Key Findings:

Findings from teacher interviews indicated that teachers:

Held strong beliefs that all students are capable of high achievement.

Made choices about where, who, and what they teach - finding situations where they could succeed despite being pressured to conform to strict standardized teaching approaches.

Credited professional development workshops with artists as one of the keys to their ability to implement arts in their teaching.

Had a broad definition of art, seeing it in all areas of their lives and throughout their teaching.

Used one particular art form most frequently in their teaching. Building confidence in this form then led to use of other arts.

Found that scaffolding arts was key to facilitating arts use in the classroom.

Articulated performance and personal goals for students through involvement in arts including academic, cognitive, and life skills.

Felt constraints and pressures from supervisors and district administrators which threatened their autonomy and freedom.

Were provided a level of autonomy and confidence when their methods were proven effective based on tests and external measures.

Collaboration with visiting artists provided support, motivation, and pedagogical expertise.

Limitations of time, space, and materials reduced the scope and frequency of arts activities.

Significance of the Findings:

The study found that the personal characteristics, attitudes, and beliefs of teachers enabled them to utilize arts even when facing increasing pressure to standardize their instruction. Teachers were motivated to reach all of their students and found the arts an effective way to do so.

This study points to the role that professional development plays in supporting a teacher’s use of arts in the classroom. Researchers learned that the teacher’s use of one primary art form led to the use of other art forms, highlighting the need for choice in professional development and for opportunities to acquire advanced as well as basic skills. Most professional development initiatives stay at an introductory level. When these development programs take the teachers to a more advanced level, the teachers experience risk-taking, task completion, and greater confidence.

Methodology:

This qualitative study was conducted as part of a mixed-methods research study. In the first phase, teachers in grades K-12 (n = 423) from eleven school districts in five regions of the country completed a survey ascertaining the frequency of use of the arts in their teaching practice. The researcher selected and interviewed six teachers from those that used the arts regularly, representing a range of types of arts use, frequency of use, experience with the arts, grade level taught, gender, current faculty position, and years of teaching experience. He then coded and analyzed the interview data.

Limitations of the Research:

While the initial quantitative phase of the study was broad and significant, the qualitative phase focuses on a small number of teachers. Including a larger number of teachers and/or looking at teachers with low frequency of use of the arts as a comparison would add depth to the understanding of how personal characteristics and factors impact teachers’ use of the arts.

Questions to Guide New Research:

  • What can we learn about the impact that external pressures have on teachers who report infrequently using arts in their classroom?
  • Can we teach the skills and attitudes needed to include the arts frequently and well, and if so, how?
  • What are the links between arts-based professional development experiences and subsequent classroom teaching practice?