Imaginative actuality: Learning in the arts during nonschool hours

Heath, S., & Roach, A. (1999). Imaginative actuality: Learning in the arts during nonschool hours. Chapter in E. Fiske (Ed.), Champions of Change: The Impact of the Arts on Learning. Washington DC: Arts Education Partnership and President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities, 19-34.


This research draws upon data from a ten-year national study that describes academic, personal, social and civic outcomes of out-of-school programs on students. Results showed that context of learning is important and that out-of-school youth organizations fill an “institutional gap” where traditional social institutions (e.g. schools, family and church) fall short of meeting the needs of students. While all organizations (athletic-academic, service, and arts-based) provided mentoring relationships, collaborative group dynamics, and a balance of play and work, arts-based organizations offered a unique element of imaginative creativity.

The researchers carried out a fine-grained analysis on the data specifically coding the language used. Those engaged in arts programming used “if-then” statements, “what if” and “how about” questions five times more than students in other non-arts programming. In addition, researchers found a doubling in the use of mental state verbs (e.g. consider, understand) and modal verbs (e.g. could, might). This data, along with content and context data from the research points to several additional outcomes in skill building for youth that transfers into participation in school, work, home and civic life.

Key Findings:

Students who participate in out-of-school arts organizations develop several transferable skills in addition to their arts training. These findings include:

  • Students had many opportunities to practice using their imagination in a realistic context where they work within limitations of time and resources and learn from failure as well as success.
  • Students have opportunities to engage in critical dialogue with professionals in a mentoring capacity whereby students work alongside adults and learn skills in decision-making, strategy-building, and multiple ways of doing and being.
  • Students in arts organizations showed a dramatic increase in the use of complex language, demonstrating an increase in their use of syntactic complexity, hypothetical reasoning, and questioning approaches.
  • Students’ linguistic habits developed from participation at the arts organizations were reinforced in other settings. They used their discretionary time to build not only language skills, but also artistic technique either within school or outside.
  • Students developed a group awareness of how their collective abilities and talents can add to the larger community. Many arts organizations offer a chance for students to apply their skills through employment opportunities and follow-up data with students years later shows that a high percentage stay in their community and contribute to its economic and civic growth.
  • Students demonstrated greater self-esteem as compared to other high school students. This is of particular significance considering that students in arts organizations were about twice as likely as the NELS students to be considered “at-risk.”

Significance of the Findings:

Current discussions in education have given little attention to the creative youth-based nonschool organizations that fill an institutional gap. These findings evidence the many positive outcomes that arts-based programs provide students. It is of great value for students to understand what they are learning and how this learning affects their lives as well as impacts the larger community.


The ten-year study conducted by Heath and others collected data from a national sampling of 124 youth-based out-of-school organizations in economically disadvantaged communities in urban and rural sites, as well as mid-sized cities. These organizations were either athletic and academic focused, community-service centered, or arts based. The researchers gathered in-depth longitudinal ethnographic data conducting observations. They were assisted by post-secondary students who also trained small teams of high school students to work as junior ethnographers. These students audio-recorded both within and outside the organizations, interviewed local residents and youth not linked to youth-based organizations, and supervised their peers in keeping of daily journals. The comparative analysis used the 1994 National Education Longitudinal Survey (NELS).

Limitations of the Research:

The authors included what were considered “effective” youth-based organizations in the sample for this study. Therefore, the findings of this study cannot be generalized to all organizations serving students in nonschool hours.

Questions to Guide New Research:

What are the unique qualities that arts-based community settings provide students that differ from academic or sports alternatives?

What can we learn from arts-based community learning in out of school settings that can be replicable in school settings?

Evaluation and research are needed to examine community based arts organization’s programs. Linking attributes of best practices to student outcomes will give more detailed insights into what specific programming leads to positive outcomes for students that fill the institutional gap. In addition, more specific data regarding student demographics as they pertain to outcomes will assist in making a stronger case for arts-education programming.