Learning in and through the arts: The question of transfer.

Burton, J. M., Horowitz, R. & Abeles, H. (2000). Learning in and through the arts: The question of transfer. Studies in Art Education, 41(3): 228-257.1

Abstract:

The study investigates whether transfer occurs such that learning in the arts affects learning in non-art subjects and if there are effects, what they are, how they occur, and what circumstances within schools influence the realization of such effects. In particular, this study examines the relationship between arts learning and creative thinking, academic self-concept, and school climate using both quantitative and qualitative methods.

The researchers administered numerous tests gauging creativity and potential indicators of arts-based academic transfer to 2,407 fourth, fifth, seventh, and eight grade students at 12 schools. They then conducted a follow-up qualitative investigation to gain deeper understanding of patterns and relationships that were identified in the quantitative phase of the study. Researchers found that there is a significant relationship between arts teaching variables and dimensions of school climate.

Key Findings:

  • Children in the top quartile of high arts exposure (both in and out of school), as determined by the student questionnaire, were compared with those in the lowest quartile of arts exposure. High arts children scored higher on a figural creativity test (no statistics reported). High arts children scored higher (from teacher ratings) on expression, risk-taking, creativity-imagination, and cooperative learning.
  • A regression analysis showed a significant relation between (a) amount of arts instruction and teachers’ efforts at arts integration and (b) teachers’ perceptions of students’ risk-taking.
  • High arts children scored higher on several subscales measuring academic self-concept.
  • Arts-rich schools scored higher (from teacher ratings) on affiliation, student support, professional interest, teacher innovativeness, and resource adequacy, and lower on achievement orientation, formalization, and centralization, suggesting that arts-rich schools are not top-down structures.
  • Teachers and principals in schools with strong arts programs believed that the presence of the arts led their teachers to be more innovative, to have increased awareness of different aspects of students’ abilities, and to find school a more enjoyable place to work.
  • Researchers also discovered that the status of arts-rich or non-arts rich schools was not tied to socio-economic status, but rather to school climate, years of study in the arts and opportunities to engage in more than one arts subject.

Significance of the Findings:

This study challenges the notion found in much literature on transfer that transfer should be thought of as a single defining relationship where learning in the arts serves learning in other subjects. Rather the researchers believe that study data suggest that there are a number of relationships characterized by different cognitive capacities and ways of thinking in the arts that have impact on learning in the arts and other subjects. Competencies and not content is the key. Researchers further believe that transfer alone should not be a goal of education, but rather teachers should engage in understanding and building on the competencies evidenced in the study.

Methodology:

The researchers studied 2,406 students in fourth, fifth, seventh, and eighth grade in a diverse group of 12 public schools at which arts specialists delivered integrated and discipline-based arts instruction. The researchers classified some of these schools as “arts rich” and others as “arts poor” based on measures of the “quantity of arts programming” the schools offered.

The researchers tested students’ figural creativity (using the Torrance test) and academic self-concept. They also administered three questionnaires to teachers asking them to rate: 1) their perceptions of students’ imagination, risk-taking, expression, and cooperative learning; 2) their school climate in terms of affiliation, student support, professional interest, achievement orientation, formalization, centralization, innovativeness, and resource adequacy; and 3) how much they integrate the arts, collaborate with arts specialists, and use the arts as a tool to teach other subjects. The researchers analyzed these data and then selected five schools from the 12 surveyed at which they then conducted a qualitative investigation observing classrooms, interviewing teachers, and examining student work.

Limitations of the Research:

This study is correlational in design and does not allow causal conclusions. It is possible that children in arts-rich schools scored higher on creativity and academic self-concept as a direct consequence of their experiences with the arts. However, since the arts-rich schools had more innovative teachers, it is equally possible that teacher innovation is the factor that led to greater creativity and academic self-concept. The study also does not examine what factors lead to issues of school climate that impact the presence or lack of arts.

Questions to Guide New Research:

Future research should investigate whether schools that grant the arts a central role attract better, more innovative teachers as a direct consequence of the new role for the arts. More study is needed on how arts in the schools can alter the school climate. Also, research should examine what the factors are that influence the presence or lack of arts support in school climates?

1The text of this research summary is adapted from the Arts Education Partnership’s 2002 research compendium: Deasy, R. J. (Ed.). (2002). Critical links: Learning in the arts and student academic and social development. Washington, DC: Arts Education Partnership.