Learning through the Arts: Lessons of Engagement

Smithrim, K., & Upitis, R. (2005). Learning through the Arts: Lessons of Engagement. Canadian Journal of Education, 28(1/2), 109-127.

Abstract:

The Learning Through the Arts (LTTA) program aims to revitalize elementary education by increasing engagement of students through arts integrated curricula developed by professional teaching artists in collaboration with classroom teachers. Researchers used a quasi-experimental research design spanning three years to investigate if students benefited from participation in the LTTA program as evidenced by positive gains in mathematics and language arts achievement and positive attitudes towards the arts and learning. The researchers also investigated whether students’ school achievement is linked to out-of-school activities and views of school subjects. Researchers gathered pre- and post-test quantitative and qualitative data, and found no significant differences between control and treatment groups in the baseline data. However, after three years LTTA students scored higher on tests of computation than their control counterparts. The LTTA students also showed multiple signs of greater engagement, a prerequisite for learning and achievement in any subject.

Key Findings:

  • In the third year of the program, students in the LTTA program scored higher than the two control counterparts on tests of mathematic computation and estimation. The benefits of the LTTA program in mathematics achievement occurred for children of all socioeconomic classes.
  • The data indicated that involvement in the arts went hand-in-hand with engagement in learning at school, with benefits extending to cognitive, physical, emotional, and social aspects.
  • The involvement in the arts did not come at the expense of achievement in mathematics and language. In fact, LTTA had a positive effect on achievement on the mathematics test after three years, indicating that the effects of arts on student achievement are not sudden but gradual and require sustained access to arts instruction.
  • Even though some students reported at the outset that they didn’t like the arts in school, teachers and artists were surprised to find that most students got involved in the LTTA activities.

Significance of the Findings:

This research adds weight to the numerous studies that are persuading policy makers that arts instruction makes important contributions to the motivation of children toward all learning, to their creativity, and to their ability to communicate their talents and abilities, all of which increases their level of engagement in school.

Methodology:

Researchers followed a quasi-experimental design to randomly select 650 students from 15 elementary schools across Canada that indicated they would be willing to participate in the LTTA program for a full three years and to select 20 control schools for comparison. The researchers used two control situations for comparison, the first being schools with a different curricular initiative, such as integrating technology, and the second being schools without any special initiatives in place. Together, 2,602 students from the control situations were selected for study.

The researchers collected quantitative through standardized tests in mathematics, reading, and writing, and surveys regarding students’ attitudes about school, learning, and the arts and their practices and hobbies outside of school. The researchers collected qualitative data through open-ended survey questions, one-on-one interviews, and focus groups. The treatment group of students received arts integrated curricula designed by LTTA teaching artists in collaboration with classroom students. The control groups did not receive LTTA arts integrated curriculum.

Limitations of the Research:

Even though the qualitative data show a significant benefit of the LTTA program for all involved, especially in terms of engagement of students and enthusiasm for learning in general, the quantitative data show only a mild improvement on scores and cannot be used as a basis for concluding that such a program will have strong impact on all academic achievement tests. The study also lacks information on the duration and intensity of arts programs received by the treatment group of students, limiting an authentic correlation between arts participation and gains in achievement.

Questions to Guide New Research:

  • Will the modest gains in mathematics achievement be robust over time?
  • Will the students show improvement in language measures after a longer participation in LTTA type-programs?
  • Why do girls appear more likely to engage in and enjoy the arts? And do school cultures and existing teaching practices contribute to these gender trends?
  • How does engagement in the arts explain gains in academic achievement?