Burnaford, G. (2009). A study of professional development for arts teachers: Building curriculum, community, and leadership in elementary schools. Journal for Learning through the Arts, 5(1).


This study examines the impact that network-based professional development has on arts specialists and their schools. Professional development instituted as part of the study engaged arts specialists from 59 schools as community and curriculum builders in collaboration with non-arts teachers, all the while building their own leadership capacities. Through quantitative and qualitative measures, researchers spent three years working with the study’s schools and concluded that arts specialists in the program became leaders supporting change in their schools through collaboration with principals and non-arts teachers. Participants developed a deeper understanding of the value of an arts integrated curriculum in which their own arts expertise contributes to the design of learning and teaching, particularly in the area of literacy.

Key Findings:

This study examines professional development emphasizing curriculum, community, and leadership, and examines how these elements of a professional development program affect arts teachers. Professional development sessions focused on school improvement, arts teacher involvement, literacy in arts classrooms, process documentation, and collaboration with classroom teachers.

Community was created across the 59-school network. Often isolated, arts teachers from the study schools emphasized the value of the community built across the network. The professional development in the study allowed them to develop a peer group, which positively affected their work.

The professional development emphasized the building of new curriculum that crosses interdisciplinary lines by using the “Big Idea and Big Understandings” approach, in which curriculum is designed around a big idea that teachers want students to understand. Teasing out key, big ideas, arts specialists developed curriculum that worked with multiple grades, ages, and abilities. The “Big Idea” approach was also valuable in fostering interdisciplinary collaboration.

The study utilized arts integration as a tool for teaching literacy. Arts specialists were given literacy training and then reinforced and introduced literacy concepts through the arts. As a result of the instruction, students were given the tools to examine each other’s work and their own, learning to discriminate, practice writing skills, and use arts vocabulary.

Another critical element was the use of process documentation to illuminate steps in the learning process. By analyzing planning materials, curriculum and student work, teachers were able to make valuable connections between the students’ learning in relation to what they were teaching.

Arts specialists in the study learned through their monthly professional development session and they in turn taught their school peers. Through the arts specialists’ new role in working with non-arts teachers they became recognized and valued for their role in the school. Non-arts teachers became open and willing to engage in interdisciplinary collaboration.

All of these findings point to the conclusion drawn by the researchers that arts specialists in the study are spurring school change through their work.

Significance of the Findings:

Network-based professional development involving arts specialists across all schools in a district has the potential to make large and lasting impact, more so than professional development that occurs at a single school. In the professional development that occurred in this study, arts specialists developed strong peer-relationships and became leaders in their schools working with their principals and becoming collaborators on interdisciplinary arts integration with non-arts teachers. In the study arts specialist also became involved in school improvement processes. Through the leadership of the arts specialist, school change began.


The study examined professional development activities among 59 schools, singling out six case study schools that represented the geographic and demographic range of the district. Data were collected and analyzed over three years from focus groups; interviews; school walk-throughs; and process documentation of curriculum, student work, teacher lesson outlines and online documentation templates. The researchers used a “collaborative inquiry” approach in which research questions were designed in partnership with district staff and external community arts groups. There were 702 participants who attended voluntary, paid professional development sessions in 15 topics and carried out during the school calendar months.

Limitations of the Research:

The author was not able to report how all the positive changes and results obtained actually impacted the quality of teaching and learning in the schools.

Questions to Guide New Research:

This program was successful at networking 59 schools and supporting collaborative efforts by arts and classroom teachers to effectively integrate arts in the curriculum. How can this extend to more classroom teachers without diminishing the quality of arts teaching?