Stevenson, L., & Deasy, R. J. (2005). Third space: When learning matters. Washington, DC: Arts Education Partnership.


This is a comparative case study of ten schools serving economically disadvantaged communities, which integrated the arts across their curricula as a tool for school reform. The researchers found that the arts helped to transform the learning environment in the schools making it more student-centered and more effective in supporting positive academic, social, and personal development for students. They also found that when classroom teachers partnered with teaching artists and arts specialists to deliver arts-integrated instruction it had positive effects on teachers’ instructional practice and satisfaction in the teaching profession; strengthened the connection of the school to its surrounding community; and enhanced the role that arts specialists played in the larger school community.

Key Findings:

As a central part of the school curriculum (delivered both in arts classrooms and through arts integrated instruction in non-arts classrooms), the study finds that arts education:

  • Provides safe spaces for students to take risks and explore solutions and ideas, including ideas about themselves and their futures.
  • Fosters students’ abilities to be adaptive and flexible in their solutions—aspects of metacognition and creative thinking.
  • Helps students to develop ownership of the creative process and of their own learning—including taking responsibility for setting their own goals, developing criteria for success, and monitoring their own progress.
  • Builds students’ self-efficacy, an essential component of student success in school and life.
  • Makes students visible in schools and communities in ways that nurture their sense that they matter.
  • Fosters students’ engagement in school by helping them connect learning and curricular content to their personal lives, cultures, and home environments—helping learning to matter to them more.
  • Develops teachers’ abilities to understand and relate to their students and, therefore, to teach more effectively by helping students construct new knowledge in relation to prior knowledge and experience.
  • Increases teachers’ engagement and satisfaction in the teaching profession.
  • Builds community and social capital where it is present in the schools, leading to interdependence, tolerance, and empathy.

The researchers use the metaphor of third space to describe the transformed learning environments they observed in the schools. Third space references the space between a work of art (in a first space) and a viewer (in a second space) in which meaning, not residing solely with the one or the other, is created in between (in a third space) through their interaction. It also references the shifts in relationships between students and teachers that the researchers found quality arts-integrated instruction to facilitate—relationships in which students played a more active role in their own learning and teachers participated in constructing learning with students rather than only delivering content to them. Students’ roles in these relationships and learning environments, the researchers found, supported students in developing greater ownership of their own learning and higher-order thinking skills.

Significance of the Findings:

Many of the key findings of this study are important in themselves, providing evidence of how arts education programs can bring about conditions and outcomes essential to student success and educator effectiveness. Taken together, they suggest something even more significant, that schools are complex systems and that comprehensive arts programs can bring about systemic change, perhaps in ways that are unique. In arts integrated instruction in particular, the researchers find that the arts transform the context for teaching and learning and that other disciplines are welcomed into that transformed, third space, and benefit from its possibilities, which are not as readily available in traditional instructional contexts. The third space learning environment has the qualities of what education leaders and researchers increasingly call deep learning or new generation learning environments—the kinds of environments that engender the skills that policymakers covet for the 21st Century. This study points to key qualities of such learning environments and, in particular, the shifts that they both demand and help to create in student-teacher relationships and students’ role in their own learning. The descriptions of these learning environments, the strategies that the schools used to created them, and the challenges they faced in doing so may be instructive for those interested in preparing students with the skills needed for success in school, life, and work in the 21st Century.


This study is a comparative case study of ten elementary, middle, and high schools with strong arts programs and significant numbers of economically disadvantaged students (at least 50 percent of the student body qualifying for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program). It involved rich immersion in the context (in this case, the ten schools); multiple methods of data collection that included observations and interviews with educators, students, and parents and community members; reflective data interpretation; and continuous reference back to the existing bodies of knowledge related to both arts learning and learning in general. The original guiding question of this research, “How do the arts contribute to the improvement of schools that serve economically disadvantaged communities?,” broadened during the study to encompass questions about the relationships between the arts and the development of community in the focus schools.

Limitations of the Research:

This study does not establish causal connections among the arts and the various impacts noted, although the connective evidence is strong. Longitudinal studies and controlled studies—for example, experimental or quasi-experimental studies that seek to eliminate the effect of extraneous variables such as student background—could establish causation.

Questions to Guide New Research:

What are the underlying causal connections that are suggested by the qualitative data of this research?

How can the effects noted in this study be scaled up to all schools with disadvantaged students?

How can research on the qualities and outcomes of arts-integrated learning environments contribute to the understanding of how to create deep learning possibilities in schools?