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UBC Reports | Vol. 49 | No. 6 | Jun. 5, 2003

Learning Through Engagement

The arts open opportunities for enhanced achievement

By Erica Smishek

Students who participate in the arts at school perform better in math and are more wholly involved in learning, according to a recently released national study involving UBC researchers.

“There was just an infusion of joy,” says Education Assoc. Prof. Kit Grauer. “There was an engagement with all learning. Kids wanted to come to school.”

Grauer and Prof. Rita Irwin, head of the Dept. of Curriculum Studies in the Faculty of Education, were co-investigators on a national team studying the Royal Conservatory’s Learning through the Arts (LTTA) program, a three-year initiative with more than 6,000 10-to-12-year-old students, 900 teachers and 130 principals from six Canadian sites including Vancouver.

The national study found that LTTA students scored as much as 11 percentile points higher on standardized mathematics tests of computation and estimation than their peers in control schools.

In a separate regional study of the eight schools in the Vancouver site, UBC researchers saw evidence that students are more committed in physical, emotional, intellectual and social ways when arts are part of the curriculum.

“It’s really about engagement, about the kind and quality of involvement that kids have,” says Irwin. “It’s not about doing more math. It’s about getting the child totally involved in whatever they’re learning, getting them to feel the knowledge.”

The LTTA program brought actors, musicians, painters and writers into more than 170 schools across Canada over a three-year period. Together with teachers, these artists created lively ways to present curriculum and bring new vitality to the classroom. Students learned math, language, history and social studies by making images, creating dances, telling stories and singing songs.

Irwin, Grauer and UBC graduate students involved in the regional study used a digital camera to record what happened in classrooms.

“We saw this incredible engagement in the kids,” says Grauer. “It didn’t seem to matter what art form they were working with. They were bodily involved with the storytellers, with the visual artists. There was this kind of transformation.”

While many people assume that the arts somehow detract from the learning of other subjects, both the national and regional studies show this isn’t the case. Researchers discovered that time for involvement in the arts does not come at the expense of achievement in languages and math.

In addition, students, teachers, parents, artists and administrators alike told researchers about how the arts motivated children and had numerous benefits.

“The arts can help children deal with self-esteem, with their sense of belonging, with their sense of connectedness in ways that you can’t just talk about. When kids dance it, they understand. When kids sing it, they understand,” says Grauer.

Students weren’t the only ones transformed by the arts experience.

At the end of the three-year period, a significant number of LTTA teachers believed that the arts were an effective way to teach language, science and math. LTTA teachers also reported a number of changes in classroom practices that reflected their increased commitment to teaching through the arts and their growing skills and confidence in embedding the arts in their teaching practices.

Irwin is encouraged by the sense of revitalization many teachers felt and the possibilities arts could have for future professional development.

“Teaching is pretty stressful stuff. For teachers to feel that ‘aliveness’ in their own learning is something we can’t forget,” Irwin says.

Both educators believe programs like LTTA show a sustained sense of commitment to the whole child and to lifelong learning, and can counter a growing trend in the United States for more testing as a means of assessing children and the quality of their education.

“I call it the tyranny of the test -- the notion that tests measure what’s being achieved right now,” says Irwin. “Instead, it’s sustained learning through engagement that really matters. The arts provide engagement opportunities across the curriculum.”

The national assessment of LTTA was prepared by Dr. Rena Upitis and Dr. Katharine Smithrim of Queen’s University. Their final report is available online at www.ltta.ca.

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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