Learning Through Engagement

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

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

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

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

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

“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.