Ten dimensions of powerful arts education

Destiny Arts Youth Performance Company members perform from the trees in Low Tide Rising at Cal Shakes’ Bruns Amphitheater (Layeelah Muhammad/ Destiny Arts)

What is powerful teaching and learning in arts education—and how do you know it’s happening?

Arts educators and researchers know these questions can be curiously difficult to answer.

Part of the reason they’re difficult is because arts education takes place in a variety of learning environments (in school, after school, out of school, summer camps, studios, living rooms, backyards, and parks), across a wide age range, and for individuals and groups that have different and ever-evolving needs, experiences, and perceptions. Understandably, descriptions of powerful arts education practices that resonate broadly are hard to come by, especially those that focus on the experiences of practitioners and youth.

As a longtime supporter of arts education for youth, the Performing Arts Program team regularly runs into these questions and, like many practitioners, struggles to find tools that can be useful across contexts and conditions. These questions surfaced yet again when the Performing Arts Program commissioned research on arts education to inform its 2020 strategic framework. Roughly four out of five respondents to the 2018 survey linked above reported working directly with young people as part of their regular activities. We believe a similar level of arts education activities exist across current grantees and the nonprofit arts sector more broadly.

Program staff have long been aware that a large number of the organizations we work with provide arts education opportunities, even if the foundation is not funding them specifically for that work. Still, we were surprised by the results.

Moreover, the purpose, shape, and strength of the arts education programs reported in the survey varied widely. For example, respondents named 22 goals for their youth programs, ranging from “21st Century Skills/SEL” to “arts learning/skill development” and “social justice.” Many programs were based on a specific curriculum; some were not. Some respondents were unsure if their programs adhered to California’s Visual and Performing Arts standards (10.5%), and some were unsure if their program was based on a specific curriculum (4.9%).

The results gave us pause. Arts education programs with youth were both more widespread and more diverse in setting, content, structure, and supports than we had initially understood. The results evoked those persistent questions: What is impactful teaching and learning, and how do we know it’s happening? It also sparked a new one: Was there something we could do to support such a diverse set of organizations, programs, and practitioners working on arts education?

Recognizing and supporting meaningful arts education

Part of the answer to these questions lie within our new report, Ten Dimensions of Powerful Arts Education Practice. The ten dimensions are, in essence, a framework that describes the approaches and conditions that suggest powerful arts education is taking place. It was created by and with the input of accomplished arts education practitioners and youth, through a process led by arts researcher Lauren Stevenson and master arts education practitioner Sarah Crowell. Perhaps most important is that the framework is flexible enough to be applied in a variety of learning environments, with many different types of individuals and groups.

Stevenson and Crowell took great care to describe each of the dimensions that emerged from their work with the practitioners and youth, such as attending to creativity and craft and cultivating leadership among both teaching artists and youth. Each dimension is illuminated by specific examples of how the practices might look and feel in the learning environment. A resource guide at the end of the document provides links to further reading on each of the dimensions described.

The framework represents the best thinking of some of the Bay Area’s leading practitioners in arts education. It incorporates youth voice in its design and development. Just as significant is that the framework is not a checklist. It would be unusual for any one program for youth to demonstrate each and every one of the ten dimensions. Our hope is that the framework will support arts education practitioners in describing their work to others; that they will see some aspects of their work reflected in the ten dimensions; and that it will inspire them to reflect on and deepen their teaching practice in support of powerful arts education.

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