Arts Education: Intrinsic? Or Instrumental?

Posted by John Abodeely, Aug 09, 2007 1 comment

By Nick Rabkin
Center for Arts Policy
Columbia College Chicago
August 8, 2007

It is so rare that arts ed or arts ed research gets coverage in the daily press. The recent article in the New York Times about the "Studio Thinking" research project (1) is significant first because of its rarity. It is already generating a buzz about arts education that we rarely feel.

It is important for another reason as well, though. For the last decade or more a debate has raged about the "intrinsic" vs. the "instrumental" value of arts education. Ellen Winner, one of the "Studio Thinking" researchers, played a very big role in that debate several years ago, when she and colleagues published a "meta-analysis" of arts education research in which she found no evidence that arts learning contributes to student academic achievement. (2) Hence, she argued, it was scientifically irresponsible to make a case for the arts' place in schools because they improve student performance in other subjects. Furthermore, she suspects that education policymakers will reason that if they want to improve math achievement, they will teach more math, not more arts. In the end, the arts are important in their own right and should be justified in terms of the important and unique kinds of learning that arise from the study of the arts.

Some researchers who believed that there was good evidence the arts did contribute to higher achievement across the curriculum criticized Winner's meta-study, arguing that it excluded good research from its scan.  As one of many places in the country where teaching artists were inventing new ways to improve schools by connecting the arts to other subjects, many folks here in Chicago felt Winner's study simply ignored their work and contributions. Others, more committed to arts education traditions, thought Winner bolstered their argument against "arts integration" and for "sequential and discipline-based instruction" in the art forms.

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