International Journal of Education & the Arts

Volume 3 Review 3

October 30, 2002


Deasy, Richard J. (Ed.). (2002). Critical Links: Learning in the Arts and Student Academic and Social Development. Washington, D.C.: Council of Chief State School Officers.

159 pages

$25.00 (Paper)       ISBN 188403778X

Reviewed by Nick Rabkin
Executive Director, Chicago Center for Arts Policy
Columbia College Chicago

Educators may disagree about how to best teach children to read and write, or learn science, history, and math, but there are no serious questions about whether these subjects should be taught to all kids. They are the core of academic programs. In most schools, the other subjects—including the arts—are squeezed in, or they are not taught. These subjects are threatened when budgets are trimmed, when new demands are made on schools to improve academic performance, or when new subjects claim a share of the school day.

Arts education advocates have long made an essentialist argument for the arts: they are such an important dimension of life they must be included among core academic subjects. Their efforts have been rewarded by inclusion of the arts as a core subject in the recent No Child Left Behind legislation and earlier Goals 2000 legislation.

But most people think of the arts as expressive, creative, emotive, and recreational, not as academic. They may agree the arts are an important part of life, but that does not make them essential to the enterprise of education. The arts are nominally included as a “core subject” in federal education legislation. But, in the end, this is lip service. States don’t fund mandates for arts education, and there are no mandatory state standardized tests in the arts. Schools teach what’s tested, and the arts aren’t tested. Arts education may have enjoyed some growth during the last decade, but high stakes testing and budget tightening jeopardize it now. A high proportion of schools still include the arts in the curriculum, and a few are committed and creative enough to piece together promising programs. But a recent study of one major urban district showed that the average elementary student gets only 45 minutes of instruction in the arts a week, and no students receive quality sequential instruction in multiple art forms. Arts education is simply not a part of the systemic commitment to academic instruction.

If the arts are going to find a place at the education table, more persuasive arguments must be made. Arts educators have long reported that the arts are connected to a wide range of benefits to students beyond their learning in the arts—academic achievement, positive social development, habits of mind, and thinking inclinations. Some have speculated that if these connections were documented an instrumental case could be built for the arts that might have broader appeal, and the potential to affect policy.

Now the Arts Education Partnership, a broad association supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Department of Education, and some private funders, has published a compendium of research on these connections. Critical Links: Learning in the Arts and Student Academic and Social Development presents summaries, findings, and commentary on sixty-two studies, the best of recent research. The studies were carefully selected from a universe of thousands by James Catterall of the University of California at Los Angeles, Lois Hetland of Project Zero at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, and Ellen Winner of Project Zero and at Boston College. These three and several other distinguished researchers summarize each featured study, evaluate its methods and findings, and comment on its significance.

Critical Links addresses the general question of what the arts contribute to education and development by looking at particular contributions from each arts discipline. The book is organized into sections on dance, drama, multi-arts, music, and visual arts, each concluding with a thoughtful essay summarizing what we know from the research, what we can speculate about, and what we need to learn more about.

Critical Links makes the case for a great many links between learning in the arts and student achievement. In a summary essay, Catterall catalogs them and argues that each discipline is connected to significant outcomes. For example, in the visual arts, there are findings about how drawing supports writing skills, and how visualization training supports interpretation of text. In music, researchers found strong connections to spatial reasoning and math, and between instrument instruction and SAT scores. Dance instruction was connected to fluency in creative thinking and to reading skills. Drama, in the form of dramatic enactment, was connected to story comprehension, character understanding, and writing proficiency, and is shown to be a better way for students to process a story than teacher-led discussion. Multi-arts programs had multiple connections: to reading, verbal, and math skills, and to creative thinking.

Similar connections are present between art and social and emotional development. Dance is connected to self-confidence and persistence; music to self-efficacy and self-concept; drama to concentration, comprehension, conflict resolution, and self-concept; multi-arts to achievement motivation, cognitive engagement, self-confidence, risk-taking, perseverance, and leadership. Several studies show children become more engaged in their studies when the arts are integrated into their lessons. Others show that at-risk students often find pathways through the arts to broader academic successes.

There is not likely to be much controversy about the desirability of the educational and developmental outcomes found in Critical Links. But are these connections merely a matter of correlation or are they causal? In educational terms, can we legitimately say that learning in the arts “transfers” to other contexts of learning? Can we credit the arts as the cause of all this good stuff for kids?

Proving transfer in education is a pretty tough assignment. Schools are complex settings, and learning is an enormously complex enterprise. Research has rarely proven causality in any domain of learning. In his concluding essay, Catterall writes, “Children may persist for years studying Latin or rote mathematics under assumptions that general mental discipline will result. Available studies say it does not…We might even think that…learning to judge the area of a rectangle would show up in ability to judge the area of a circle. Not likely say researchers.” (p. 151)

So it should not come as a surprise that there is disagreement among the experts who contributed to Critical Links on the question of transfer from the arts. Ellen Winner and Lois Hetland are among the skeptics. Their own meta-analyses of research on transfer from the arts are included in the compendium. The title of one, “Mute Those Claims: No Evidence (Yet) for a Causal Link between Arts Study and Academic Achievement,” sums up their estimate. They argue that when subjected to the rigorous statistical demands of meta-analysis (a technique designed to draw broader conclusions than any single study could make by interpreting data from diverse studies), the connections, while real, fall short of the requirements of causality.

Other contributors to Critical Links do believe that causal links are established. Commenting on drama research, Robert Horowitz and Jaci Webb-Dempsey argue that meta-analysis is insensitive to the most important connections, but that qualitative research establishes transfer between the arts and “positive cognitive, personal, and social outcomes…represent(ing) capacities central to the goals society typically articulates for public education—productive social membership, critical and higher-order thinking, and commitment to the skills for lifelong learning.” (p. 99) Larry Scripp, formerly of Harvard Project Zero, makes an even greater claim for the music research, arguing that it has produced “generative neurological and cognitive frameworks for learning transfer.” (p. 133)

Confusion about transfer itself may be at the root of the disagreement. The standard model of transfer is linear and mechanical: a learning input leads quickly and directly to a different learning output. But the web of connections between learning in different domains is dynamic, and may well include psychological development, motivations, and attitudes, as well as skills and knowledge. So, if one looks for quick and direct transfer from learning in the arts, one is likely to find nothing at all.

How People Learn, a recent publication of the National Research Council edited by John Bransford, Ann Brown, and Rodney Cocking, begins a serious effort to reconceptualize transfer, which it places at the very heart of the learning process. “All learning involves transfer from previous experiences,” it claims, describing a dynamic process in which people plumb what they already know, identify and evaluate what may be relevant, and translate it for new circumstances. These activities may be entirely unconscious, but they are quite real. Good teachers have a pedagogical repertoire that helps students perform these tasks.

Scripp follows a similar line of reasoning into the world of teaching and learning in school. He proposes that if learning is a process of integrating knowledge from multiple domains, then teaching will be most effective when it, too, is integrated. The new frontier in arts education will be self-conscious efforts to maximize transfer through curriculum and pedagogy that is “circular” rather than linear. A musician himself, Scripp runs a music charter school in Boston for the New England Conservatory of Music. He hypothesizes an integrated music/math curriculum that will maximize learning in both subjects by strategically linking “concepts shared by both disciplines.” (p. 133)

Scripp, Horowitz, and others in Critical Links remind us that if the arts are going to have the power to improve learning more generally, instruction in the arts must be rigorous and learning must be deep. This should reassure essentialists who fear demands that arts education support other learning are detrimental to the quality of the arts instruction. Transfer only occurs when the quality is high. On this the essentialists and the instrumentalists can agree: all children need high quality arts instruction.

One of the ironies of Critical Links is that few of the studies investigate what happens when children actually receive high quality arts instruction. Like education research generally, most Critical Links studies explore small questions over short periods: Does dramatic enactment improve story comprehension? Does keyboard instruction improve spatial reasoning?

Some exceptional studies transcend these limits. Steve Seidel’s study of a Shakespeare program for high school students lasted two years and considers a multitude of variables. Seidel needs to use poetic language to capture the richness of the teaching, learning, and achievement he found. Several studies in the multi-arts section, particularly those on the A+ Schools and the Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education, capture the fullness of the arts as a catalyst for improving school culture, raising standards, building links between schools and communities, enriching learning environments, motivating teachers, and engaging reluctant learners.

Sixty-two studies may seem like a great many as the reader pours through the compendium, and collecting them in one place focuses their power. But there are 20,000 members of the American Educational Research Association, and nearly 1,000 education-related journals in the US. The studies in Critical Links are less than a thimbleful in an ocean of education research and policy discourse. And it is not certain how much influence that ocean has on education policy in any event.

The case for the arts may not be fully made until a new comprehensive theory of learning is developed that acknowledges the many ways of thinking, knowing, and representing available through the arts. But Critical Links has made terribly important contributions. It has established a basis -- high quality arts education -- on which to reconcile the essential and instrumental cases for arts education. It has shown clearly two paths for new research. One path will investigate the structural and neurological relationships between learning in the arts disciplines and other learning. The other will explore how to deliver high quality arts education in real educational settings that maximize those relationships.


This review was originally published in Reader, a publication of Grantmakers in the Arts.


Bransford, J., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (Eds.). (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

About the Reviewer

Nick Rabkin is executive director of the Chicago Center for Arts Policy at Columbia College Chicago, where he directs the Learning and the Arts Project, an initiative to mobilize private philanthropic investment for arts education in schools and beyond. He was the senior program officer for the arts and culture at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation from 1991 to 2001, and the deputy commissioner of cultural affairs for the City of Chicago for seven years. He was a founder and trustee for six years of the Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education (CAPE).

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