Best Practices in Public Education Across Canada: ArtsSmarts

The CSBA’s new series highlights best practices in our public schools across Canada.

Today’s post features ArtsSmarts, a teaching and learning approach that “generates and sustains innovative school partnerships centred around the arts.”

ArtsSmarts promotes creativity and an inquiry-based learning approach in Canadian classrooms by bringing teachers and artists together to engage students in the creative process. This is done through individualized projects that span subject areas across the curriculum. The strength of the approach lies in its ability to individualize the model according to the needs of the students in the class-the application of the model is self-generated by the teacher and artist. Another strength of the ArtsSmarts model is the focus on partnerships between school boards, organizations, community partners, and government. These partnerships have resulted in research on “generating new knowledge on creativity, innovation and its impact on learning.” Current research has focused on various Artsmarts projects across Canada and their impact on 21st century learning skills and student engagement.

Julie Hobbs, Director and Council Partner Representative and coordinator of the ArtSmarts Québec research initiative, commented on the impact on students with special needs from the results of the English School Boards of Québec pilot research project, currently in 25 Québec English schools. This research has demonstrated positive effects for student behaviour, student engagement and generalization of skills. In addition, positive effects for teachers in the acquisition of differentiation skills as well as changes in perception and practices for students with special needs have been noted.

We asked Annalee Adair, Executive Director of ArtsSmarts, to provide us with more information on the influence of the ArtsSmarts approach in Canadian public schools.

In your view, what has been the impact of ArtsSmarts in our public schools across Canada?

A.A: ArtsSmarts has developed a model of collaboration that has, over its 12 year history, formed partnerships between conventionally competitive sectors or organizations to build a culture of shared resources and promote a unified approach to education.  From its inception, ArtsSmarts has worked to create a shift in how we think about education by:

  • breaking down the walls between schools, communities, the education sector, the cultural sector, and communities
  • challenging the division between subject areas in the curriculum
  • working to synthesize artistic disciplines
  • questioning traditional measurements of learning
  • addressing stereotypes implied by traditional measurements of learning

You mention that your organization is in the process of researching the effect of various ArtsSmarts projects on student engagement. Can you tell us about some of your findings so far?

A.A.: The ArtsSmarts Student Engagement Questionnaire was first launched in 2007 as part of ArtsSmarts’ national research agenda. Based on the ArtsSmarts model of student engagement, the survey reflects a growing consensus that the concept of student engagement has potential as a multidimensional concept for understanding and strengthening students’ experiences of behavioural (doing), affective (feeling) and cognitive (learning) engagement in learning. As a tool designed to assess the impact of ArtsSmarts’ projects on levels of student engagement, students complete the questionnaire before (pre) and after (post) participating in an ArtsSmarts project.

A comparison of students’ experiences of engagement before and after participating in an ArtsSmarts project reveals that ArtsSmarts makes a positive difference for student engagement in learning. Our results show statistically significant increases on all three dimensions of student engagement – doing (p<.001), feeling (p<.001), and learning (p<.002) – and in turn, a statistically significant increase (p<.001) in combined measures of the ArtsSmarts Composite of Engagement.  As we looked at the data in more detail it also became clear that the effects of ArtsSmarts projects are equally represented across the nineteen measures of engagement questions. Approximately 30 per cent or more of all students reported an increase in experiences of engagement as they encountered unique contexts, content, processes, and/or outcomes of learning through artistic inquiry.

Recent findings indicate that the most significant change in engagement, attendance and achievement are in projects with students in grades 6 and up and particularly in those students who are disengaged, at-risk or require support.  ArtsSmarts has demonstrated the ability to impact this cohort most effectively.  Our recent research reports from Quebec and Durham Region further elaborate on this.

How does the ArtsSmarts approach contribute to the acquisition of 21st century learning skills?

A.A.: Over the past decade, the ArtsSmarts model has evolved from concentrating on exploring the effects of learning through the arts to capturing the potential of the arts as a way of learning.  The model is designed to engage students in creative inquiry about topics that span many different subject areas of the curriculum.

In ArtsSmarts projects students take on problems that spring from their own curiosity, from a teacher’s challenge, or from the pressing needs of the world around them. They take ownership of their projects and take the risks necessary to answer compelling questions, solve problems, and make their learning visible through different art forms.  In every classroom, the model looks a little different. Learning through creative inquiry is a process that is self-generated by teachers and artists working together with students to meet their learning needs and interests, rather than a packaged curriculum lesson plan that is delivered to students. What is common to each project, however, is a commitment on the part of teachers and artists to work with students through four inter-related stages of inquiry-based learning:

  • Design: definition of a big idea, question or
  • Inquiry: framing issues and
  • Expression: implementation and creation;
  • Reflection: ongoing review of the process and outcomes.

Creative inquiry as a way of learning is a flexible process that works well for a wide range of projects, which can be expansive or focused in terms of knowledge and practices, and short or long in duration. It’s inclusive of different learning styles, ways of grouping students, and tools for learning or making learning visible. When creativity becomes a valued part of the learning process and its outcomes, classrooms become places of discovery. And when creativity is coupled with inquiries designed with challenging and engaging learning in mind, they become places of discovery and the development of six 21st century competencies that are at the centre of learning in ArtsSmarts projects.  ArtsSmarts learners are:  creative, active, inquisitive, collaborative, expressive and inclusive.  More on this can be found in our recent 21st Century Learning publication.

How does your model reinforce collaboration between multiple sectors/stakeholders? (community, industry, schools, governments)

A.A.: The incredible diversity in the organizational cultures of ministries, school boards, schools, and classrooms across Canada means that there is no roadmap or formula for one-size-fits-all for building partnerships. Voluntary organizations must address the challenge and opportunity of developing highly flexible approaches to achieving their mandates through individual and systems level partnerships.   The potential of ArtsSmarts depends on artists, teachers, school and district leaders, arts organizations, and other partners sharing a common understanding of a vision for learning.

The ArtsSmarts partnership model has inspired sustained, localized program development and delivery. Partnerships allow each organization to retain its autonomy and identity while leveraging the strengths of the partners with which they are associated. Support to local partners allows them to develop strategic alliances that move across sectors and hierarchies. Some need assistance with building relationships with their local school board, while others need help building relationships with their local arts or community creative, community, institutional sectors.

Respecting the diversity of approaches unique to each partner and supporting a common vision for collaboration has enabled ArtsSmarts to develop a unique network which operates as two distinct learning communities: one forms around the local partnership to design and implement ArtsSmarts in a respective area, and the other forms when the partnership comes together nationally with other local partnerships to generate new knowledge on the impact of creativity and innovation on learning.  These communities facilitate the action of local partnerships for knowledge creation and sharing-partners ‘upload’ their ideas and practices into the network through in-person mentorships, joint projects, and symposia. Local learning communities ‘download’ and use ideas and practices from the network for local program delivery.

ArtsSmarts uses a ten-step process to work with new or potential partnerships.  We have established a centralized network secretariat to coordinate services and activities; use a knowledge management system to gather and make accessible collective knowledge and experiences; convene face-to-face meetings for relationship building, exchange of ideas, and energy mobilization; and, respond to community needs and priorities.

To view the impact of ArtsSmarts in our public schools across Canada, see classroom projects in your community.