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The Qualities of Quality: Understanding Excellence in Arts Education

July 15, 201015 July 2010

Arts education and participation

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This report from Harvard University’s “Project Zero” explores the “complex factors, actors, and settings that must be aligned to achieve quality in arts education”. The report argues that, while “access to arts learning experiences remains a critical national challenge”, there is also a significant challenge in ensuring that arts education opportunities are of high quality.

The research involved three strands: 1) interviews with arts practitioners, theorists and administrators; 2) site visits to “exemplary arts programs”; and 3) a literature review. The researchers found that:

· Questions about quality involve many personal values, identities and meanings. “The drive for quality is personal, passionate and persistent.”

· “Quality arts education serves multiple purposes simultaneously.” Arts education is not simply about one single purpose or benefit to students. Rather, high quality arts learning experiences “are rich and complex for all learners, engaging them on many levels and helping them learn and grow in a variety of ways”.

· There are four different but overlapping lenses with which to examine quality in arts learning experiences: learning (i.e., “what students are actually doing in the classroom”; pedagogy (“how teachers conceive of and practice their craft”); community dynamics (“the nature of the social relationships in the classroom”); and environment (including the physical space, the materials and physical resources used, and the time students have to engage in arts learning)

· Program-defining, “foundational” decisions matter for arts education experiences. Such decisions include Who teaches the arts?, Where are the arts taught?, What is taught and how?, as well as How is arts learning assessed?

· Furthermore, “decisions and decision makers at all levels affect quality”, including administrators, funders, policy makers, program staff, parents, teachers, visiting artists, and, of course, students. The report argues that “the role of student choice is often overlooked in discussions of quality, and it invites greater attention”.

· “Reflection and dialogue [are] important at all levels… Continuous reflection and discussion about what constitutes quality and how to achieve it [are] not only a catalyst for quality but also a sign of quality.” The report suggests that many people underestimate the time and effort required in “basic investigation, dialogue and negotiation” to achieve alignment among decision-makers at all levels.

The report presents tools to help educators and other decision-makers identify the core learning purposes of their programs, identify elements of quality in their arts learning experiences, and reflect on decision-making, decision-makers and their influence on program quality.

The report concludes that “there are no shortcuts. Achieving quality involves an ongoing examination of programmatic as well as personal purposes and values, along with a continual examination of what is actually happening ‘in the room’.”

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