In the United States we consume art on a massive scale, contributing a whopping $763.6 billion per year on average to the U.S. economy through our enjoyment of them. With this widespread influence and interest in arts and culture experiences, it follows that arts advocates and stakeholders would be eager to bring the arts to young audiences, particularly in isolated or disadvantaged communities who may not otherwise have as many chances to encounter them. However, an intervention to introduce students to the arts may not be effective if there is little buy-in from the schools, if the intervention is seemingly too disruptive to important lessons or too close to standardized testing, or if there is no clear goal established when designing the intervention aside from having it at all. In fact, it could potentially result in negative effects for students.
Here I offer ideas for what might make an elementary school arts intervention design successful for isolated or disadvantaged schools, from my own experience managing arts field trip research projects. Fortunately, there is so much to learn from making mistakes, and I hope that having the humility to talk openly about what may or may not work will help arts advocates and institutions make thoughtful decisions before taking on new interventions.
What to consider before signing schools up for a new intervention
Before jumping headfirst into a new arts intervention, there are a few items to consider to ensure that the idea is practical, desirable for schools, and will result in positive outcomes for students.
- Work ahead of time to build trusting, long-term relationships with schools in target communities. Consider canvassing or conducting focus groups with principals, teachers, and other school leadership to ensure that they are consulted on their role in the intervention or any recommended training or professional development. Find out what they or their students might want out of an arts intervention, and how much time they might be willing to spend taking time out of a school day for students to participate. Their feedback will be invaluable to ensure that school leadership feel that they are partners in the intervention, that their needs are respected, and that they fully understand the purpose of the intervention design and how it might benefit their students. If teachers feel that the intervention would just be an interruption that they are obligated to participate in, or are even openly unsupportive, students may be less receptive to the intervention as well and schools may be less interested in participating again in the future.
- Have a clear goal and mission for the intervention. Consider what specifically you aim for students to get out of the intervention. Is your primary goal to expose them to a new kind of art? To help them connect classroom material for their grade level to art as a real-world example? To teach them how art is created or how to create their own art? To help them develop non-cognitive skills like tolerance and empathy? Having a specific goal in mind will ensure that the intervention is designed thoughtfully, that institutions can sell the intervention to school leadership successfully, and help teachers understand how taking classroom time to invest in the intervention might benefit their students.
- Make sure the intervention is designed with target communities in mind. Consider hiring diverse, local talent to the project from communities that the intervention is targeting to work on the ground with schools and help to design the interventions. A design that might be appropriate or relevant for a certain age group in a more affluent, suburban community may be extraneous or difficult for other students in a very urban or very rural, low-resource school to grasp and could make for a frustrating and ineffective intervention. Having staff that can work with and have a nuanced understanding of isolated or underserved communities can be invaluable in creating appropriate interventions that can meet students where they’re at, gain the trust and support of schools that may not immediately be on board, and further support the target communities outside the school.
- It’s also important to ask school leadership and teachers what kinds of interventions would be most helpful to them – would they be most receptive to an in-school intervention, or an out of school intervention? Is the intervention appropriate for the target students’ age group in that community? Do teachers prefer an all-day intervention or are they only willing to participate if it’s a half-day? What kinds of resources would be helpful to send to teachers, such as materials to use in the classroom before the intervention, or access to free school buses and free lunches on-site? Flexibility in intervention design and execution is key to incorporating important feedback to make interventions effective, appropriate, and logistically possible.
- Be realistic about what students may want or get out of arts field trip interventions. There is much anecdotal support in arts advocate communities that students get certain benefits from exposure to the arts, but it’s important to consider how stakeholders will decide what a successful intervention will look like, and how they will know that students are having a positive experience, so that they will be willing to continue to invest in the intervention over time. Though art for art’s sake is a noble cause, if it’s paired with an unrealistic or overambitious goal such as attempting to teach students significant class content or concepts too advanced for students to grasp in a single museum visit, the bar may be too high to reach and may make for a less enjoyable or memorable experience for students.
Meaningful interventions don’t have to be overly ambitious
I think it’s more useful for arts advocates and institutions to broadly be motivated by and advocate for the magic of the arts and what exposure and participation in them can potentially do for students, rather than be heavily reliant on a single, specific kind of intervention design or method and expect it will work for all students in all situations and locations. It can be tempting to overcomplicate an intervention and assume that more exposure will necessarily result in greater benefits, which may not be the case if the intervention is not well designed or well executed, or if it puts too much pressure on already overburdened teachers in under-resourced schools who are helping students to reach grade-level proficiency, and perform well on standardized tests.
Different communities have unique cultures, needs, resources, and belief systems, and assigning trust to a single method of bringing the arts to those communities may not always lead to success. I hope these suggestions will help arts advocates prepare for future interventions in a thoughtful way, so that students from all walks of life can enjoy what the arts and arts institutions have to offer.
Laura Florick is a Research Associate in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas.