Learning About Culture: The importance of arts-based learning, the limits of what we know about it, and the challenges of evaluating it
By Blog Editor, on 8 September 2021
Jake Anders, Kim Bohling, Nikki Shure and Alex Sutherland
There is little doubt about the importance of arts and culture to the education and upbringing of young people. Arts-based education gives young people an important means of creative expression and “arts for arts’ sake” is the best argument for having arts-based education in schools. However, far less is known about the link specifically between arts-based learning activities and pupils’ educational outcomes – partially due to a lack of robust studies on this topic. Yet this is a link that is often invoked as part of the overall importance of these programmes, partly in response to a perception that an increased focus on “core educational outcomes” is squeezing arts-based education out of schooling.
Over the past four years, a team from UCL and the Behavioural Insights Team has been working with the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), the Royal Society for the Arts (RSA) and five arts-based education organisations on a project called Learning About Culture (see Table 1 below for programme detail). At the heart of this project are five randomised controlled trials (RCTs) involving around 8,500 children in 400 state schools across England. These evaluations were designed to look at the impact of five specific arts-based learning interventions on literacy outcomes. To our knowledge, these trials represent the largest collection of RCTs testing arts-based approaches on attainment outcomes. This body of research represents a significant step forward in understanding how to assess the relationship between creative activities and pupil outcomes, which is in itself important.
Each of the programme reports is linked to below and an overarching report that synthesises the findings, lessons, and recommendations can be found here. What you’ll immediately notice is the diversity of approaches we looked at – including music, storytelling, and journalism – reflecting the richness and diversity of the sector.
Table 1. Learning about Culture programmes
Each programme name is hyperlinked to the EEF project page.
|Programme name (Developer):||Description:|
|First Thing Music (Tees Valley Music Service)||Programme to train teachers in the Kodály method of music instruction in order to deliver daily a structured, sequential music curriculum of increasing progression (Key Stage 1)|
|Speech Bubbles (London Bubble)||Weekly drama and storytelling intervention aimed at supporting children’s communication skills, confidence, and wellbeing. (Key Stage 1)|
|The Craft of Writing
(Arvon, University of Exeter, Open University)
|Programme to develop teachers as writers combined with explicit focus on pedagogical implications for the classroom. (Key Stage 2)|
|The Power of Pictures
(Centre for Literacy in Primary Education)
|Specialist training from published author-illustrators and expert teachers helps primary teachers to develop their understanding of the craft of picture book creation. (Key Stage 2)|
|Young Journalist Academy (Paradigm Arts)||The project aims to develop pupils’ writing by involving them in journalism. In doing so, it aims to provide pupils with a meaningful purpose for writing and teach specific writing techniques. (Key Stage 2)|
What did we find?
When compared to ‘business as usual,’ we were unable to find improvements in pupil attainment in any of the five trials that we could reliably say weren’t due to chance. However, it’s important to emphasise that this is an extremely challenging barrier to clear and the fact of the matter is that most of the trials that the EEF funds don’t find impacts of interventions on pupil learning outcomes.
While it is easy to focus on the lack of a positive impact in the outcome measures, we also want to emphasise the trials found no evidence of detrimental effects from introducing such programmes. That is actually really good news, because it means that including arts-based programmes alongside ‘core curriculum’ subjects isn’t a zero-sum game where increasing time on arts means lower grades elsewhere.
And, as we pointed out above, improving pupil academic attainment is not the best or only reason for schools to implement arts-based interventions in schools. Although they did not improve literacy test scores, in interviews with participating teachers and pupils, we found that the programmes generated a great deal of enthusiasm among the teachers and pupils who took part in them. Perceived improved pupil engagement was a theme that emerged from the implementation and process evaluations across the five programmes.
In the overarching report, we also stress that these results should absolutely not be seen as the last word in whether arts-based learning is effective in improving outcomes for pupils. Necessarily, in this kind of research, we focused on one set of outcomes, which could be quantified and measured over a fairly short time horizon. But benefits could accrue in many other ways that we just couldn’t capture. For one, having these initiatives available to pupils may have long term consequences for the subjects these pupils choose at GCSE or A level or the career paths they choose to follow. We don’t know that there are these benefits, either, but our evidence shouldn’t be used to discount such possibilities.
Our reflections as evaluators
The overarching report contains thoughts and lessons for multiple audiences: researchers, funders, and arts organisations. For brevity, we’ve only selected a few takeaways to highlight here.
Evaluators and funders
There is a line of argument against our efforts here that what we can measure in trials (and research more broadly) is not always what ‘matters’, or what we ‘should’ measure. Equally, some will point to challenges in measuring what we did use as outcomes, as well. We know that the measures used are imperfect, but given the choice between imperfect measurement of something versus perfect measurement of nothing – or something further removed from the intervention – then we stand by our decision to do what we can in an imperfect world. This isn’t an abstract research issue: in order to be able to ascertain whether something is effective (or not) we need to be clear what we expect to change and measure that as best we can.
In line with EEF’s policy, reflecting their primary aim as an organisation, our impact evaluations focused on measuring pupil attainment outcomes. While this approach has many strengths given the undoubted importance of such outcomes, these projects – where we see positive signs of engagement based on the implementation and process evaluation but ultimately no impacts on our measured outcomes – highlight one of its key limitations: a null finding leaves a lot of unanswered questions. An alternative approach – with similarities to the increased emphasis on ‘mechanism experiments’ in economics and particularly important where there is a limited evidence base about how interventions work – would focus first on establishing whether the interventions do indeed affect the intermediate steps via which they are thought to improve attainment. This would help us first to establish whether the programme is working as we think it does or if there is more to be done to understand this crucial first stage to achieving impact on pupils’ academic attainment.
We really appreciate the courage and commitment from the arts-based education organisations who put themselves forward to participate in a multi-year evaluation process. The EEF’s support for both an individual and overarching approach to the evaluation meant that we were able to observe themes across the programmes that could be useful to other arts organisations. From these themes, we offer some recommendations for consideration.
Ensure buy-in and engagement from school staff at multiple levels.
High teacher buy-in was crucial for the day-to-day delivery of the programme, and senior leadership team (SLT) buy-in was important for supporting the teacher in high-quality delivery. For example, SLT members were able to ensure teachers had access to necessary resources and space, as well as ensure there was time in the timetable for the programme.
Carefully consider programme resource requirements and test assumptions about what’s available in schools
The interventions placed different demands on schools in terms of the resources needed to take part, and even where required resources were considered ‘standard’, challenges were still reported. In some cases, schools did not have resources, such as arts supplies, that were assumed to be available in most schools. In other cases, the schools had the required resources, such as technological equipment, but they were difficult to access. Organisations may want to consider how to surface these challenges early in set-up and whether they can provide any support to schools in overcoming them.
On a more personal note
As independent evaluators, we have a responsibility to be as objective as possible, recognise our biases, and do our best to minimise their influence on our work. We are also all researchers who care deeply about improving outcomes for pupils and furthering our understanding of ‘what works’ to support pupil development. When we are able to take the ‘evaluator hat’ off, this team also broadly supports the inclusion of arts in the school day, and some of us have direct experience of delivering arts-based learning opportunities either in the school day or extended learning space. We would have been thrilled to report that the programmes had a significant impact on attainment outcomes – not only to further enhance the toolkit for improving pupil outcomes, but also to secure further protection for the arts in the school day. Ultimately, we are not able to report those outcomes, and we stand by the findings of the six reports produced. We are still supporters of arts in education and we also enthusiastically support further research in this space, as there is certainly more to learn.