Arts education in innovation-driven societies

by Stéphan Vincent-Lancrin, Senior Analyst and Project Leader, Directorate for Education and Skill, and 
Ellen Winner, Professor and Chair of Psychology, Boston College

There is growing consensus that today’s economies require people who can contribute and adapt to innovation. In addition to strong technical skills, many international task forces on the future requirements of our societies have identified skills such as creativity, critical thinking, problem solving, communication and collaboration as critical. Some even see the rise of a “creative class” as the driver of growth, and subject to a growing international competition for talent.

In this context, education systems have to equip students with the skills required for innovation societies, and some countries take this agenda very seriously.

Artists are role models for innovation in our societies, along with scientists and entrepreneurs, and thus it is not surprising that many see arts education as a means of developing skills critical for innovation. According to Arne Duncan, the US Secretary of Education, “education in the arts is more important than ever. In the global economy, creativity is essential. Today’s workers need more than just skills and knowledge to be productive and innovative participants in the workforce. […] To succeed today and in the future, America’s children will need to be inventive, resourceful, and imaginative. The best way to foster that creativity is through arts education”.

In a new OECD report, Art for Art’s Sake? The Impact of Arts Education, the extent to which arts education fosters skills such as critical and creative thinking, motivation, self-confidence, and the ability to communicate and cooperate effectively is assessed. The book also examines whether arts education has an impact on learning non-arts disciplines: reading, mathematics and science.

This kind of exercise typically reveals the scope of our ignorance, and indeed currently many intuitively plausible assumptions are not backed by any empirical evidence. However, a few interesting and robust findings emerged that deserve more attention from parents, teachers and policy makers.

Acquiring foundational skills, notably reading, writing and arithmetics, is a major objective for many countries. Over and over, the PISA study finds that too many 15-year olds have only a basic proficiency in text understanding.

Strong evidence shows that theatre education in the form of enacting stories in the elementary level classroom (classroom drama) strengthens verbal skills (reading, writing, text understanding, etc.). Unfortunately, this does not seem to be a prevalent school practice in many schools.

Music education also has a clear causal impact on verbal skills, probably via its facilitation of auditory skills: music training improves phonological skills, the ability to hear speech in a noisy environment, and there is preliminary evidence that it might facilitate foreign language learning.

What about creativity? And social and behavioural skills? Here we have much less evidence. There are a few studies linking enhanced creativity with theatre and dance education, but their limited number as well as their correlational designs make it impossible to draw causal conclusions. There is also no more than tentative evidence regarding the impact of arts education on behavioural and social skills such as self-confidence, self-concept, motivation, communication and cooperation, empathy, perspective taking and the ability to regulate one’s emotions. Initial evidence concerned with education in dramatic art appears the most promising, with a few studies revealing that drama classes enhance empathy, perspective taking, and emotion regulation – plausible findings given the nature of such education.

Don’t misread these findings. The lack of evidence does not imply a lack of impact. We find very plausible the assumption that different forms of arts education have an impact on creativity, critical thinking and attitudes. For example, Studio Thinking 2 shows that visual arts teachers at their best promote reflection, meta-cognition and other creative habits of mind. They do so by teaching students to evaluate their own works and those of their peers, and asking students to talk about their working process. Research is now called for to test whether students in arts classes actually develop these habits of mind.  Other disciplines could learn from arts education how to nurture innovation-friendly habits of mind.

The impact of arts education on non-arts skills and on innovation in the labour market should not be the primary justification for arts education in today’s school curricula. Students who gain mastery in an art form may discover their future career or a lifetime passion. For all children, the arts allow for a different way of understanding than, let us say, the sciences. Arts education allows students to express themselves freely and to discover, explore and experiment. They also give them a safe place to introspect and find personal meaning. In this respect, the arts are important in their own rights for education.

Nevertheless, Art for Art’s Sake? shows that one way to foster skills for innovation societies may well be through the arts, as Arne Duncan put it.

Arts for Art’s Sake? The Impact of Arts Education, by Ellen Winner, Thalia Goldstein and Stéphan Vincent­Lancrin
Art for Art’s Sake? Overview
Kunst um der Kunst Willen? Ein Überblick
CERI Innovation Strategy for Innovation and Training
Art for Art’s Sake? A gift to philanthropists and policymakers, OECDInsights
Photo credit:Cover © Violette Vincent.

Leave a Reply