The Rise of Arts Research- Thalia Goldstein’s Reflections from MasonARC19

This post is by Thalia R. Goldstein, and cross posted on her blog. 

The MasonARC convening on October 18, 2019 was a fantastic opportunity to see in practice a growing trend I’ve noticed over the course of the last 10 years.  When I first entered graduate school and decided that the topic I wanted to study was the effects of arts engagement and arts education on children’s development, there was a general feeling that this was not a topic that could be studied scientifically (despite considerable evidence to the contrary from Ellen Winner, Ann Podlozny, and others). At the same time, there was a feeling from the arts community that engaging in research was a negative in multiple ways— if researchers find nothing, then there’s evidence against the arts as a full part of children’s development.  If the researchers find something, then it must in some way be a trick of statistics or evidence that the only reason to engage in the arts is for some other outcome. Or, there may be a deeper conflict: what a researcher might want to research in the arts is not authentic to the arts, and does not center or give artists voice.  I have literally had an audience member at an arts conference stand up after I presented work showing that theatre was related to social skills and say “You know what they say—there are lies, damn lies, and statistics”, and then walk out of my talk.

Yet that does not seem to be the case anymore. The feeling in the room during the MasonARC conference was one of possibility and collaboration- a sense that not only is research on the arts a good thing, can show the real face of the arts, but that good research on the arts, research that is both scientifically valid and artistically relevant, is being done, and that many people are excited for more of it to continue.

This comes with a few additional trends:

  • There is a rising perspective that multi methods are necessary to give a full picture of artistic practices and their effects. Using quantitative and qualitative methods at the same time—having them talk to each other and with each other is a strong way to get the benefits of both perspectives on research, while also ensuring each voice is given space to have its own findings.
  • Importantly, I heard multiple times that it’s not enough to engage in a “black box” form of thinking about the arts—not enough to just give kids “arts programs”, but instead we must be focused on thinking about what is actually happening in arts programs, what are the behaviors and activities children are actively and actually engage in?
  • In this way, the arts research community should think about moving away from the trends of education research more generally- from test scores, to soft skills, to 21st century skills. By basing research on the arts in the arts, researchers can come to authentic understanding of what is happening for children as a result of engaging in music, dance, theatre, and visual arts. While this won’t be fully trend resistant, it will enable research to move at a more authentic pace, rather than constantly racing to keep up.
  • Critically, the voices that are often lost in general when researchers get focused on “rigor” also get lost when arts researchers start talking about the need and possibility for research: queer voices, voices from impoverished students, the voice from arts that come from stigmatized or marginalized cultures in our society. We need to center these voices and give them equal weight, time, and importance to the more traditionally heard voices.

Taken together, the future is bright for anyone looking to do research into the effects of arts on children and the role of arts education in our educational and broader society.

We will be able to keep growing keeping these 4 key points in mind. First, centered typically marginalized voices; Second, avoiding trends that aren’t authentic to the arts; Third, thinking carefully about what researchers mean by arts (what is the black box?); and Fourth, using multiple methods to understand both the input and the output of arts education. Different art forms, programs, grade levels, etc, all have different behaviors and skills they call on and therefore outcomes. Keeping this in mind will allow researchers to make real and formidable gains.

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