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Why quality arts programs are essential in our schools January 23, 2011

Posted by Editor21C in Early Childhood Education, Engaging Learning Environments, Primary Education, Secondary Education, Social Justice and Equity through Education.
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from Associate Professor Deirdre Russell-Bowie

 In her first post, Dr Russell-Bowie points out the many benefits of maintaining good creative arts programs in schools, and argues that an engagement in the arts leads to better levels of academic achievement and affective learning outcomes for young people.


Teaching the arts every day in the core curriculum of primary schools is the single, most powerful tool presently available to educators to motivate students, enhance learning and develop higher order thinking skills, (Oddliefson, 1994) 

One of my students came back from her professional experience placement in a school and informed me that, when she asked about teaching her creative arts lessons, her teacher had said, “We don’t teach creative arts, we teach NAPLAN!” What a tragedy! Children learn in so many different ways and the arts are a proven way to engage children across the curriculum and enhance their learning.

However, teaching the arts can be noisy, messy, time consuming, resource intensive, and at times, daunting. But teachers who are involved regularly in arts lessons indicate that the outcomes and changes in their children are so important that the positives significantly outweigh these challenges.

The Australian Council for Educational Research investigated the impact of quality arts programs on the academic progress of students, their engagement with learning and their school attendance. Their findings indicated that through involvement in arts programs, children’s potential to engage in learning was enhanced and their self-esteem increased as they began to feel more self-confident. In addition, they found this arts-related growth in self-esteem was of particular significance when children came from dysfunctional and/or disadvantaged backgrounds. Throughout the arts programs, children were also observed to have developed their social, communication, team work and self-expression skills, indicating that when arts programs happen inside the classroom, significant and varied outcomes are achieved. This confirms the research over many years, as well as what many teachers have known, that sustained engagement in quality arts programs can enhance children’s:

Academic achievement

Respect for self and others

Training and life skills


Academic achievement

Involvement in the arts can help children actively engage in learning, understand the concepts being taught, develop deep understandings in whatever subject is being taught, and to express their understandings in different ways. Regular involvement in the arts develops the higher order skills of analysis, synthesis and evaluation, as well as critical-thinking, problem-solving and decision-making skills. Research also indicates that sustained quality engagement in the arts enhances children’s literacy and numeracy skills, especially those children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Respect for themselves and others

Through involvement in quality arts programs, children are able to connect and empathise with others as they understand and appreciate their cultures, traditions and symbols. The arts are a way of changing children’s perceptions and stereotypes of people who are different from them as they are exposed to different societies and cultures through their arts. They learn to respect and appreciate the differences and become more tolerant of other people, as well as accepting and respecting their own culture.

Training and Life skills

Australian reports into employability of young people suggest that to succeed in the workplace in the 21st century, young people need to be able to collect, analyse and organise information, communicate ideas and information, plan and organise activities, work with others in a team, use mathematical ideas and techniques, solve problems and use technology. Within a quality arts program each of these skills is developed and so, by involvement in the arts, children, as tomorrow’s leaders, are being comprehensively prepared for the competitive and creative arena of the world of work.


Through self-expression in the arts, children learn focus, self-discipline, innovation, creativity and emotional expression as well as verbal and non-verbal communication skills. They learn to use a variety of media to express themselves and communicate using multi-literacies. They learn to use movements, symbols, visuals and sounds as well as words to convey meaning. They learn to get in touch with their own feelings and those of others. When they create or observe a work of art they respond emotionally, they feel good about themselves, and they learn that there is more to life than what can be assessed by quantitative measures.

A quality arts program is one of the greatest gifts a teacher can give to their children – don’t deprive them of this precious gift for any reason!

Reference:  Oddliefson, E. (1994). What do we want our schools to do? Phi Delta Kappan, 75(5), 446-453.

Deirdre Russell-Bowie is an Associate Professor in Arts Education in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. She is the author of the popular book on arts education in primary schools, MMADD about the Arts: An introduction to primary arts education, which has recently been published in a new edition.

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