Beyond justification: what students learn from the arts

Jessica Hoffmann Davis

A painting – a work of art – embodies many disciplines. There is psychology in the feelings represented, chemistry in the composition of materials, and history in the story that is portrayed. A theatrical production is similarly multidisciplinary. We can learn about mathematics from the notation of its music, about research from preparation for a dramatic role, and about technology from the backstage mechanics upon which the production relies. There are multi-disciplinary points of entry to works in every art form and innovative teachers have engaged them in most interesting ways.

I have seen demonstrations of dance as a way to learn prepositions, drumming as a way to teach mathematical ratios, painting as a gateway to physics, and of course drawing as a step in learning how to write. Frustrated arts teachers complain that the paradigm is never reversed. How about studying ratios to learn about drumming, prepositions as a means to introduce dance, or physics as a tool in visual art? These teachers resist the unspoken school-based assumption that the worth of arts learning may lie in its ability to help students learn about non-arts subjects – subjects that really matter. And their sensitivity is well founded.

More than any other subject, at least in the United States, the arts are constantly asked to justify their worth to those arbitrators of curriculum who determine what our children will learn in school. As an advocate for arts education for over half a century, I have witnessed the justifications change repeatedly and in response to the varying priorities of mainstream education. When I was a child in the 1940s, it was thought that making and understanding art would help me grow into a whole person capable of expressing myself and having empathy for others. That was what was appreciated in the progressive era. But when in the 1950s the Russians launched a satellite before the United States could claim such a triumph, there was a rush for science education and the arts began to be classified as “nice but not necessary.”

In the decades that have ensued since, reflecting different trends in pedagogy and psychology, arts education has been promoted as contributing to an extremely wide range of outcomes. These include: 1) the development of cognitive skills that feature critical thinking and habits of mind such as the ability to self-start and self-regulate; 2) the acquisition of personal and interpersonal skills ranging from increased self-esteem to the ability to lead and/or collaborate; 3) as a means to improve learning in other subjects, raise IQs, and boost scores on standardized tests; and 4) as a means to increase school attendance and reduce the dropout rate (Davis, 2012). And although this roster may seem far-reaching if not far-fetched, arts educators have risen to the fashions of the time and the arts in their infinite breadth and flexibility have been able, occasionally even with measurable results, to provide.

I have argued that the arts should be taught not for what they do in service to other subjects but for what they provide that other subjects do not. Yes, we can learn elements of chemistry from an analysis of the pigments used in a painting from a certain historical period. We can also think across disciplines and consider how the palette those pigments allowed may have influenced the emotional content of a particular work. But we can learn more about chemistry itself from a course in chemistry. In fact, having some real understanding of chemistry will enrich and make better our understanding of the chemical aspects of the work of art.

Similarly, we can consider and/or apply some aspects of psychology to determining the emotive elements of a work of art, but we will learn more about psychology by studying psychology. We can learn new things about other subjects and experience them in new ways through in-depth study of works of art, but these cross-disciplinary encounters cannot nor should they try to replace in-depth learning in the disciplines at hand including the arts. Like the student who has studied psychology, the student who has had firsthand experience creating her own work and/or knowledge of aesthetic elements, will bring informed questions and observations to her understanding of a work of art. Furthermore, artistic activities – creating and interpreting art – provide particular and significant learning benefits that other disciplines do not.

The question of what arts learning particularly provides has occupied my thinking and research for a very long time. Throughout, I have argued that advocating for what the arts do in and of themselves provides a stronger rationale than arguing for what they do in service to other priorities. My research and experience inform a manifesto that is aimed at this sort of strength-based arts education advocacy (2008). In it, I delineate what I have found to be the features and educational outcomes of arts learning (making work oneself and making sense of the work of others) that distinguish its reach and essentiality (and see 2014). Let me briefly introduce these observations here.


A product. First of all, arts learning concerns a tangible product – something we can hear or read or view that was not there before the artist conceived and constructed it. Whether it is a play, or a poem, or an original musical composition, there is a produced object at the center of our learning in and about the arts. In the creation of their own work and in their understanding of the art works of others, students must apply and develop the ability to imagine. To think beyond the given to what philosophers have called the “what if” (Greene, 1995). What if I move my arm jerkily, how will that affect my dance performance? What if I add a bright yellow background to this drawing, how will it change the mood? At the center of this imagining is the maker of art – the student – whose decisions determine the outcome of the work. And that important decision-making and execution help students realize their own mattering or efficacy. Arts’ learning teaches children about imagination and agency.

Expression. Secondly, works of art express emotion. It is true that in a painting, play, dance, or piece of music we can learn about the history of a period or the fashion of a time. But in ways that other human constructs do not, works of art embody and convey emotion. On this account, students who study the arts learn to recognize and give shape to their own feelings by expressing themselves through artistic production. Further, students learn to acknowledge and find meaning in others’ emotions as they strive to make sense of timeless works of art and/or works made by their peers. The arts, as other subjects may not at all, teach our children about expression and empathy.

Ambiguity. Works of art are not clear-cut in their meaning the way that words and numbers can be. Works of art invite multiple understandings – understandings that change with different individuals and eras. Non-arts subjects may introduce students to precise distinctions such as the measurable difference between a city block and a country mile. But the arts teach students about ambiguity – about the way the city block and country mile can alternatively or both be filled with hope or fear. Because the arts are ambiguous, arts learning introduces our children to interpretation – to the ability to fashion multiple understandings out of a single work of art. And with the acquisition of skills of sense making in art comes the realization that other’s sense making can be both different from and as valid as one’s own. Beyond the black and white of right and wrong, in the multi-faceted gray of interpretation, lies respect for a variety of points of view. Arts learning teaches our children interpretation and respect.

Process. Both the creation of a work of art and the making sense of another’s work is an ongoing process. The arts are famously process-oriented. Educators have taken an interest in the portfolios of artists as vehicles for collecting and reviewing student work over time. Some educators argue that student folios should be called “processfolios” and that their most important goal is the acquisition of skills of self-assessment, the ability to explain why something was done and to consider its effectiveness (Gardner, 1989). The process orientation of works of art invites our students into a conversation around real questions – questions that do not have right or wrong answers but may lead to new questions that propel the progress both of the making of a work and the understanding of works by others. Arts learning teaches our children about inquiry and reflection.

Connection. Last, implicit in works of art in all media is a connection between artists and audiences across time and circumstance. Once a student has made a drawing or taken a photograph, she will see drawings and photographs in galleries in a new light. She will feel a connection with the artists who created the work and with the subjects they represent. When a student has experienced the joy of being part of an ensemble, he will understand the connection that comes from co-creating a performance piece. The sense of engagement that making and sharing perpetuates extends beyond the moment of performance or the encounter in the gallery to a profound realization of one’s own humanity as it is manifest and experienced through art – one’s own participation in the cultural landscape. And with that comes, as we so often see in the powerful social commentary that artists provide, a sense of responsibility to each other and to the broader scene of humankind. Artistic connection introduces our students to engagement with a world of others and to our responsibility thereto.

These arguments for ways of seeing and understanding fuel a brave agenda that speaks to what arts learning does in and of itself. Without casting dispersion on non-arts subjects and the many outcomes they particularly provide, and without demeaning the richness of understanding that can be gained from considering non-arts subjects through the lenses of works of art, it speaks to the poignancy and primacy of arts learning. In those settings in which the arts have a fixed position of respect – where arts requirements are taken seriously and serious sequential study in a range of arts subjects is pursued – cross-disciplinary learning can flourish. Let children learn drumming and take their drums to math class; after an hour of dance, let them play with prepositions; make sure they do not trade in their exploration of drawing for the skills of writing and reading. Whatever suggestions we may have for learning through the arts, let’s make sure that learning in the arts is not cast aside.

In a sea of standardization, surrounded by the perils of right and wrong answers, good and bad, black and white, let us turn to the arts to remind our children that the world is filled with curves where you expect angles and sunshine where you had thought shade. The varied colours and movements and sounds that shape the arts provide our students with a vocabulary for making meaning where words alone may fail. Intensive and sustained study of the arts will make our students available to closer attention and richer understanding of all aspects of their education and their lives.


  • Hoffmann Davis, Jessica (2008) Why Our Schools Need the Arts, New York: Teachers College Press. (2012) Why Our High Schools Need the Arts, New York: Teachers College Press.
  • Gardner, H. (1989) Zero-Based Arts Education: An Introduction to ARTS PROPEL in Studies in Art Education, Vol. 30, pp. 71-83. Virginia: National Art Education Association.
  • Greene, M. (1995) Releasing the Imagination, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

The author is a cognitive developmental psychologist and the founding director of the Arts in Education Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is the author of numerous books and articles described on her author’s website

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