New Opportunities for Interest-Driven Arts Learning in a Digital Age

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New Opportunities for Interest-Driven Arts Learning in a Digital Age

Traditionally in the United States, schools and after-school programs have played a prominent part in teaching young people about the arts. Arts education has been waning in K-12 public schools in recent times, however. This is especially true in low-income communities, where public schools have often cut back on arts instruction so they can devote limited public education dollars to subjects such as writing and math that are the focus of high-stakes stand- ardized tests.

When we look outside of school, however, we see a strikingly different landscape, one full of promise for engaging young people in artistic activity. What makes this landscape possible is an eagerness to explore that springs from youths' own creative passions - what we call "interest-driven arts learning" - combined with the power of digital technology.

This report is a step in trying to understand the new territory. It gives a rundown of scholarship in the areas of arts and out-of-school-hours learning; offers a framework for thinking about interest-driven arts learning in a digital age; examines young people's media consumption; provides a survey of youths' creative endeavors online and elsewhere, along with a look at the proliferation of technologies that young people are using in the arts; and concludes with thoughts about challenges and possibilities for the future.

A Framework for Thinking About Interest-Driven Arts Learning

To date, much of what we know about arts learning comes from examinations of education in school. A widely cited study on the unique characteristics of arts learning is the "Studio Thinking Framework," which describes and analyzes eight habits of mind cultivated in high-quality visual arts classes. There are likely similarities between what students gain in such formal settings and what they gain in interest-driven arts learning. However, applying what we know about classroom learning to interest-driven learning falls short because of their dissimilarities.

Three differences are especially important. The first is that interest-driven art-making and performance, especially creations that employ digital technologies and refer heavily to popular media, are inherently inter-disciplinary, that is, they use more than one art form. The second is that young people produce self-directed arts projects solely because they want to; they are motivated not by what outsiders think or want, but by the young person's own pride in the work and curiosity or passion for the medium. Interest-driven arts projects, then, may offer valuable insights about what makes youths engage and persist in arts activities. Third, interest-driven art-making is fueled to a large degree by the surge in new technologies, which have radically transformed the ability to collaborate, share and publish work, affecting the modes, genres, and ways of art-making today.

Taking all this into consideration, we suggest in our report a framework that might be used for thinking about what students can gain from interest-driven arts learning. Our framework has four main parts - each a distinct "practice" that can be cultivated by interest-driven arts learning in a digital age:

  • technical practices, such as computer coding for artistic projects;
  • critical practices, such as carefully observing and studying an artwork to understand it;
  • creative practices, such as making choices how to handle a project by applying artistic principles; and
  • ethical practices, such as giving credit to the original creators of a work.

Media-Absorbed Teens and Interest-Driven Arts

It goes almost without saying that kids today are absorbed in computers, cellphones, video games, television and other media-spending an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes a day with the gadgetry, according to a report by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Additionally, because youths multitask, using more than one medium at a time, they are actually packing 10 hours and 45 minutes worth of media consumption into those 7.5 hours.

At the same time, many young people are creating original work and sharing it with others. This is happening in physical spaces through popular events such as comics and costume ("cosplay") conventions, as well as in displays of homemade projects at "Maker Faires" sponsored by Make magazine. It is also happening online. Findings from the Pew Internet & American Life Project suggest that nearly two-thirds of online teens create content at some point - from blogs to Web pages to original stories, photos, videos or other artwork they post electronically.

What other creative activities are young people engaging in in their "spare" time? A wide variety of traditional endeavors, to be sure - dancing (often assisted by video games or web- sites) or poetry (given new life by poetry slams), for example. But they are also busy at work in many wholly new art forms or hybrids of older forms. Among these are designing video games; using animations or cartoons or video game components to produce "machinima" films; and generating "fanfic," stories and creations that feed off popular books, movies, cartoons and other features.

All this, we believe, points to a broader cultural trend that values creative production and the communities that form around it. This trend is driven in part by the proliferation of tech- nologies that put production of arts - music composition, dance, design, and visual arts, among them - within reach of anyone interested. A very short sampling of these technologies gives an idea of the breadth of what's available. Scratch, a visual programming environment, allows people to create and share interactive animations, video games, music and art, while the popular GarageBand software enables novices to compose original music without traditional instruments or access to recording studios. The Brushes app for iPads enables painters to mix paint without paying for new materials or having taken an art class; the Arduino microcontroller helps artists and designers create their own robotic sculptures or interactive environments.

Communities for Arts Learning - Virtual, Physical and Both

The Web; social media outlets like Twitter,YouTube, and Facebook; and many online communities specifically for artists are giving young people places where they can post digital port- folios, as well as view and comment on one another's work. At the same time, arts mentoring communities are emerging, in some cases taking the role of instructor, especially for arts not usually taught in K-12 schools, such as manga and video game design.

Some communities that form around creative production are virtual: deviantART, for example, is a large online site where artists can share, discuss and market their work, while MacJams serves as an online studio for musicians.

But a number of promising communities focused on young people and artistic production have emerged in physical spaces, too. The YOUmedia network, a program for young people to learn new media skills, is based in libraries, museums and community organizations, for example. The Computer Clubhouse Network, which provides media arts experiences to teens, operates through a network of freely available after-school, open studio spaces.

What we call "grassroots movements" also have the potential to be potent means of arts learning through involvement in communities. Take "krumping," an urban dance form that originated in south central Los Angeles. Membership in Krump communities is dependent on one's inclusion in "families," which are organized around mentorship from a more experienced Krump dancer.The form evolves when large groups of dancers engage in "battles" or other exhibitions, after which dancers and their families incorporate or respond to the newest moves from the event.This ensures the perpetual development of the dance form.

In some cases, arts learning communities are both virtual and physical. In addition to concrete meeting spots,YOUmedia offers teens access to Remix Learning, an online space to support mentor-student and student-student collaborations beyond the school day and afterschool classes. Remix Learning allows users to post text, graphic designs, games, and videos; exchange ideas; critique work; share expertise; and debate. Online mentors (artists hired as staff by YOUmedia) encourage youths to post their work while also demonstrating model behavior by posting their own creations and moderating online discussions and competitions.

Remix Learning amounts to what we call a "social learning network" (as opposed to a "social network" like Facebook), but because such communities have not been heavily studied, we still have much to learn about how they could boost arts learning. For example, we don't know if youths who have already had experience working with a mentor at a community center do better in social learning networks than the uninitiated. Similarly, grassroots com- munities have engendered little formal research, although what research there is suggests that most of the eight Studio Thinking habits of mind are taking place within them, from develop- ing craft to reflecting on the process. See the appendices of this report for a comprehensive review of communities, apps, and online platforms to support interest-driven arts learning.

Adjusting Instruction to Teens' Level of Interest

To increase youth participation and interest in the arts, adults need to recognize that not all teens are alike - some already have a great interest in the arts, some none at all - and design programming accordingly.

That's what Musical Futures, a British arts education project, has done. The organization has come up with a classification that divides young people into four categories: refusers, those with little or no interest in music; waverers, who have an interest in music but are unsure what they want to do or how to participate; explorers, who have some skills and confidence but have not yet found a good match for their interests; and directors, who are already performing. The project develops fitting activities for the various groups - "taster" workshops for waverers, for example, or professional recording sessions for the directors.

Musical Futures' approach, which seeks to understand young people and meet them where they are, offers insight into how to invite young people into the arts and sustain their participation over time.

Challenges and Possibilities

We conclude the report with discussion of five challenges to, and subsequent opportunities for, interest-driven arts learning in the 21st century:

  1. conceptualizing interest-driven arts learning in new media,
  2. changing adults' perceptions of youths' interest-driven arts activities,
  3. promoting equity in interest-driven arts learning opportunities,
  4. designing interest- driven arts learning social networks, and
  5. inviting, sustaining, and supporting participation in arts activities. For each of these areas, we offer suggestions for future research, practice, and policy that build on what we know about interest-driven arts learning to enable more youth, particularly disadvantaged youth from non-dominant communities, to learn about and participate in the arts.

A few of the possibilities are:

  • Use technology. Embrace new technologies to locate youth interested in the arts. Then connect them to helpful online resources. Among them is the Kickstarter seed-financing site, for small grants to encourage youths' art-making.
  • Encourage portfolio practices. Encourage youth to document what they have created, and design new portfolio systems that make it easy for youth to collect their work over the years.
  • Expand successful learning projects. Use organizations like the Computer Clubhouse Net- work and YOUmedia as models to build a national infrastructure for supporting youths' interest-driven arts participation, particularly in non-dominant, rural, and urban communities.
  • Make the most of social media. Use social networking to, for example, invite young people to display their work in curated exhibits online.
  • Invest in research. Expand the knowledge base, particularly research regarding how young people can be brought into lifelong participation in the arts, whatever their individual interest and artistic ability.

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