The Qualities of Quality: Understanding Excellence in Arts Education

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The Qualities of Quality: Understanding Excellence in Arts Education

A CLARION CALL SHOULD GO OUT TO ALL who care about teaching the arts to read this remarkable report. It is a stunning and groundbreaking exploration into the complex factors, actors, and settings that must be aligned to achieve quality in arts education.

I read with awe and gratitude the researchers' extraordinarily comprehensive, generous, and balanced embrace of the array of theories, debates, and opinions about quality that abound in the field of arts education, giving each the honor of respect and asking that their proponents join a common quest that makes quality experiences of learners the central goal and ultimate, though surely not the lone, criterion of success.

Steve Seidel, who led this Harvard Project Zero research effort, used routine examples with audiences in the early phases of the study to indicate the distinction between encounters with a work of art that is itself of the highest quality and a quality experience of that work. For instance, a master chef has prepared an exquisite meal and invited a group of friends to share it at her restaurant on a lovely summer evening. Unfortunately the air conditioning isn't working at the restaurant, the waiters are surly, and two of the friends have had a nasty argument on the way to the restaurant that dominates the dinner conversation. The meal itself is of the highest quality but the experiences of the diners are not.

Seidel and his team focused their energies on exploring this second dimension of quality: that of the learners experiencing the arts in an educational setting.

They give priority to the understandings of quality expressed by those educators "in the room" where the learning experience occurs. What do the teachers and artists believe constitute the qualities of arts learning? Why do they believe it important that students experience those qualities? What outcomes of the experiences do they deem most important?

No single answer emerges from these questions, but the researchers found central features of the visions, values, and purposes expressed by those directly engaged in teaching and learning that they consider the touchstones of quality. Those visions, values, and purposes were shaped by the personal experiences of the artists and teachers in learning and practicing an art. They have a passion and commitment to shape comparable quality experiences for students. And from their personal experiences they know that quality is a constant and persistent quest and not an end game, a quest for ever richer personal experiences, for higher perfection in the art works they make, and for a deeper understanding of the qualities in their own art and that of others.

How do those "outside the room" - administrators, policy makers, theorists, researchers - contribute to creating the opportunities for such learning to occur? This report urges them to derive their views, decisions, and actions from frequent and active discussions with those working "in the room" so that all parties determine how the quality of the conditions for learning time, materials, personnel and resources, are consonant with the aim of quality experiences of learning.

Reading the report is being in the presence of a community of learners who have labored with openness and generosity of spirit to find in their research data - gathered by literature reviews, expert interviews, and site visits - the fundamental questions, concepts, themes, and conditions that define and make quality possible. They distill their conversations into beautiful and clear prose in the central chapters of Parts I and II and into the set of "tools" in Part III to help others gather similar data and have the same conversations.

Indeed they frequently and modestly invite readers to consider this report a conversation starter that they hope will engage and assist others in the quest for the thoughts and actions that will create more and deeper arts learning experiences for those "in and out of the room."

This report itself is of the highest quality and it is a quality experience to read it.

Richard J. Deasy

Former Director, Arts Education Partnership

The Richard J. Deasy Award for Arts and Education was recently established to honor Mr. Deasy's career for its contributions to the arts in education. The award will be given annually to an outstanding arts educator by the National Endowment for the Arts, the U.S. Department of Education, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies.

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