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Dennis Doyle

Three years ago the board of directors of Collaborations: Teachers and Artists (CoTA) formulated an enticing question: What could we learn if we developed three entire elementary schools as arts integration centers of practice in San Diego County over a three year period of time? We wondered out loud what distinguished researchers might learn from CoTA’s professional development process, what the impact would be on teachers and students and how we would measure growth.

With commitments from two committed foundations, CoTA’s board and staff developed an elegant request for applicants and in short order 30 elementary schools self-nominated for the opportunity to answer those questions. The proposition was simple enough. All teachers at the selected sites would be trained in arts integration through one to one artist/teacher 10-week collaborations and hands-on workshops. In exchange, third grade students would be assessed each year through fifth grade and teachers, principals and children would allow their learning to be transparent.

The pool of applicants was narrowed to six semi-finalists and ultimately a ranking system was used to select the three finalists. Teachers at each school had to vote to be considered with a threshold of 80% in favor as a minimum criteria.

Seeking both a qualitative and quantitative assessment, CoTA contracted with Centers for Research on Creativity (CRoC) to measure student growth using CRoC’s valid and reliable Next Generation Creativity Survey as well as ethnographic field work conducted by research associates who would use classroom observations supplemented by surveys and interviews to document change in pedagogy and consequent shift in school culture.

Three years later CoTA is reaping the results from intensive professional development and the multi-year Beacon Schools research project. The three sites: Park Dale Lane Elementary School in Encinitas (north San Diego county), Flying Hills Elementary in Cajon Valley Union School District (east county) and Kellogg Elementary School (south county) are winding up their final year of training and are yielding, in consequence, a wealth of significant outcomes.

Effect size saw significant quantitative student gains following the student cohort from third grade to fourth grade in the first two years with Large Gains on NGCS scales measuring assessment of critical thinking, empathy and collaboration, all essential cornerstones for innovation and creativity. Of equal importance were the qualitative conclusions capturing rich descriptions of Mechanisms of Change for both students and teachers.

Enduring changes in teaching and learning occurred when the teacher’s current practice was observed without judgment before new arts integration methods were introduced. Once a safe and secure, evaluation-free environment was established, teachers were willing to be vulnerable and to consider new pedagogical possibilities.

Inquiry was a vital strategy with CoTA artists asking teachers questions as a means of introducing arts integration methods instead of defaulting to telling teachers what to do. Success was linked to a sense of agency on the part of teachers unlocking possibilities, imagining the 10-week project-based collaboration, designing the unit with the end in mind and transitioning from being co-planners to makers.

Weekly reflection allowed ongoing refinement with a focus on engagement of students who had previously been disengaged. The emphasis, we learned from CRoC, put a focus on developing new roles for students who had not been active participants. This weekly formative evaluation allowed for new opportunities among English Learners and students with special needs.

Finally, presentation was important, not only to communicate with specific audiences but as a form of meta-cognitive awareness. Students, teachers and CoTA artists know what they have learned and how they learned it as a result of the arts integration project and fleeting success provided an opportunity to fail forward.

Indeed, the mechanisms of change seemed to work in parallel both for teachers and students. The degree to which teachers were willing to tap into their creativity appeared to better equip teachers with the capacity to bring more creativity forward on the part of their students.

Finally, we wondered if the same mechanisms of change could be applied with other constituencies in the ecology of education. Presently we are prototyping parent classes going from inquiry to presentation. Principals have presented the work at their schools in panel discussions at conferences and school board
members and superintendents have presented the Beacon School work at professional meetings allowing for reflection, dissemination and broader engagement.

Tuning protocols have also been introduced whereby teachers share their CoTA units with each other, actively borrow ideas, and give each other positive coaching on a quarterly basis. Artists also use an adapted tuning protocol as a method for continuous improvement.

CoTA’s iterative approach to professional development over three years allows for a gradual release of responsibility moving from artist-led to teacher-led units and, as CRoC has observed, posing the greatest likelihood for sustained and enduring arts integration strategies in classroom teacher practice.