ArtsSmarts: Engaging children and youth in the creative process

by Joseph Wilson and Jason van Eyk

It’s a bold move in an education system focused on STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) to insist that learning through the arts is critical to young people’s academic and personal development. Yet that’s exactly what the J. W. McConnell Foundation set out to do in 1998 when it launched ArtsSmarts.

“More than ever before, Canada needs engaged young people who have the skills, tools and attitudes necessary to become expert, life-long learners, passionate about contributing to 21st century society,”

“More than ever before, Canada needs engaged young people who have the skills, tools and attitudes necessary to become expert, life-long learners, passionate about contributing to 21st century society,” says ArtsSmarts Executive Director Jason van Eyk. “As we head into a creative age, we believe that experiencing the arts as a process for learning is the way to achieve these ends.”

ArtsSmarts generates and sustains innovative school partnerships centred on the arts. By partnering with artists, teachers, schools and cultural organizations, it pushes the boundaries of learning, redefines the environment of schooling and re-imagines student success.

Whether it’s through photography, film, music, design, drama, creative writing, drawing, painting or sculpture, students work collaboratively with each other, their teachers and professional artists to merge multiple subjects through a process of arts-infused, inquiry-based learning, all in pursuit of answers to pressing questions about their lives and the world around them.

It’s a particular way of teaching and learning that has been missing from public education, especially since the arts have been slowly cut from the curriculum, starting in mid-90s. Last year alone ArtsSmarts reached over 22,000 students in almost 300 schools across the country.

“Participating in ArtsSmarts can be transformative for individual children, whole classes, whole schools and even whole communities,” says McConnell Foundation CEO Stephen Huddart. “To our surprise, the program is particularly effective at engaging a cohort of students that traditional teaching methods don’t reach.”

Across Canada there is increased concern for improving the important relationship between the quality of learning environments and student success. While traditional teaching methods may suit more academically-minded students, no single mode of learning will benefit all. As a result, many students become dissatisfied and disengaged from their learning experiences, and student attendance, engagement and achievement suffer.

It’s this practice of uniting head, heart and hand that generates true learning engagement

ArtsSmarts students are more engaged not only because they work with content that is relevant to their lives, but because they must connect their intellect with their hands and their emotions. It’s this practice of uniting head, heart and hand that generates true learning engagement. Students come to surprise their teachers with complex and brilliant work.

The collaborative and creative nature of ArtSmarts projects has a tendency to also stimulate strong empathy and inclusivity. “We see particularly promising results in marginalized communities,” says Huddart, “where students discover themselves and help one another in the presence of a teacher and an artist.”

Huddart tells the story of a program they funded in 2004 at a chronically underperforming school in Alberta. Before ArtsSmarts was introduced, all the teachers would quit at the end of the year, and they’d have to rehire new teachers in September. “It was miserable,” he says.

At the end of the first year, after an ArtsSmarts program was introduced, anecdotal evidence suggested great success: at-risk students were returning to school, spending more time in class, and by the end of the year, 100 per cent of the teachers stayed on to teach the next year.

“For some kids, this program was literally a life saver. Slowly, the improved attendance and achievement spread to the rest of the courses, and eventually, the school overall showed enormous improvement.”

Metrics that focus on our ability as Canadians to innovate and be considered science and engineering leaders are important. However, the transformative and cognitive benefits of an arts education should never be forgotten. It’s through this creative process—at play in every ArtsSmarts project—that students begin to mirror and acquire the skills and attitudes that will contribute to their ongoing success, while also producing and experiencing original artistic and cultural contributions to society.

In the end, each ArtsSmarts project is not only an expression of artistic ideas, but of innovative and collective solutions to key issues relevant to the 21st Century.

Experience ArtsSmarts’ innovative programming at Art, Science and the Brain: New Models of Learning for the 21st Century, happening now at MaRS:

About Jason Van Eyk, Executive Director, ArtsSmarts

Jason is an award-winning, accomplished cultural management professional with a passion for connecting the public to enriching creative experiences. He holds an M. Mus from the Eastman School of Music and an MBA from the Schulich School of Busines. He served as the Ontario Regional Director for the Canadian Music Centre and the Founding Director of the U of T ArtsZone. He is on the Board of Governors of the Canadian Conference of the Arts, the Advisory Council of the University of Toronto Scarborough Arts Management program, and the Advisory Council of ArtsBuild Ontario.