VIII. Classroom Climate: Learning Skills
Again, little research has examined best practices in the classroom in the context of arts intervention programming. The evaluations that do exist report some common elements, such as being supportive of youth taking (social) risks and having collaborative decision-making processes. These elements were associated with prosocial behaviors of participants.
As Prodigy began to focus on the content of the instructor training, the faculty researchers looked at the asset-based PYD model to determine the skill sets that related to positive outcomes for youth. Three skills were focused on as a result of this inquiry: (1) communication, (2) problem solving, and (3) anger management. These skills have been associated with positive youth outcomes and are teachable. The last is a critical component of any program.
In the ideal implementation, these skill sets are integrated into the class activities. If, for instance, while painting, one of the youth becomes frustrated, the instructor encourages the youth to find a way to work through the anger and find a way to resolve the issue that is creating the frustration. Integrating these social skills—in this case, both anger management and problem solving—is seen as important for two reasons: (1) It is a way to facilitate the teaching (and learning) of social skills, and (2) it helps create an environment in which social risks are encouraged.
The second point is an important one if the youth are to learn skill sets that will help them as they mature and the impact of peer pressure increases. Positive social risk-taking can be defined as the ability to express individuality in a peer or other group setting.
The opportunity for positive social risk-taking is influenced by the larger concept of classroom climate. This is broadly defined as the pattern of values within the classroom, as represented by the manner in which the content is taught, rewards and recognition are earned, and the interactions between the people in the class.
Classrooms can be a stressful, rigid, and competitive environment. By design, that is not the recommended experience for youth in an arts intervention program. Prodigy strives for an environment that is supportive of the youth in ways that can be measured and observed.
The few evaluative studies of art as intervention programming suggest that certain elements in the classroom are associated with producing positive outcomes, such as prosocial behavior:
- Encouragement for social risk-taking. Youth are encouraged to speak their mind and present their work, questions, and critiques. Encouragement is an active, facilitated process, which is different from just allowing the risk-taking to occur.
- Facilitation of problem solving. If a student presents a problem, whether it is a social issue (interaction with another youth) or technical problem (about the artwork), the instructor does not necessarily provide a solution but facilitates the youth in finding a solution.
- Rewards and recognition. Participants need to receive recognition for their work as well as for positive risk taking.
- A caring instructor. This was more frequently named as a more important part of an effective program than the fact artists were instructors.
- Instructor mentoring of participants and instructor facilitation of peer-to-peer mentoring. These relationships seem to be important in the socialization of the participating youth. The adult–youth mentoring, as discussed previously, shifts the classroom from a traditional setting to a workshop format. The youth-to-youth mentoring creates opportunities for the participants to learn, with facilitation of the instructor as needed, targeted social skills.
These five points are not unique to an arts intervention program. In fact, other researchers, including Fixsen, Naoom, Blasé, Friedman, and Wallace (2005) in their report on implementation practices and Weissberg, Kumpfer, and Seligman (2003) in their overview of prevention programs, have found similar associations between effective programs and some of these five points.
That refers us back to the previous questions about the differences between art programming and sports programming. If quality intervention programs have those five characteristics, does it matter which program a person is in? That is, does art programming offer anything that is unique relative to other intervention programming? Is there a rationale for arts programming that goes beyond choice and support of diversity and of expression?
Again, because the empirical literature related to arts intervention programming is thin at best on this question, we need to expand our view of arts programming to include research on the impact of arts on cognitive learning. That body of research is more extensive and more robust. From that research we can, through implication, develop some hypotheses about what associations can be expected about the relationship between art and the building of social skills.