Kids Might Be Motivated To Learn If They Aren’t Always Stuck In A Classroom. Imagine That

Last month there was an article in Forbes about the benefits of field trips and arts education. It started out in a way I dislike, discussing test scores and neurological development as if arts and cultural experiences were a special fertilizer you sprinkled on to get stuff to grow better. However, it soon moved on to discuss how field trips and arts education provide a broader context and relevance for learning. Essentially, acknowledging that learning doesn’t occur in a vacuum.

Author Natalie Wexler notes that reading comprehension especially is greatly facilitated by life experiences that provide context to a passage. For many children this experience is gained in after school and family activities. For children who don’t have those same family opportunities, in school education and field trips are important for filling the gaps.

The focus of the latter part of the article isn’t that arts and cultural experiences magically help raise test score but help solidify abstract concepts. It isn’t miraculous that children learning about watersheds or historic events have greater mastery of the subject matter after visiting a river or historic site.

While the Forbes piece doesn’t acknowledge this directly, one of the articles Wexler links to does,

In the Woodruff Arts Center experiment we actually found an increase in math and reading test scores for students who went on multiple field trips after the first year of the experiment. I’m not sure I fully believe that result given that it is simply implausible that students learned significantly more math and reading when they saw a play, visited an art museum, and heard the symphony. My only explanation for the test score increase, if it is not a fluke, is that test results are partly a reflection of what students know, but also partly a reflection of their motivation to acquire that knowledge and to show it to us on a test. Feeding students a steady diet of math and reading test drills may not nurture student motivation to learn as well as these enriching activities. And as Core Knowledge proponents have long emphasized, students become more advanced readers by having more content knowledge and knowledge about the world. Field trips clearly provide that.

For arts people there might be some value in learning that a live performance about a topic seems to connect better with students than watching a video on the same subject. Not to mention, they are more likely to bring their families back with them.

We also see that students absorb a high amount of content knowledge on these field trips. In the theater experiment, for example, students learn the plot and vocabulary of the plays much more fully than if they watch a movie of the same story. Lastly, we find that students have a stronger interest in returning to these cultural institutions in the future. In the Crystal Bridges experiment, for example, we tracked coded coupons that we gave to all participating students and observed that students who visited the art museum on a field trip were significantly more likely to return with their family over the following half year.

You Are Never Too Young To Start Producing Shows

So given the context of all the deserved gushing over a North Bergen, NJ’s stage version of the movie Aliens with a $5,000 budget and recycled materials,  Ken Davenport’s suggestion that high school productions have general managers and press agents doesn’t seem terribly unreasonable.

Davenport’s  motivation is to get as many kids involved in a production as possible. Everyone knows the larger cast you have on stage, the larger an audience you are likely to have as friends and family show up to support students. But he also notes that being involved in administrative roles opens people’s eyes to a much wider range of career opportunities than just actors and technicians. (his emphasis)

Because whether a student decides to pursue a career in the theater or decides to be a lawyer, I firmly believe that there is no endeavor in the world that teaches collaboration better than putting up a musical.


They’re probably the type that thinks putting on a musical is just a hobby.  Because no one has told them any different. But you and I know it’s a business . . . just like any other.  And that businesses need all sorts of talents to make a show a success.

He outlines the following as tasks students could pursue in the different roles.  Davenport encourages everyone to pass the post link on to any high school teachers who might be interested in pursuing this. He says he will even write up the job description and list of duties so the teacher doesn’t have to.

The Producer would be in charge of overseeing the production, of course, as well as fundraising.  Yep, give him or her a goal of raising $X and let them find a way to do it (car washes, bake sales, Kickstarter and more).

The General Manager would learn how to put a budget together for the show and keep everyone on a budget.

The Press Agent would try to get articles written in the newspapers, online, and even invite people like me to come to see it.

The Advertising and Marketing Director would get the word out to sell tickets, get a logo designed, manage the social media, and more.

The Casting Directors would schedule the auditions, run them, put out the offers and maybe even convince the high school quarterback that he’d make a great Teyve.

A Splash Of Color And The Hope That One Day Prince Will Come

I was half listening to a TED Talk given by Amanda Williams where she spoke about turning abandoned homes in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago into art. She would check the city’s register of houses slated to be demolished and then would descend upon them over the weekend, painting them in a bright monochrome to change a blighted building into a beacon of color in the neighborhood.

As her palette, she choose colors that had relevance to black residents of Chicago: Ultrasheen conditioner; Pink Oil Moisturizer; Harold’s Chicken Shack; Currency Exchange and Safe Passage signs; and Crown Royal bags.

I started paying somewhat closer attention when she talked about how a passerby thought the house painted in Crown Royal bag purple was a sign that Prince would be descending on the neighborhood to do a concert.

And though that block was almost all but erased, it was the idea that Prince could pop up in unexpected places and give free concerts in areas that the music industry and society had deemed were not valuable anymore. For him, the idea that just the image of this house was enough to bring Prince there meant that it was possible…And once I revealed that in fact this project had absolutely nothing to do with Prince, Eric nodded in seeming agreement, and as we parted ways and he drove off, he said, “But he could still come!”

He had assumed full ownership of this project and was not willing to relinquish it, even to me, its author. That, for me, was success.

I loved that Williams had this experience. It reminded me of the poem, “The Secret” by Denise Levertov which also mentions the viewer taking ownership of a work.

But I really perked up and paid attention to what Williams said next (my emphasis)

I wish I could tell you that this project transformed the neighborhood and all the indices that we like to rely on: increased jobs, reduced crime, no alcoholism — but in fact it’s more gray than that. “Color(ed) Theory” catalyzed new conversations about the value of blackness. “Color(ed) Theory” made unmistakably visible the uncomfortable questions that institutions and governments have to ask themselves about why they do what they do…. One of the neighborhood members and paint crew members said it best when he said, “This didn’t change the neighborhood, it changed people’s perceptions about what’s possible for their neighborhood,” in big and small ways.

The value of her artistic/creative/community building activity couldn’t be measured by any of those usual metrics. How can you measure the benefit of a splash of bright color that brings a moment of hope that someday Prince will come? Not to mention the secret hopes and joys that may have been kindled within the hearts of neighborhood residents that they would never admit on a survey?

Enacting Your Solution Or Your Funder’s Solution?

Often when we talk about arts and cultural organizations applying for grant funding, there is mention of how organizations might try to recast what they are doing in a context that makes it appear that their work aligns with that of a funding organization. There might also be a mention of an organization creating a new program in order to qualify for funding with an eye to doing the least possible in order to use that funding for their core operations.

When there is discussion about how foundation agendas are shaping what type of work get done, it is often in the context of the contortions non-profits will go through to secure the funding or how they need to piece support together based on narrow criteria of what an organization will or won’t fund.

While we all agree this situation is bad for non-profits because it diverts resources from the organizations core activity, less discussed is whether funder agenda is shifting the core activity of organizations in an nonconstructive manner.

Non Profit Quarterly had a story about the research Megan Ming Francis conducted on the relationship of the NAACP and one of their first major funders, Garland Fund.  Based on records of the interactions between the two organizations, the NAACP reluctantly ended up shifting away from their efforts to get state and federal entities to address lynching and mob violence to align with the Garland Fund’s education and unionization agenda because Garland was one of the few groups willing to fund them.

From a Vox piece on Francis’ research,

Garland’s organization also started out with a firm commitment to not “attempt by promise or by the setting forth of conditions or by any other means to control the policy of any group or individual entrusted with this money or a part of this money.” That, though, eventually changed, according to Francis.

The Garland Fund was most interested in education and organized labor, two areas it saw as the most important foundations for improving society. Over time, according to Francis, it discouraged the NAACP’s work on racial violence in favor of a focus on black education, and effected a swing in priorities that still guides the NAACP today (though the fund stopped operations in 1941).


Francis points to evidence that black leaders at the time didn’t think of desegregation as the pivotal success that we see it as today. Other researchers have emphasized that the fight for Brown was somewhat out of step with what black communities prioritized at the time.

Francis refers to this shift in priorities as “movement capture.” In the podcast interview that accompanies the NPQ article, it seems little has changed in the grant application process. Francis paraphrases an NAACP member writing to a member of the Garland Fund, “I have no pride of authorship. I basically just regurgitated what you wanted me to write.”

If you work in an arts and cultural organization, you may not think that some of the programming you are doing is counter to your interest. After all, if schools aren’t offering arts programming, your organization needs to pick up the slack by going into schools or adjusting operations to allow for school group visits and matinees. Children are the future of the arts, right? But might it not be more in the interest of museums to be open later in the day to better accommodate visitations at night when people got off of work?

I don’t know that museum operating hours are really dictated by a perceived need to be available for visitation by school groups. Megan Ming Francis suggests that the influence of funders have in shaping standard practice is underestimated.

She worries that funders often assume they have a better picture of the problem when they might not — and she thinks funders underestimate the costs to the movement of grassroots organizations aligning themselves with the funding zeitgeist.

I hadn’t set out to draw the connection when I started this post, but I realized the question of whether your organization would be focused on school outreach if educating wasn’t such a priority among funders is related to an frequent topic of this blog of late: Would your operations and activities look different if you didn’t have to justify your value in terms of economic impact and test scores?

If this line of thought intrigues you, check out the NPQ article and listen to the accompanying podcast interview with Megan Ming Francis where she discusses movement capture and wonders how funding may change the goals of groups like Black Lives Matter.

Send this to a friend