Making My Case: A Literature Review

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The following literature review will explore research into the benefits of deeper learning, the particular capacity of arts classes and creative projects to access those benefits, and the necessity of developing these skills for both students and teachers. This research will demonstrate the value of establishing an online Technology-Assisted Music course as part of the Chesterfield County Public Schools high school curriculum, and of developing a teacher-targeted version of this course to promote the course competencies across multiple disciplines.


The Benefits of Deeper Learning

The 2017 NMC/CoSN Horizon Report has listed “Deeper Learning Approaches,” as outlined by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, as one of the “Key Trends” in its annual report for five of the last six years (Freeman, Adams Becker, Cummins, Davis, & Hall Giesinger, 2017). In 2013, the Hewlett Foundation identified six key elements of “deeper learning”:

  • Mastering rigorous academic content.
  • Learning how to think critically and solve problems.
  • Working collaboratively.
  • Communicating effectively.
  • Directing one’s own learning.
  • Developing an academic mindset — a belief in one’s ability to grow. 

Over the past several years, a great deal of research has demonstrated that exposing students to this deeper learning leads to greater student engagement and achievement. One of the most prominent examples of such research is the American Institute for Research’s Study of Deeper Learning: Opportunities and Outcomes (Zeiser, Taylor, Rickles, Garet, & Segeritz, 2014). This study of 20 high schools in California and New York found that schools with a well-implemented focus on deeper learning reported higher standardized test scores in reading, math, and science, higher on-time graduation rates, and “higher levels of collaboration skills, academic engagement, motivation to learn, and self-efficacy” than schools with no such focus (p. vi).

In Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Dweck (2016), who has researched and written extensively on the significance of mindset in education, reports on the achievements of students like those in the Chicago classroom of Marva Collins: second-graders who “had been labeled ‘learning disabled,’ ‘retarded,’ or ‘emotionally disturbed’….By June, they reached the middle of the fifth-grade reader, studying Aristotle, Aesop, Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Poe, Frost, and Dickinson along the way” (2016, pp. 64-65).

Deeper Learning and the Arts

It is worth noting that, in many ways, courses in fine arts have long embraced many of the deeper learning approaches that are now gaining wider traction across multiple disciplines. Students in the visual arts, for example, assemble and maintain portfolios of their work, and these projects serve to demonstrate the students’ mastery and application of course concepts. Students in performing arts ensembles such as band or chorus, or in a dramatic production are, almost by definition, working collaboratively to create solutions to a real-world challenge, in front of a real-world audience. Dweck (2016) cites outstanding artists such as Jackson Pollock and Twyla Tharp as prime exemplars of the growth mindset.

Furthermore, educational leaders are increasingly recognizing the value of arts instruction in the broader sphere of education. Seattle Public Schools’ Creative Advantage Initiative began in 2013 as an attempt to ensure equitable access to arts education for all of the city’s public school students. A 4-year evaluation of schools participating in the Creative Advantage initiative showed a significant overall increase in the percentage of classrooms demonstrating 21st-century skills, from 23% at the start of the initiative in 2014 to 51% in 2017 (Baker, Mehlberg, & Hickey, 2017, p. 30). (The areas measured in this evaluation–communication, collaboration, perseverance, and critical thinking–align with four of the Hewlett Foundation’s six components of deeper learning, as described above.) 

In a shorter time frame, but on a larger human scale, a 2012 Arkansas study of nearly 4,000 students ranging from grades 3-12 found that even a short-term visual arts education had a significant impact on students’ critical thinking skills, especially among students in disadvantaged socioeconomic groups (Bowen, Greene, & Kisida, 2014). Students attended a one-day field trip to the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas and took part in small-group, facilitated tours of the museum with an emphasis on student interpretation of the art works examined. These students were also given previsit and postvisit instructional materials to enhance their experience. Several weeks after the museum visit, students participated in a survey assessment that included critical thinking exercises, including evaluations of observation, interpretation, association (linking prior experience or knowledge), and flexible thinking, among other factors. Identical surveys were also administered to control groups of comparable students who had not attended the museum trips. Bowen et al. (2014) found that students who had taken part in the museum experience showed greater degrees of critical thinking than students in the control group.

The creative thinking, knowledge integration, and problem-solving inherent in arts education are cited as a hallmarks of a 21st-century education by both school and business leaders. A study by The Conference Board (Lichtenberg, Wook, & Wight, 2008, pp.6-7) found that 97% of employers and 99% of school leaders surveyed reported an increasing importance of creativity in the workplace, with problem identification, problem-solving, and integration of knowledge across multiple disciplines ranking as the top skills that these leaders felt demonstrated such creativity. The same study also reported that a clear majority of these same leaders believed a degree in the arts was the most significant single indicator of creativity (p. 8). 

Of course, even as the value of such coursework is being touted, trends on the ground often tell a different story. Rabkin and Hedberg, compiling data from the National Endowment for the Arts’ 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, found that, after enjoying more than five decades of steady increase, the number of adults reporting having received any form of childhood arts education began to decline in the mid-1980s, erasing nearly half of the gains made in the prior 50+ years by the time of the survey (2011, p. 15). While those numbers appear to have stabilized or slightly increased in the ensuing decade, nonetheless a survey of over 1,000 U.S. public school teachers in grades 3-12 found that a majority of respondents report arts instruction being “crowded out” by an increased focus on standardized testing and non-elective subjects, particularly math and language arts (Farkas Duffett Research Group, 2012). Accepting that a robust arts education is beneficial to our learners and to our society, and that the current standardized-test-heavy environment is not likely to change quickly, it is clear that, as new expectations arise and old challenges linger, we must find different solutions in order to provide all students with the best and most complete education possible.

Wider Exposure, Greater Benefits

Online and blended learning models, coupled with advances in technological capabilities and availability, may begin to provide these solutions. One significant trend in educational technology is the advent of 1:1 device initiatives and Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) programs. The Consortium for School Networking’s 2017 Annual Infrastructure Report found that 53% of surveyed high schools reported all students having access to a non-shared device, either through 1:1 or BYOD programs–this was up from 38% the previous year (Maylan, 2017, p. 15). Furthermore, data supplied by the Federal Communications Commission and compiled by EducationSuperhighway (2018) in its 2018 State of the States report suggests that as much as 98% of U.S. school districts currently have met the FCC data access goal of at least 100 kbps available per student (p. 7). Taken together, these data suggest that online learning offers promising avenues of expanding arts course offerings to public school students, thereby increasing their exposure to and benefit from deeper learning strategies.

One exciting possibility is that of the online technology-assisted music (TAM) course. Thanks to the ever-expanding market demand for digital audio workstation software and the advent of 1:1/BYOD programs in schools, musical production tools that were once prohibitively expensive and found almost exclusively in brick-and-mortar studios or dedicated music technology labs are now readily available to students at little or no cost on a laptop, Chromebook, or smart device. This convergence of technological advances offers a novel path toward expanding arts education and, as a result, increasing deeper learning opportunities. 

Through the use of online learning, students in schools and districts where available resources and/or low enrollment numbers do not permit the establishment of traditional performing ensembles may still avail themselves of a musical education. Ironically, research often shows that students in such circumstances are the ones who could reap the biggest benefits from a strong arts education. For example, Catterall, Dumais, and Hampden-Thompson (2012), in The Arts and Achievement in At-Risk Youth: Findings from Four Longitudinal Studies, analyzed data from from studies conducted between 1988 and 2002 and found that participation in arts courses correlated with significant benefits to students’ academic achievement, civic engagement, and post-graduation employment, especially in the case of students of lower socioeconomic status.

Laying aside the challenge of insufficient resources or enrollment, even in areas where courses are available upper-grade students who have interest in studying music in school but have no prior musical instruction often have difficulty finding classes suitable for their skill level–most high school music courses are designed for students who began their studies in elementary or middle school. 

An online, individualized TAM course may be the solution to bypassing these problems while still allowing students to take advantage of the intrinsic and extrinsic benefits that music education has to offer. A student who wishes to enroll in an online music course is not concerned with whether or not there are enough other students in her school interested in signing up for the class to make the course available. Such a student, whether or not she plays a musical instrument, or indeed has any prior musical education, can join a class of 1, 20, 100, or 1,000, and find a way to engage in a creative education. Indeed, in some cases, the outlet for individual creativity and expression may be even more present in a TAM course than in a large ensemble such as band or chorus, where “[the] teacher is the conductor in the political tradition of the dictator….The students obey, conform, ‘recite’ the correct answers (or musical phrases)” (Bartel, 2000). Surveys of music teachers at both the elementary and secondary level indicate that, in contrast to their visual art counterparts, most music classes do not have portfolio-based assessments, relying instead on direct observation, performance tasks, or rubrics (Domaleski, Gong, Hess, Marion, Curl, & Peltzman, 2015). While the survey does not explore the many possible reasons for this difference, at the very least it does indicate that many music students are missing out on the educational benefits that the creation of an individualized, self-directed portfolio can offer. (Recall that directing one’s own learning is one of the key components of the Hewlett Foundation’s definition of deeper learning.) Much like in a traditional visual art course, TAM students can assemble a portfolio of projects they have created to demonstrate mastery and application of course concepts; as Harapnuik writes, “The act of creation means that students are engaged in reflection and deeper learning” (n.d.).

Prevailing trends in education suggest that deeper learning is a goal being adopted by ever-growing numbers of school districts nationwide, and with good reason. Providing students with access to a high quality education in the arts, in addition to being intrinsically valuable, has been shown to further these extrinsic aims as well. It is only logical, therefore, to use advancing technological capabilities in every conceivable way to increase that access. It may be that in the near future, marching band and chorus, long the staples of secondary school music programs, will find themselves existing alongside of (or even overshadowed by) a cohort of students producing a wide range of musical content, both in traditional forms and in ways never imagined a few decades ago. Perhaps the lines between artistic disciplines will begin to blur in schools, and students will not have to choose between learning to play the violin and learning to throw pottery. Indeed, perhaps the future of arts in schools is students designing their own video games and composing the music to accompany them, or producing podcasts where they interview classmates about their creative writing projects, or creating an as-yet-unimagined way to absorb, reframe, and reinvent what they are learning. This, in the end, should be the true goal.


Baker, D., Mehlberg, S., & Hickey, T. (2017). The creative advantage year 4 evaluation report. Bothell, WA: The BERC Group.

Bartel, L. R. (2000). The rehearsal model. Orbit, 31(1), 25. 

Bowen, D., Greene, J., & Kisida, B. (2014). Learning to think critically. Educational Researcher, 43(1), 37-44.

Catterall, J. S., Dumais, S. A., & Hampden-Thompson, G. (2012). The arts and achievement in at-risk youth: Findings from four longitudinal studies. Washington, DC: National Endowment for the Arts.

Domaleski, C., Gong, B., Hess, K., Marion, S., Curl, C., & Peltzman, A. (2015). Assessment to support competency-based pathways. Washington, DC: Achieve.

Dweck, C. (2016). Mindset: the new psychology of success. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.

EducationSuperHighway (2018). 2018 State of the states. San Francisco, CA: EducationSuperHighway.

Farkas Duffett Research Group. (2012). Learning less: Public school teachers describe a narrowing curriculum. Washington, DC: Common Core.

Freeman, A., Adams Becker, S., Cummins, M., Davis, A., & Hall Giesinger, C. (2017). NMC/CoSN horizon report: 2017 K–12 edition. Austin, TX: The New Media Consortium.

Harapnuik, D. (n.d.). Why use an ePortfolio [Blog post]. Retrieved from

Lichtenberg, J., Woock, C., & Wright, M. (2008). Ready to innovate: Are educators and executives aligned on the creative readiness of the U.S. workforce? New York, NY: The Conference Board.

Maylan, P. (2017). CoSN’s 2017 annual infrastructure survey report. Washington, DC: Consortium for School Networking.

Rabkin, N., & Hedberg, E.C. (2011). Arts education in America: What the declines mean for arts participation. Chicago, IL: NORC at the University of Chicago.

William and Flora Hewlett Foundation (2013). Deeper_learning_defined_April_2013.pdf. Retrieved from

Zeiser, K. L., Taylor, J., Rickles, J., Garet, M. S., & Segeritz, M. (2014). Evidence of deeper learning outcomes. Report #3 findings from the study of deeper learning: Opportunities and outcomes. Washington, DC: American Institutes for Research.

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About the author

I am an instructional technologist for the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Dentistry in Richmond, VA. Before that, I spent more than 20 years as a public school music teacher in Chesterfield County, VA, primarily teaching guitar and music technoogy at the high school level. I hold a Bachelor of Music Education degree from the University of Richmond, and a Master of Education degree with a focus on Digital Learning and Leading from Lamar University. I believe that every person has the need, the desire, the ability, and the right to learn, and that as educators we must meet our students wherever they are, and help bring them to where they want and deserve to be.