Getting Schooled: When Arts Teachers Become Students

Learn the five essential elements of professional development


Good teaching is born from learning and, not surprisingly, engaging in quality professional development is essential for quality teaching. To prove this point, research from University of Pennsylvania’s education scholar Laura Desimone has determined that there are, in fact, five core elements of effective teacher development.

Interestingly, Desimone finds that the actual format of the professional development is not the most crucial factor for its success. What is important is that the professional development, whether in the form of workshops, multi-day institutes, discussions, or instructional coaching, must include five critical fundamentals to be beneficial.

These features are also true for professional development in the arts. Following are the five elements with a focus on learning in and through the arts.

Content Focus improves teachers’ knowledge of the subject matter and identifies how children then learn that content. The arts are rich content areas, and they include culture, history, and sophisticated vocabulary.

The content focus will depend on teachers’ knowledge of the arts. Generalist classroom teachers do not always have a background in the arts and professional development can address this gap by providing the fundamentals. Arts specialists, on the other hand, will have different learning needs, such as a deeper, more expert study of an art form.

Active Learning engages teachers in meaningful discussion, planning, and practice. Learning through the arts is ideal for this element. The arts are inherently active and, in effective arts professional development, teachers should be doing art, whether it is painting, dancing, or drumming.

But it is not enough to have arts experiences. Teachers need time to plan on how to use the curriculum strategies with their students. And reviewing student work, be it sketch books or videos of student choreography, contributes to a more concrete understanding of student arts learning.

Coherence highlights that professional development needs to be in line with the other expectations placed on teachers, including content standards, such as the Common Core State Standards and arts standards, as well as assessments. In addition, arts specialists are often responsible for presenting student concerts, productions, and art shows. Professional development that is aware of and grounded in these expectations provides greater assurance that teachers will utilize what they’ve learned.

Coherent professional development also builds on teachers’ previous knowledge, making the case for “know thy audience.” Arts teachers are likely to be well-versed in the arts standards, but this may not be true of generalist teachers or those who teach other content areas.

Duration is important as teachers need enough time over an extended period to improve and enhance teaching practice. DREAM (Developing Reading Education with Arts Methods), an arts integration project in San Diego County, California, found that teachers who attended a summer institute and received arts coaching during the school year made significant progress in their own learning, confidence, and implementation of integration, more so than teachers who only attend the institute. The impact of this extended professional development appears to have lasted well into subsequent school years. These findings reinforce other research that highlights the importance of both quantity and duration of time spent on teacher learning.

Collective Participation happens through a collaborative approach to professional development. Collective participation encourages teachers to be actively involved, making the learning “teacher-centered.” The arts foster this element naturally. The performing arts require people with diverse abilities and points of view to contribute to a purpose or goal.

Effective professional development is key to student learning and achievement. Since the arts are often an underdeveloped area of teacher knowledge, skill, and experience, providing valuable arts learning experiences for teachers is an essential ingredient in offering students a high-quality arts education.



Patti Saraniero
Original Writer

Editors & Producers

Lisa Resnick
Content Editor

Kenny Neal
Manager, Digital Education Resources


Dr. Laura M. Desimone

DREAM (Developing Reading Education with Arts Methods)

Image Creative Commons; flickr.com user United Way of Massachusetts Bay & Merrimack Valley

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