Third Space

When learning matters

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 17, No 2 (Summer 2006)

Lauren M. Stevenson and Richard J. Deasy

2005, 158 pages. Arts Education Partnership , One Massachusetts Avenue, Suite 700, Washington, DC 20001-1431, 202-336-7016, aep@ccsso.org

The Arts Education Partnership's new book, Third Space: when learning matters, should be required reading for anyone involved in what promises to be a lively and contentious debate around the 2007 reauthorization of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Hopefully, reading this book would shift the debate from a focus on test scores, failing schools, and rigid requirements to a focus on the things that really matter — and facilitate learning — in our nation's classrooms. The conversation would be about students who become creative thinkers, resources that can help teachers become more effective in the classroom, and schools that have found a new way of becoming open, nurturing communities. These informed policy discussions would definitely include what authors Lauren Stevenson and Richard Deasy call the “third space,” the metaphor they use to talk about the changes that students, teachers, artists, parents, and principals said happened when the arts were made a central feature of a school's philosophy and program.

Stevenson and Deasy explain early in the book that their original plan was to write a how-to guide for schools interested in using the arts to improve schools that work with economically disadvantaged students. The guide was to be based on a study of ten exemplary “arts saturated” schools that ranged from rural to urban to small town. However, as their research progressed and they spent time visiting the schools and observing what was happening there, they realized there was a more compelling story to tell about the role the arts could play in education reform.

“When the arts are taken seriously by teachers, artists, and school administrators as works that make visible students' knowledge, insight, and experiences, learning begins to matter and a third space is created,” the authors wrote in explaining the unfolding phenomena they saw in the schools they studied.

The authors quote the requisite educational experts who cite positive research findings about arts education and arts integration, but, perhaps more importantly, they also include comments from teachers, students, parents, and principals who speak with poignancy and honesty about what having the arts in schools has meant to them.

“When (the artist) is not here and my teacher says I have to write a story, I think about what we did (with the artist) and then try to make a story that is more interesting to me,” an elementary school student from Brooklyn said.

A student from a Rhode Island high school wrote after participating in a program called Human Creativity: “Teachers should learn how to do it through the artists' way. Look at everything from all points of view. If you don't see things from different points of view it will be boring, just that's right and that's wrong. With art you can go around the subject. You can curve, make shapes; find new ways to enter it.”

“My kids are always talking about things they are doing in school,” a Tucson mother said. “They didn't use to be like this . . . My son comes home just incredibly excited about the whole thing and tells me everything, and he is very detailed.”

The book also is filled with detailed examples of lesson plans and activities that make it easy to see the link between arts and learning: A teacher who asked her students to paint self-portraits of “who they were, beyond ‘this is what I look like.'” An integrated music, writing, and history unit called “Hip Hop 101”that encourages students to analyze music lyrics as a way to understand how the meaning of history changes when it is viewed from different perspectives. Elementary school students writing an opera based on their study of Native American culture and history.

The text also is interspersed with colorful student artwork and insightful poems and essays as well as photographs that illustrate both the product and the process of successful arts-integrated learning. By doing so, the authors practice what they preach: They use the arts to help us learn, to understand what the “third space” really means.

Although the book clearly advocates for creating a “third space” as a strategy for educational reform, the authors do not shy away from discussing the difficulties of changing school culture, the traditional roles of students and teachers, and an educational system built on traditional testing. They use examples from the ten schools to show how some of these challenges can be addressed successfully.
They also discuss the role of visiting artists, how they can serve as change agents in schools and the “possible paradox” they create. “They can have a profound and emotional impact on students, disturbing the controlled and regimented teaching found in many classrooms,” one teaching artist observed.

“Third Space” is compelling reading. The authors effectively make the case that the arts belong in our nation's schools, not just for their intrinsic value but because they have the ability to transform schools and make them creative centers of educational excellence. Their book now needs to get into the hands of the policymakers whose decisions will have an impact on children in schools throughout our nation.

reviewed by Deena Epstein, Senior Program Officer,
The George Gund Foundation