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Expanding the Definition of Intrinsic Impact

For many years arts education programs have been caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, they have been asked to demonstrate that participation yields instrumental benefits such as improving school attendance or achievement. This is problematic, as these outcomes are subject to powerful contextual influences (e.g., poverty). But when programs constrain themselves to speaking about the more realistic, intrinsic impacts of participation — learning to perform or participating in cultural activities — the reaction can be a shrug and a “so what?” In our recent work, we are developing a new middle ground by working with organizations to develop a theory of change that makes explicit how an activity, like learning to play an instrument, could have effects on other domains. For example, in our work with Play on Philly! — an El Sistema-inspired music education program — the staff has developed a theory of change stating that when young people learn to play an instrument they develop executive functions, a broad set of skills that allow individuals to set and pursue goals, and thus can help them achieve in many areas of life.

Focusing on intrinsic impacts in this way can benefit not only arts education programs for children but arts programming for audiences of all ages. It allows programs to demonstrate that participation in their program is associated with intrinsic impacts while explicitly testing their theories about how these impacts may be associated with improvements in other domains. But perhaps most importantly, it encourages programs to focus the spotlight of evaluation on areas in which positive outcomes are most likely to be observed.

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