Scientists Harmonize on the Theme of Arts Advocacy

by Janet Eilber

March 31, 2008

Three years ago, the growing cry from arts education advocates for “hard” science—evidence that studying the arts had a positive influence on the education and social development of young people—moved the Dana Foundation to take action.

Social research had long suggested that arts learning enhances many aspects of the developing mind. Several of these studies are mentioned in an article from Back Stage, “Arts-Themed Schools Benefit Students, Raise Questions.” But the arts still were losing ground in many public schools. Arts advocates had begun to feel that the findings were not powerful enough to overcome the major obstacles to arts education in the schools (notably: rising calls for “accountability” and shrinking funds for budgets).

The Dana Foundation, with its longtime interest in brain science and more recent initiatives in arts education, recognized that it was poised to take on this research challenge. In 2004, the foundation created a consortium of teams of leading cognitive neuroscientists from seven universities and charged them with researching whether studying the performing arts—music, dance and theater—actually changes areas of the brain and enhances the ability to focus and to learn.

Those of us permitted to observe the first gatherings of the teams of scientists were warned against anticipating desired results or rushing to speculate on how the research findings might be put to practical use. The scientists were aware of the wishful thinking generated by earlier “music makes you smarter” studies. They were eager to avoid similar eye-rolling from the scientific and education communities.

In March, findings of the three-year studies were presented by several of the scientists to members of the press and arts and education leaders in Washington, D.C. Their published report, “Learning, Arts, and the Brain,” is available online, as is a Webcast of the event. The NBC Nightly News coverage of the event is also available.

The scientists’ studies have tightened the correlations between the arts and cognition and provide more focused direction for further research. Three years is only time enough to make a beginning, but it is a very positive beginning.

The findings not only target the next areas for scientific study, but they free arts education advocates to focus their efforts as well.

At the close of the March 4 meeting on the consortium report, Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, agreed that the consortium’s findings should spur new directions in education policy.

“There is an enormous amount of research still to be done,” Gioia offered. “But I think we know enough today to say that education policy and budget makers are using a false model.”

What would be a “truer” model to adopt, one supported by these new findings of a “tight correlation” between early arts training and the ability to concentrate on academic subjects? Some of the most successful emerging strategies involve training, materials, and mentoring to better enable educators to exert leadership at the local level. After all, federal and state mandates may insist on adding arts to the school day, but the buck stops at the local level, and by the time it gets there, it may only be worth, say, 33 cents per student.

Several notable efforts have gained traction in recent years, such as the A+ Schools in North Carolina or Big Thought, a learning collaborative partnering with Dallas schools that brings the arts to as much as 400,000 children and adults annually. Other regions are just beginning to brainstorm about new approaches.

Philadelphia brought together 120 of its cultural leaders this month to hammer out a new “blueprint” to bring arts education back into its schools. “Arts for All,” a project of the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, is an excellent example of a practical system that addresses challenges at the local level. Each year, the plan helps several of the county’s school districts through the process of adopting sustainable, sequential K-12 arts education. “Arts for All” is on track to reach every district in Los Angeles County by 2012.

Professor Michael Gazzaniga’s summary of the consortium’s findings on Dana’s Web site explains the ways that the latest technologies in neuroscience and genetics are making it possible for us to study strong links between arts training and the brain’s ability to learn.

We are on the right track. Arts advocates have new reason to believe that future research will demonstrate that the training that enriches our lives also enhances our brains. “Learning, Arts, and the Brain” does not presume to be the final word in the eyes of the scientists, but it frees arts advocates to proceed with new confidence