Arts Educators Should Be Asking One Key Question

by Janet Eilber

May 26, 2009

The “Learning, Arts, and the Brain” summit, hosted by the Johns Hopkins University(JHU) School of Education and well-documented on this Web site, was 36 hours packed with new ideas, invigorating exchanges and the unusual opportunity for educators, artists and scientists to consider the latest scientific research on how the brain learns and its relationship to actual practices in education.

At the end of a presentation that demonstrated how the process of developing an animated film offers a template for dynamic teaching and learning, one of the classroom teachers present asked the question of the hour: “How can we get these new ideas into the classroom?”

A knowing laugh—or was it a groan?—came from the crowd of experienced educators. The question called up the daunting hurdles of policymaking, curriculum development, school budgets, teacher training, accountability, state standards, length of the school day and much more— all just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the typically glacial pace of education reform.

The questioner had gotten to the crux of the matter.

In the past few years, neuroscientists have shown “tight correlations” that link the early study and serious practice of the performing arts— music, drama, dance—to students’ ability to learn in other areas. At this summit, several of the scientists were able to go beyond reporting correlation to show evidence of the “near transfer” from one part of the brain to another of measurable learning and attention abilities.

This significant advance by the scientists had quite an impact on many of the educators and arts advocates present. They are champing at the bit to get to the next step. How can we get these new ideas into the classroom? Is it possible to use the arts to implement effective systems of teaching and learning based on what we know about how the brain learns?

During the course of the summit, various strategies were championed. Some participants suggested that classroom teachers are in a powerful position to introduce new methods right now. Others insisted that the idea of “bottom-up” advocacy would be effective only if coupled with “topdown” efforts by policymakers. They envisioned a meeting between the lead scientists and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “He needs to hear it directly from them,” said one attendee.

From some we heard that nothing will happen until parents demand change; from others, that school principals are key, but that they must have new types of training to understand and support these new methods.

The idea of more “lab schools” came up several times from both scientists and educators. Schools with researchers on-site would allow evidence-based curricula to be evaluated and new research to be conducted in the classroom setting, following students over several years.

In one of the final sessions, one scientist suggested that an organization dedicated to communication between scientists and teachers is needed to translate scientific findings into practical classroom-teaching tools. She worried that scientists and educators are busy within their own professions and that neither can take on the work of converting new research findings into practice.

Although the wide-ranging discussion revealed that there is much to be done, there was eagerness, hope and definite awareness that the time is right for real progress. With a new administration, an opportunity to retool the No Child Left Behind Act and Secretary Duncan talking about using economic stimulus dollars to leverage school reform, the time for concerted action is now.

By launching its Neuro-Education Initiative, guided by Susan Magsamen and Mariale Hardiman, the JHU School of Education has taken an important and impressive step toward developing and implementing evidence-based curricula. I hope other sectors of higher education are watching carefully and asking, “How can we get these new ideas into the classroom?”