Neuroeducation: Edited Excerpts from the Educators' Panel
Implications of Research for Educational Practice, part of Neuroeducation: Learning, Arts, and the Brain

November, 2009


  • Richard (Dick) Deasy, moderator, retired director of the Arts Education Partnership (AEP)
  • Mary Ann Mears, Arts Education in Maryland Schools (AEMS) Alliance
  • Elizabeth (Betty) Morgan, Ph.D., superintendent of schools, Washington County, MD
  • Sarah Cunningham, Ph.D., National Endowment for the Arts
  • Janet Eilber, The Dana Foundation
  • Mariale Hardiman, Ed.D., The Johns Hopkins University School of Education

Richard (Dick) Deasy: The first question I want to ask this elite group is what’s been important to you in your work? I’m going to start with Mary Ann, as an artist and as someone who has made an enor­mous impact in this state due to her commitment to advocacy.

Mary Ann Mears: When I was on the train coming back from the event at which the Dana consor­tium research was released, I started thinking about conversations I’ve had with the absolutely wonderful arts educators that I’ve met across Maryland. They’re wonderful not only because of the great work they do with kids, but also because of the way they think about what they do. I imme­diately said I would love to bring their questions to the attention of researchers.

Dick Deasy’s work has been enormously impor­tant to everyone in this field all across the country. At the meeting of art supervisors from around the state last week, Nelson Fritts from Cecil County was talking about a great new program he’s putting together, hiring 15 dance and theater teachers for that school system. He talked about using Critical Links in his conversations with the decision makers to win their support for the program.2

Two of my favorite studies are James Catterall’s work.3 One was—and this is old but I still use it—his analysis of NELS [National Educational Longitudinal Study] data. It’s a view from 30,000 feet, and it addresses the issue of equity by drawing a relationship between correlations in terms of chil­dren from low socioeconomic backgrounds having a significant benefit from the arts. Equity is where the rubber meets the road in this work.

Another study he did is a small-scale, finer grained thing I have always loved, which he presented at a 1998 symposium for superintendents in Maryland. He gave two groups of kids a prompt about Ancient Egypt. One group drew and then wrote; the other group just wrote. The students who drew the sarcophagi and the cartouches and so forth and then wrote about them had better orga­nized and more detailed written responses. This was particularly true of the students with limited English proficiency.

I like that the study is partly about visual art and it addresses equity. It’s very concrete and kind of elegant. There’s insight for practitioners and a good story for advocacy. I really think it’s important that whatever research is done is valu­able for practitioners and brings insight and clarity for teachers.

Ever since getting a computer I’ve used the metaphor that we’re hardwired for the arts as a species. I’ve always drawn on cultural historical information to back that up. But now when I’m talking to people I say the neuroscientists are begin­ning to discover how that works.

Deasy: Betty, you are the superintendant of a school district that has a great love for the arts. How have you drawn research into your career?

Elizabeth (Betty) Morgan: I believe that the research has helped us to build better arts programs in school systems. There’s no question. I’ve worked in four different school systems, and it’s been inter­esting to see how the development of programs in the arts has varied a great deal across Maryland. I think the research has strengthened arts-education programs not only in Maryland but everywhere. We’ve been able to use the research to be age appropriate in what we’re doing in the arts, under­standing, for example, the young neurons in early childhood, understanding what kids who are ten or older can accept. According to all the research, by about the age of ten your arts brain is becoming pretty developed; at the onset of adolescence your brain matures.

There’s no doubt that elements we now include in various arts programs have come out of research. We’ve learned from the research, too, the effect of arts on cognition. Research has helped me as a superintendent to sell programs in a place like Washington County, in Appalachia. Fifty-four percent of our elementary school students qualify for free and reduced-price meals. I’ll be perfectly honest with you, until I got to Washington County, I didn’t even know that it had a world-class museum. That it’s the home of the Maryland Symphony Orchestra. None of our school children were being given the opportunity to go through the museum or to symphony productions. I’m pleased to say that the link between the arts and cognition has helped us not only provide these opportuni­ties for students, but also to sell the arts better in that community.

We’re not an affluent suburb of a city, and we are not dealing with people who see the arts as part of their daily life—many people are strug­gling to survive. Many people don’t see the arts as enhancing their lives. I like to feel that we’ve made a dent in that.

Being able to use the research really helps because it resonates with some people who wonder why we should have these programs. There are kids who are having difficulty learning how to read—why are you spending money on orchestral music in the elementary school? The research has helped us say that by introducing a violin to a child having diffi­culty in reading, we’re helping that child develop his or her brain and form links between different areas of the brain.

We have a program through which students in various grade levels go to the museum and do a language-arts activity from the voluntary state curriculum of Maryland. We find teachers’ eyes are opened when kids are at the museum and suddenly they’re talking and they’re able to write or want to write when they don’t normally want to in the classroom. They’ve been inspired, and are getting input from what they see visually.

I really am very grateful to those of you who are steeped in the research because it helps people like me who are on the front lines—dealing with swine flu, dealing with kids being bullied, dealing with disciplinary issues and everything else—to justify the arts in our programs, and the expenditures the arts incur. It helps us create programs that are successful, because nothing succeeds like success. Success breeds more success and more willingness to engage in some of these programs.

Deasy: Sarah Cunningham, you are at the federal level deciding how to allocate dollars in support of arts education. How has research factored into your work and your thinking?

Sarah Cunningham: In terms of policy issues, research makes a difference to a funder when you have organizations that are aware of what in detail is happening with the children. To know that orga­nizations really have a sense of what is happening with kids in the classroom is so important. But I would also nudge a little bit in another direction— as we build our knowledge, it’s going to be so important to share this information with teachers and schools of education. It’s so valuable to have this scientific investment to validate what a lot of us have known for a long time.

What’s exciting is that it starts to generate conversations that have happened over the centu­ries, to generate a lot of excitement in the world that we live in. We revisit those conversations so that we can understand what’s happening with young chil­dren as they make meaning out of the world and they begin to understand how to navigate space and time in playful ways. I think the fact that we actually have other tools to begin to understand these things is tremendous, because we’re asking these ques­tions: What is knowledge? How do we know? How do young people know? What kind of knowledge do we lose as we become adults? Are we scared to be playful as adults? Why are we scared?

This conversation with the scientific commu­nity demonstrates the richness of the moment that we’re in. We have an opportunity as a federal agency to take this conversation to the press, the White House, the West Wing, and the East Wing, to engage in that conversation about where we can go with our young people. This conversation on the arts expands beyond artistic practice out into our moral effectiveness, our ability not to be depressed in high school, for example.

The final end is not utility, but it’s doing things that are ends in themselves. It’s things that are beautiful, it’s laughter, it’s these moments that we in the arts strive every day in our studios to prac­tice or to at least reach for. From a federal point of view, this is an extremely exciting conversation.

I think there are open ears right now. I don’t have my political appointee senior staff in place, but I think that this conversation is very welcome feder­ally from the NEA’s point of view.

Deasy: Janet, we ought to allow you to talk about your role at Dana, your career in dance, and your other activities. What’s the research meant to you?

Janet Eilber: I’ve been very excited about this summit and particularly this panel about the implications for research. About five years ago, I attended the Learning and the Brain conference in San Francisco. I went to Dr. Patricia Wolfe’s session for educators about strategies to use, what we know about the brain, and learning in the classroom. She spoke about how students access information better if it’s presented to them with some context and in an emotionally engaging way. And I said, well that’s what arts education does.

She wasn’t talking about the arts. She was strictly talking about engaging education. But I recognized that these things had a relationship, that these were functions of what the arts could give us. There was little being done at that time. While there was some research, there really wasn’t any momentum to how the arts might intersect with brain research and how that might be taken into the classroom.

Dana’s arts-education granting began about ten years ago. It has been about delivery, how we get better arts learning into the classrooms. We assessed the pipeline. What’s the role of the classroom teacher? What’s the role of superin­tendents, policy makers, and parents? We looked for areas of need, the place to most effectively put the Dana Foundation’s money to make these things happen.

But when we launched the arts and cognition study, we had to take a page from our colleagues who were overseeing the medical research and not impinge on the research with anticipation, with a wish for outcomes. We couldn’t impede the process with the fact that we wanted Betty to be able to use the research as ammunition or Mary Ann to be able to use the research as cred­ible material in her advocacy efforts. It’s been very difficult to sit on our hands and wait for the day when we can look at how to take this stuff into the classroom. I’m not here to wave the flag of caution any longer. I really would like to get going and affect what seems to me a sort of glacial pace. I’m hoping the discussion today will not only support the momentum of the cognitive science and inspire future research, but will allow us to look at other types of research that may help us use what we already know more effectively.

Just as Dana began funding in arts education, the Surdna Foundation released a study called Powerful Voices, which very clearly articulated the essential elements of a successful arts program.4 It included an assessment tool so that you could assess your arts program looking at using a rubric that they had set up of the essential elements.

A study commissioned by the California Endowment called The Power of Art parsed out the elements of after-school programs bringing art to youth.5 Students were art makers, they had sustained participation, and they were in secure spaces. The thing that I found most interesting and revelatory about that study was they asked, what do these after-school programs in the arts offer that sports or vocational work programs don’t offer? It came down to one thing: responsibility for self expression. The students were required to make art, and the programs ended in a perfor­mance or an exhibit that they were responsible for producing. This was the main difference— the students gained confidence and self awareness through personal expression.

Deasy: That work, as many of you know, is further elaborated by Dr. Shirley Brice Heath in her ten-year study of out-of-school experiences, finding those same things.6 But Shirley also impressed upon us that that type of engagement with the arts develops persistence and resilience in young people.

Mariale, you’re the person who ran a school based on your understandings of the brain. How did that come about?

Mariale Hardiman: It is really ironic that I have spent the last year planning a conference on learning, arts, and the brain when I spent 15 years as a school principal focused on test scores. If you go around and start asking principals, “What’s more important to you, test scores or art?” I don’t think anybody would question what they’d say.

I will tell you about my experiences, especially at Roland Park Elementary/Middle School, which is a large school—1,300 kids and a fishbowl school in Baltimore. I was there for 12 years; after my second year, we had 11 years of improvement in reading and math. We analyzed our data through every lens. We got Maryland performance award after award. We just kept growing in scores, and that was wonderful. I worked hard and my staff worked hard at doing that. It takes so much energy to meet those accountability measures.

Yet I started to see that there was probably something wrong. We were so focused on account­ability and scores that there was something that was not as holistic as it should have been about the school. Mary Ann Mears started talking to me about integration, and then [Deasy’s] publication, Critical Links, was released. I was especially struck by the studies that showed how theater seemed to influence students. I started a full-time theater program, one of the first schools in the area to do that, and brought in a full-time theater teacher with whom I’d worked in a previous school. We started to see some really neat things happening with kids involved with theater. But the real research came from the teachers. A social studies teacher, Susan Rome, came to me one day and said, “Dr. Hardiman, I want to do an arts-integrated unit with the art teacher.” I looked at her and I said, “Susan, are the kids going to learn any social studies? They’re not going to just be doing two periods of drawing, are they? We have to get some content taught.” Susan assured me that there would be teaching involved, that she would get the content taught. And I was blown away by what those two teachers were able to produce, how much the children enjoyed what they learned, and how much better they learned the information.

As I began to look at cognitive neuroscience and came up with the Brain-Targeted Teaching Model,7 we relied heavily on arts integration, espe­cially when we knew that repetition was required for children to acquire and have mastery of infor­mation. If you’re teaching the same lesson over and over again, repetition isn’t going work very well. Kids are going to be bored out of their minds. We started to look at how to get children to master key concepts and do the repetition through arts inte­gration so that they didn’t think that they were repeating content, but rather manipulating it in different ways through the arts.

Clare Grizzard, an arts-integration specialist at Roland Park, with teachers Catherine Gearhart and Amanda Barnes, started to write units in the Brain-Targeted Teaching Model. What we started to see really was the school transforming, the halls coming alive with the children’s work, the chil­dren talking about what they were learning in school, parents coming to me and saying, “What’s going on at the school? Instead of my child saying nothing when I ask what they’ve learned, they start to talk in a very excited way about the content that they learned.” They were learning it through art forms. We continued to become an arts-inte­grated school, and now a demonstration school, in Baltimore.

I also have been intrigued by a study done by Dr. Charles Limb at Hopkins about jazz musi­cians.8 He found that when jazz musicians were improvising, the part of their brains that controlled impulses seemed less active. It made me think about what happens in schools. We spend a lot of time controlling children in school—they walk down the hall, they sit in their seats (and if they have ADHD we try to fix that). Charles, could you just say a little something about your study?

Charles Limb: I do research that’s designed to try to understand how the musical brain works. The thing that frustrated me the most was that a lot of scientific studies, with good reason, deconstruct music into its elements and make it very sterile to the point where there’s no music left in it. You almost can’t tell it’s a musical study anymore.

And so I said, what I really want to look at is how creativity happens in real time in a way that has what we call ecological validity, meaning you can recognize that it’s a jazz musical performance that’s being done. To make a long project very, very short, I took jazz musicians, brought them into an fMRI scanner, had them improvise or play something memorized, and looked at their brain activity.

The part of the brain that was really active during improvisation was a self-knowledge, auto­biographical area. The parts that went way down or kind of shut off were the self-inhibitory lateral prefrontal regions. When you’re improvising, these regions shut down because you want to generate novelty, you want to turn off the rules.

I’m not quite convinced that waiting for neuro­scientists to come up with a study that’s intriguing or helpful to the arts or education is efficient. Scientists are not supposed to be agenda-based with what we do. We often don’t know what’s impor­tant until maybe a decade later. Something that we can bring to the table is a systematic quantitative approach that social sciences traditionally have not had and that art has really very little need for.

Deasy: A current movement is action research. That is to have teachers, for example, develop their own questions and pursue and study them within the context of their daily lives. It’s an enormously important development tool for teachers.

Mears: In conversations with artists and teaching artists, creativity, how it emerges in kids, and how to foster it was really important. Being able to find from some of the neuroscientists the potential methodologies for us to examine creativity would be fabulous. Doing it in collaboration would also be wonderful. But turning some of the teachers loose to do it through action research would be great and liberating for them.

We’ve talked a lot about arts integration. One of the things that came through for me is the trans-formative impact on teachers when they’re trained in arts integration. I think we need to do some research about what happens in transforming the teachers. One of the most wonderful things teachers say is that they see the kids differently. I think that merits some attention from researchers because to understand that would be tremendously important and have a huge impact.

Many artists say that the creative spark at the beginning of an idea actually occurs as a visual image. I would love to talk to somebody about how we could do more research around visual thinking and visualization.

Deasy: Let’s go back to Janet.

Eilber: Brain scientists often talk about the idea of repetition and drilling in a certain subject; maybe that’s just as effective as surrounding a subject with integrated arts education. If Michael Jordan had prac­ticed neuroscience for as many hours as he practiced his free throw, maybe he’d be a great neuroscientist.

In thinking about drilling and confidence, at what point do you have enough comprehension of the system that you’re working in to have the confidence to be creative, to take risks? In training dancers, there’s a long period of imitation and drilling and understanding the physical vocabulary. Some dancers never take the leap to have owner­ship of personal expression or make creative deci­sions about a role. Some of them are stuck with the drilling while others transcend it.

Deasy: Dr. John Bransford’s work in cognitive science about how people learn grapples with that.9 How do you spark the imagination and make it the basis of a leap forward? Betty, any thoughts?

Morgan: In these really tough economic times, we need some practical tools to help us sell arts programs in the school systems. Advocacy groups can work with you and against you. I’ve probably faced every advocacy group that works against you in Washington County.

I’d be fascinated to look at research that would show the effect that music has on special-education students in specific special-education areas, such as autistic kids. Does it help autistic kids to commu­nicate more? Does it help kids who are severely learning disabled respond to certain kinds of things that teachers are doing? What effect does it really have specifically?

I’d like to see research that ties the arts to academic excellence and growth very specifically. This group of kids was exposed, this group was not, and they advanced in their reading ability. It’s not just about the scores, but it is about programs that work, and it is about how we want to spend money.

In my experience with the high school for visual and performing arts in Washington County, I’ve been vilified by advocacy groups, I have been excoriated in the press. The team and I have been through hell in putting the school together, and I’m not exaggerating. The day of the ground-breaking, a gentleman picketed with a placard against the money that was being spent on the school for the arts. The building was donated by a local businessman in memory of his wife who was an art teacher in Washington County who died at a young age of cancer.

Any research on the role of the arts at the high school level would have really helped me with the advocacy groups that were against this project— and generally they’re against everything. There’s a real paucity of research at the high school level. I would love to see the effects on kids who partic­ipate in arts programs in high school. I would love to see research on high schools for the arts across the country. I would like the tools to have the arts recognized as an important discipline, a discipline that makes a difference. Anything in the arts that shows a tie to increased cognition, academic growth.

Cunningham: I work right now with 19 states developing state teams to talk about how public education can put arts at the core and how to develop creative state design teams. Every state has a different microclimate for arts education, which means that it also has tremendous resources that can’t be drawn through all those states. These state teams include lieutenant governors, state superin­tendents of schools, etc.

These folks want the information because they’re making decisions on the ground about how to design all parts of public education. We need as much information as we have to give our students the best possible experiences. We don’t apply this information across the board in the same way. But we aim to delicately understand its complexity and its shortcomings and find ways to get information to creative teachers who are doing a lot of inventive things and who are opening up to arts education in different ways.

What we advocate today in education are two representational languages, math and reading; maybe we should be educating kids to have multiple representational abilities. I think expanding our understanding of the human representational capac­ities that have been neglected is really important. And part of that is the conversation with artists with disabilities who have representational capacities that we don’t fully appreciate. I think they should be at the table in a big way here.

The NEA recently did a reading-at-risk report where we did a secondary analysis of everything that’s out there about literature.10 If we could also collaborate in creating secondary analyses that are useful to the field and that help us apply this information well, it would bring together all these different studies that allow us to see the bigger picture. It could be that the new research isn’t as pressing as drawing together the existing research and getting it out in the field so the field can make intelligent choices about it.

Deasy: That’s great. Mariale, do you want to make comments?

Hardiman: I would like to bring it back to the school level. I would like principals and schools not to have to decide between the arts and other content areas. I’d like to know if children who learn content through the arts have better long-term retention and are better at applying that content than children who learn in a traditional way. I’d like to know if children are going to be better long-term learners if we embed art forms into our teaching techniques.

I really wonder, coming back to Charles’ study on creativity, whether or not we’re squeezing creativity out of our children by trying to control them so much in our school environments. What would it look like if we studied that? Could we study children in the same sense that Charles studied jazz musicians, looking at their creativity versus their impulse? I think that might be an interesting study.