When I was a school principal in the 1990s, I began looking for ways to expand our school’s vision and determine how children best acquire, retain and apply knowledge. My inquiries led me to examine new research in the cognitive neurosciences. While the number of studies conducted in school settings was thin, I applied broad brush strokes from the field to develop a teaching model for my faculty. When we implemented the model, we found that the instruction that provided rich classroom experiences and long-term learning seemed to require infusing the arts into teaching techniques. As teachers designed arts-integrated lessons that fostered creative thinking, a transformation occurred in the school. Lessons became more engaging, children embraced learning more, teachers enjoyed teaching more, and parents were more satisfied with their child’s schooling.
Now, observations like those I witnessed in my school are being explained by a growing body of solid research into arts and cognition. A summit on May 6 sponsored by the Johns Hopkins University School of Education, of which I am now a part, provided a unique venue for researchers to share current findings and dialogue with educators to determine future directions for research. The focus of the summit continued at the “Learning & the Brain" conference in Washington, D.C., on the topic “The Creative Brain.”
The reports presented at these two conferences build on several earlier projects studying how the arts enhance learning. The Arts Education Partnership’s publications Critical Links (2002) and Third Space (2005) provided insights. In March 2008, the Dana Foundation’s Arts and Cognition Consortium released a series of studies conducted by leading neuroscientists from six universities across the country. The findings demonstrated a “tight correlation” between exposure to the arts and improved skills in cognition and attention for learning.
Most encouragingly, the science discussed in Baltimore moved to the next stage in the investigation of why, as every teacher in every generation has known forever, children who receive training in the arts do better than children who don’t. The researchers presented evidence from controlled studies showing brain changes and cognitive improvements that teachers recognize are at the most fundamental level of learning: improvements in listening, attention and motor tasks, specifically produced by arts training.
The new focus on arts and creativity could not come at a better time. The Obama administration’s attention to education could provide the impetus for reshaping what we expect from schools and how to measure that expectation. To that end, I propose that federal and state policy-makers expand their view of what constitutes an effective school. A report card, similar to the New York City model, would provide a clearer picture of the health and vitality of a school.
The report card should include not only reading and math achievement scores, but also growth of those scores over time, factors of school climate and consumer satisfaction, breadth of curriculum offerings and classroom observations focused on creative teaching strategies. It should also measure the degree to which students participate in the arts and other programs such as physical education, athletics, before- and after-school clubs, and extracurricular activities. Targeting attention and accountability to a broader vision of a school, including how arts are embedded into children’s school experiences, will lead to real school reform.
As a school principal, I learned that the arts are a powerful tool for enhancing creativity and student achievement. Neurological and cognitive sciences will surely continue to shed light on topics
such as the effects of attention, memory, sleep and emotions on thinking and learning. Future research in this field should be informed by the practical needs of educators. And the influence of the arts on cognition, thinking and learning must be part of this research agenda and become a central focus in educational policymaking.
It’s good that the federal government is revisiting the testing provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act; efforts to reform American schools should begin with changing the ideas of policy-makers about how to measure educational success. Our current system of judging schools— based primarily on achievement scores in reading and mathematics—is moving American public education in the wrong direction. It has resulted in a well-documented narrowing of the curriculum, especially in urban settings where budgets are tight and many educators believe that children require more time to work in the tested subject areas. These practices are inconsistent with our nation’s need for workers capable of collaboration, innovation and creative problem-solving. Those are the very skills identified as necessary for the work force of the future by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills.
This is the question the research must answer: what arts training will contribute to the cognitive future of children who must go out into the real world of the 21st century—not robotically trained to answer multiple choice questions, but prepared to be discerners, innovators, and problem solvers.
Mariale Hardiman is the Assistant Dean, Urban School Partnerships, and Chair, Department of Interdisciplinary Studies in Education at the John Hopkins University School of Education. She is the author of “Connecting Brain Research with Effective Teaching: The Brain-Targeted Teaching Model” (2003). Hardiman served as a principal, department chair, teacher and professional development specialist for more than 30 years in the Baltimore City Public School System. As the principal of Roland Park Elementary/Middle School for a decade starting in 1993, she led the school to its designation as a Blue Ribbon School of Excellence.
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