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Why Art Makes Kids Smarter

All of this has education experts worried indeed. It should also worry parents. "It's not as easy to test the skills that children learn from the arts, but that doesn't make them any less important," says Kimberly Sheridan, Ed.D., coauthor of Studio Thinking: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education. According to a recent study she conducted with colleagues at Harvard's Project Zero, an educational research group, participating in a school arts program increases a child's ability to:

Observe the world carefully and discard preconceptions n envision something and then create it
Go beyond just learning a skill to express a personal voice
Problem-solve and persist despite frustration and setbacks
Reflect on the results and ask what could improve them

What's more, other research using brain imaging along with behavioral assessments has established strong links between the arts and specific cognitive skills. In a landmark 2008 study by the nonprofit Dana Foundation, neuroscientists at seven universities found that:

Musical training improves reading by helping children distinguish the sound structure of words
Acting boosts memory and the ability to articulate ideas
Strong interest in a performing art leads to better attention and memory

But perhaps most crucial of all, the arts foster creativity and innovation far beyond the classroom. "Art gives kids a chance to learn by doing instead of just being lectured to," says Jeff Gonzalez, a middle school art teacher in Dobbs Ferry, NY. "There's no right answer in art, which means they can explore, connect new ideas, and learn from what they feel were their successes and failures without negative consequences. They just can't get all that in math or history." This is why our current educational strategy is so shortsighted. The arts have definite practical applications for our kids' futures. A recent survey of business leaders rated creativity as a top skill that will only increase in importance. And as First Lady Michelle Obama said in a recent speech, "My husband and I believe strongly that arts education is essential for building innovative thinkers who will be our leaders of tomorrow."

The Obama administration is starting to act on this belief by launching a new survey to assess the state of arts education. Results aren't expected until 2011, but in the meantime some schools are proving that wonderful things can happen when arts are a valued part of the curriculum. When administrators at Middle School 223 in New York City's South Bronx realized that art classes were a big draw, they began to schedule them on Mondays and Fridays, when attendance was typically lower. Attendance went up immediately, says principal Ramon Gonzalez. More than that: "Once we got the students engaged and feeling confident in art, we were able to use that as a bridge to build engagement and confidence in other subjects. For example, we see that kids who don't normally like to talk in class will discuss their painting or hip-hop routine passionately, and this new skill spills over to other areas." That's one reason Gonzalez goes against current practice and eliminates periods of math, English language arts, and other subjects on a rotating basis to make room for 12-week blocks of visual arts, drama, dance, and both instrumental and digital music. "The academics haven't suffered," says Gonzalez. "Instead, the whole school has improved."

Across the country, in Flagstaff, AZ, third-grade teacher Diane Immethun incorporates music into her lessons as part of Keeping Score, a program that trains classroom teachers to enhance learning through music. "I'm not a music teacher, but ever since I began using music, I've noticed an immense improvement in my students' logical thinking, creativity, and writing skills," says Immethun. "Music enhances their imaginations. I'll have them listen to Stravinsky's 'Rite of Spring' and make up a story. Their writing is much richer than it was before. Or I'll use 'Flight of the Bumblebee' to teach them how a composer gives a voice to a musical instrument and how that's similar to the way an author gives a character a voice in a book. It's a sophisticated concept for third-graders, but music helps them make the connection."

The Creative Connections Arts Academy, a K-8 charter school in North Highlands, CA, has taken things even further. In addition to providing classes in music, drama, dance, and drawing and painting, the school has integrated the arts into almost all academics. In social studies, students act out plays or create drawings about the people they're studying; in math, they make the connection between quarter- and half-notes and fractions. In total, students are involved in the arts for a whopping four to six hours each day. "Kids get tired of rote learning, but they never get tired of the arts," says principal Joe Breault. "We have a wide variety of students, including kids with learning disabilities, but we have no trouble engaging any of them." And -- surprise! -- standardized-test scores have risen at all three of these schools (Immethun even warms up her students' brains on test days by having them sing rounds). "Research might not always be able to prove a direct connection to higher scores, but there's no doubt that an arts program makes kids better at everything they take on," says Breault. "It helps them become well-rounded, well-prepared thinkers and citizens of the world -- and that should be our main goal."

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