By way of Arts and Letters Daily, The Boston Globe has a column by Ellen Winner and Lois Hetland that addresses the apparent misapprehension that arts classes improve test scores for students. Their research found the absence of a causal relationship between arts classes and a rise in test scores.
They did, however, find “that arts programs teach a specific set of thinking skills rarely addressed elsewhere in the curriculum.” They feel arts advocates do their cause an injustice by focusing on the weak relationship with improved test scores.
Where the other classes emphasize and reward memorization and recall of facts, their year long study showed that arts classes cultivated “visual-spatial abilities, reflection, self-criticism, and the willingness to experiment and learn from mistakes.” The authors note that these skills, along with thinking processes like “observing, envisioning, innovating through exploration, and reflective self-evaluation,” are valuable life long and among those needed for careers. The authors expand upon the value of each though process in the article.
One of the statements that struck me was “many people don’t think of art class as a place where reflection is central, but instead as a place where students take a break from thinking.” That was certainly my perception when I was in school. In fact, I eschewed visual art classes when I was in high school in favor of more serious subjects. (Though I was a member of the after school drama club.) Reading the study observations I realize I was learning more than I thought when I was younger.
The authors note that there are many possibilities for running classes in other subjects so that they cultivate the same thinking processes–and that many teachers already do so.
The big caveat I have for the article is essentially the one common to the entire education system these days. The schools which they studied to show how well the approach works are the type of schools where parents, students, teachers and administrators all contribute to a learning environment where the complex interactions necessary to implement this sort of curriculum can occur.
In a situation where there are antagonistic teacher-student and student-student relationships, great need for remediation and a host of negative external influences, it can be easier to look to standardized test scores as a of measure success.
Most likely the only way to prove that this view of arts education can be valid across the board is to sustain its presence right from the first grade when the fundamental relationships and expectations about what the educational process entails can be established with the students.
Easy to say and easy to start since all kids are pretty much sweeties in first grade. Much tougher to maintain 5th/6th grade onward when new realizations about Venus de Milo and Michaelangelo’s David and life in general begin to develop.