Say your child has been having problems in reading and math. Should you hire a private tutor, or enroll your son or daughter in a music class? According to the results of a three-year study called “Learning, Arts, and the Brain,” the surprising answer may be: both.
The report, published by the Dana Foundation in 2008, compiled the results of seven different research studies on the effects of arts education on cognitive development. The findings were striking, discovering correlations between studying visual arts and increased attention, music training and reading ability, acting and memory improvement, and dance and observational skills — an unexpected series of connections which implies that, rather than separate sets of skills that rely on discrete areas in the brain, our brains are essentially interconnected in such a way that effective training in the arts carries over into many other cognitive areas.
The study came at an important time, as the No Child Left Behind Act has pushed schools to focus on a selective agenda that emphasizes test-taking skills in reading and math. As schools are judged on their students’ test scores, arts education is often seen as an indulgence. As a result, arts programs are among the first to get cut when school budgets reach the chopping block. In 2008, a study from the Center on Education Policy, “Instructional Time in Elementary Schools: A Closer Look at Changes for Specific Subjects,” found that since No Child Left Behind passed, 23 percent of grade schools in the United States have reduced instructional time for arts and music by 50 percent or more.
But as the Dana Foundation’s research shows, cutting arts education isn’t just a quick fix for cash strapped schools: It has far-reaching implications on children’s cognitive development. Practical educators concerned with effective learning techniques have many reasons to embrace the arts. Proponents of arts education also argue that it does more than just help children’s memory-recall or reading skills. It adds to an overall appreciation and enjoyment of life, self-expression, and cognitive openness that will benefit a person throughout his or her life. As the summary of the Dana report states, “A life-affirming dimension is opening up in neuroscience,” and recognizing the benefits of arts training will be “a long step forward in learning how better to learn and more enjoyably and productively to live.”
The studies suggest that visual arts, theater and music classes are vital components of education. While increasing a child’s enjoyment of life, training in the arts also changes the brain. Improvements in the performance of arts-instructed children were both structural — strengthening pathways in the brain — and strategic: Actors’ skills include learning memory techniques. Enhancements in children’s performance were discovered in some surprising areas. For instance, children enrolled in six weeks of music class showed a significant improvement in various reading and math skills.
Some benefits of arts training are more intuitive. For example, what do students learn in dance class? To dance. And how does one learn to dance? By first observing, and then doing. Mirror neurons in the brain allow people to learn how to perform an action through watching others. This is one of the most fundamental mechanisms of human learning. Properly observing others is crucial in learning dance, so it shouldn’t come as a great surprise that students of dance become excellent observers.
Although training in each area of the arts displays unique benefits, the most dramatic results appear to be from intense music training (about 20 hours per week). Dr. Elizabeth Spelke at Harvard University found that children with music training were better than their peers in Euclidean geometry — a skill invaluable to architects, engineers, and astrophysicists. They also found it easier to read maps. Dr. John Jonides at the University of Michigan found that music students were able to use rehearsal strategies to improve memory. Finally, after a three-year study, Dr. Brian Wandell at Stanford University found that music training increased reading fluency and speech skills. The more musical training a child had, the more his or her reading improved.
Wandell used diffusion tensor imaging to discover that diffusion in the nerve axon bundle that connects the left and right temporal lobes correlates with both phonological awareness and reading ability. Other studies have found a close relationship between hearing and learning. Scientists have found that children who have trouble processing sound may be easily distractible and inattentive “bad listeners” in school. A company called Scientific Learning trains children with learning disabilities to perceive sound more precisely by becoming more sensitive to changes in tone, frequency, and duration. These improvements allow the children to hear speech more accurately and pay better attention in class. And reading has phonological roots: Researchers at Rutgers University have demonstrated that good readers translate symbols into sound in a few thousandths of a second. Language-impaired students can take up to 10 times as long to process a written word. Such research indicates that hearing sound more precisely can actually make reading easier. These connections between sound perception and learning might provide a partial explanation for the idea that music training might similarly benefit learning and reading skills.
Although these recent studies help provide much-needed evidence supporting the role of the arts in schools, many educators have long been aware of the benefits. In his book “A Well-Tempered Mind,” Peter Parret describes how, in 1994, he began a program of live orchestral music for at-risk children at Bolton Elementary School in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. When Parret began, less than 40 percent of his students were scoring at grade level in reading and math. Two years later, 85 percent of the same students were meeting or exceeding educational standards.
Parret’s experience was not a scientific study, and even the recently concluded studies published by the Dana Foundation can only point to strong correlations, not causation, between learning in the arts and other academic achievements. But those correlations are powerful enough that anyone serious about education should take heed, just as anyone serious about the arts can attest to the self-knowledge, personal expression, aesthetic appreciation, and other benefits the arts bring to our lives, which are richer for it.