Sunday, March 30, 2008


These days, when school budgets are increasingly being cut, art teachers and arts organizations are increasingly feeling the need to justify their funding. They insist that arts instruction is a valuable—even necessary—part of a child’s education. But is there evidence to back this up?

Why do we teach the arts in schools? Professors Ellen Winner and Lois Hetland asked this question in an article published last year in the Boston Globe. The answer is surprising. While we have all heard that students who are trained in the arts do better in school and have higher SAT scores, the authors found no proof that this is a direct effect of their arts training.

Instead, their research shows something far more important is going on when children learn the arts in a thoughtful arts curriculum. The authors found that “arts programs teach a specific set of thinking skills rarely addressed elsewhere in the curriculum,” and that these specific skills are becoming more important than ever in a rapidly-changing world.

The authors spent a year observing and taping what went on in five visual arts classrooms in the Boston area. They interviewed both teachers and students. They found that besides learning specific skills such as drawing and painting, students also learn “a remarkable array of mental habits not emphasized elsewhere in school. Such skills include visual-spatial abilities, reflection, self-criticism, and the willingness to experiment and learn from mistakes. All are important to numerous careers, but are widely ignored by today's standardized tests.”

Upon analysis of the data, they identified eight indispensable “studio habits of mind" that students learned in these classes. The authors state that, though these skills are not as easy to quantify in a test as reading comprehension or math, “each has a high value as a learning tool, both in school and elsewhere in life.”

In practicing observational drawing, for example, art students are trained to look closely and see past their preconceptions. This is a skill “central to a variety of professions, from medicine to law. Naturalists must be able to tell one species from another; climatologists need to see atmospheric patterns in data as well as in clouds. Writers need keen observational skills too, as do doctors.”

In addition to careful observational skills, art students are trained to envision possibilities and multiple solutions to problems. “Like observing,” write the authors, “envisioning is a skill with payoffs far beyond the art world. Einstein said that he thought in images. The historian has to imagine events and motivations from the past, the novelist an entire setting. Chemists need to envision molecular structures and rotate them. The inventor - the envisioner par excellence - must dream up ideas to be turned into real solutions. Envisioning is important in everyday life as well, whether for remembering faces as they change over time, or for finding our way around a new city, or for assembling children's toys. Visualization is recognized as important in other school subjects: The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and the National Science Education Standards both see it as essential to problem-solving, but art classes are where this skill is most directly and intensively taught.”

Innovation is another skill taught in art classes. Teachers encourage students to experiment, take risks, and capitalize on error. “Teachers in our study told students not to worry about mistakes, but instead to let mistakes lead to unexpected discoveries,” write the authors. This is another skill not often encouraged in other areas of school.

Art teachers systematically taught their students the skill of reflective self-evaluation. “Art-making is nonverbal thinking, and verbal thinking (often public and spoken) is a focal activity of arts classes.” Students “were asked to step back, analyze, judge, and sometimes reconceive their projects entirely…. In group critiques, students also learned to evaluate the work of their peers. Making such judgments ‘in the absence of rule’ is a highly sophisticated mental endeavor, says Elliot Eisner, a noted art-education specialist at Stanford University.”

The authors describe being “startled to find such systematic emphasis on thinking and perception in the art classes we studied.… We found that teachers talked about decisions, choices, and understanding far more than they talked about feelings.

By unveiling a powerful thinking culture in the art room, our study suggests ways that we can move beyond the debate over the value of arts, and start using the arts to restore balance and depth to an education system increasingly skewed toward readily testable skills and information.”

The authors describe how teachers of other subjects can successfully use methods similar to those used in an art classroom. Students may work on long-term projects that more closely mimic real-life situations. In one case, students worked in collaboration with a local college, learning how to analyze water in a lab so they could investigate the purity of the drinking water in their town’s wells.

The authors conclude: “For students living in a rapidly changing world, the arts teach vital modes of seeing, imagining, inventing, and thinking. If our primary demand of students is that they recall established facts, the children we educate today will find themselves ill-equipped to deal with problems like global warming, terrorism, and pandemics.

Those who have learned the lessons of the arts, however - how to see new patterns, how to learn from mistakes, and how to envision solutions - are the ones likely to come up with the novel answers needed most for the future.”


Nancy Ewart said...

What an insightful post; I may show it to my teacher at State where I'm currently getting a dual BA in art/art education. I have tried - as a practicing artist - to do some volunteer work as an artist in the SF School district but was stopped by their many rules and lack of interest. Too bad THEY don't read articles like this one.

bluemonk said...

The Boston Globe article was forwarded to me by the Education Coordinator at the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission. (They are VERY supportive of artist-educators.) I wanted to comment on it and share it, because this research is a powerful weapon we have used -- successfully -- to help districts understand the importance of what we do. Feel free to send it to everyone!