Your Brain on Art

Arts Education is Critical for Shaping a New Economy.

Our refrigerators are proudly decorated with childish scribbles and paintings. We organize our schedules to attend the school play or concert. Taking piano or guitar lessons is a common childhood experience.

However, even before children move out of elementary school, art is often left behind for more “important” work. We may begin to think of our children as “creative” or not, “artistic” or not.

If we decide that our children are not naturally artistic, we may limit their experience in the arts. This may be a big mistake which could impact our children’s future in education and in the workforce.

Why The Arts Matter

At the most basic level, the benefits of the arts include early learning of reading and counting skills to developing the ability to recognize patterns, organize ideas and problem solve. With closer study, the arts help children develop critical skills for future learning and employability.

Remember learning that new piece of piano music at your weekly lesson? You listened to your teacher play it, played it through yourself and identified the places where you made the most mistakes. These mistakes did not make you a failure, but showed you where harder work was required. That, of course, meant practicing.

That practicing encouraged patience, persistence and this abstract notion that you could, in fact, master the music. Then, after all that practice, it was possible to add personal artistry, your own creativity.

In the language of those who study brain function, the act of learning to play a new piece on the piano requires the following: synthesizing information and improving reasoning and logic skills as well as learning eye/hand coordination, controlling impulsive behavior and providing a mechanism for emotional release and self-expression.

The arts hone these skills. In life, these skills help us understand other subjects more thoroughly and tackle problems in school and jobs. Interestingly, with the advances in brain research since the 1960s, there is a substantial body of research that argues that the arts are not just valuable, but vital, to our children’s education. The brain imaging technology available to researchers in cognitive development allows them to literally see the impact of the arts on brain development.

These scientists have joined forces with artists to advocate for the arts to be taught every day in our schools as a core subject on par with math, reading, science and social studies.
A study by educational researchers at the University of Washington drew this conclusion: “To work in the arts, students are required to notice carefully, analyze and interpret diverse texts, think critically, pose questions and problems, and make decisions and generate multiple solutions. The development of these capacities makes students better learners.”

A Local Experience

Laura Collins has been an elementary vocal music teacher in the Tulsa Public Schools for 17 years. The conclusions reached by researchers do not surprise her. She has seen first-hand how music enriches the lives of her students and contributes to their overall development.

“From the ages of 3 to 6 years old, the ear is very sensitive and acute, said Collins. By giving this age group exposure to music, they are set up for success as musicians. They begin the process of learning this new language and its tones and rhythms. These aspects of music contribute to encouraging abstract thinking.”

Collins teaches kindergarten through 5th grade at Hoover Elementary School. Her students learn basic tones, singing, rhythm instruments and music appreciation and history. In kindergarten she constantly reminds children that their “voice is the instrument that they can take with them anywhere they go.” By echoing her singing, Collins’ students develop listening skills.

Through songs she teaches them to use their voices to express different feelings and she uses physical movement to help them begin to understand rhythms, including the difference between half notes, quarter notes and whole notes. By the end of fifth grade, they have played hand-held instruments, know how to read at least eight measures of a rhythm pattern, know who Bach and Beethoven are and have learned the historical music periods.

Ideally, they have also performed at least once in a concert, including the Sing Across the State program. She accomplishes all of these instructional goals teaching 440 students once per week for 50 minutes.

“These children use the creative part of themselves but also the analytical part, said Collins.” “It is learning another language and it does reinforce other subjects by teaching patterns, sounds, values of notes and expression.”

The Tulsa Public School District is committed to arts education. Recent statistics show increased involvement by students at all ages.

Additional fine arts teachers have been hired over the past six years. The district recently received a multi-million dollar federal grant to create an arts magnet school at Central High School that will have a glassworks and ceramics studio, metal works lab, black box theater, a recording studio and a ballet studio.

“My plan,” says Dr. Ann Tomlins, fine arts coordinator for Tulsa Public Schools, “is to provide a three-pronged approach to fine arts education: 1. Fine arts during the school day; 2. After school fine arts programs available to those students choosing to select an after school program; 3. Summer Arts Camps available for students of all ages. This is the 4th year for the Kravis Summer Arts Camps.”

For Laura Collins, it is a positive thing that every one of the 440 students at Hoover has a class with her. The negative aspect of this mostly has to do with time. “My ‘realistic’ ideal for teaching elementary students would be every other day, three times per week for 40 minutes.”

While any exposure and instruction in any of the arts is better than none at all, consistent exposure over time and from all disciplines is what all the evidence suggests has the most profound impact on the minds, bodies and spirits of our children.

The greater community of Tulsa also has a great number of resources that support arts education. While it might be ideal to have this education in the fine arts contained within the classroom, in fact, there are many ways parents and their children can experience the arts outside the classroom in our community.

All the major arts organizations from the Gilcrease and Philbrook Museums to the Tulsa Opera, Tulsa Ballet, Tulsa Symphony and Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame and the National Fiddler’s Hall of Fame have education at the core of their mission. Many private classes andstudies also cater to students

With scientific evidence and practical experience supporting the notion that the arts are pivotal in supporting brain development, what are our policy-makers and educational leaders doing to ensure that an arts curriculum is maintained and funded?

Public Policy and the Arts in Education

For years, school boards and educational administrators, faced with tight budgets and the demand for improved test scores in reading and mathematics, have had to make difficult choices. Often arts classes are the first to be reduced or even eliminated.

The arts are classified as a “core academic subject” under federal law. No Child Left Behind requires that all states “strengthen arts education as an integral part of the elementary and secondary school curriculum.” While noble in theory and designed to provide equal opportunities for all students at all schools, the arts have not been given equal standing with English, math and science as stated in No Child Left Behind.

Often, the need for the arts is greatest in disadvantaged populations. Yet, within these populations where the pressure to generate strong test scores is great, the curriculum has narrowed to the point that classes in the arts are limited, if available at all.

The myriad benefits of education in the arts mentioned earlier take on a dramatically more significant meaning for a disadvantaged child. In a life that is filled with uncertainty, inconsistency, poor nutrition and possibly limited emotional connections with others, a child will likely develop and learn at a significantly slower rate. With consistent exposure to the arts, this student can gain a sense of autonomy, self-control, increased hand-eye coordination and an emotional release, to name a few positive effects.

“Although the problems that the child faces cannot always be reversed,” a study of the impact of the arts on the disadvantaged child concludes, “suggestions like implementing art into their curriculum can relieve them from some of their troubles while enriching their cognitive, social, and emotional abilities.”

A study entitled “Teacher Perspectives on No Child Left Behind and Arts Education: A Case Study” states, “We would not willingly limit our children’s diet to only two of the six required food groups and expect them to grow into healthy individuals, so why would we want to focus education on a couple of subjects and sacrifice the social, mental and cognitive health of our children?”

Glen Henry, director of arts education for the Oklahoma State Department of Education, knows the challenges that public schools face in funding arts education. However, Henry says, “We all set priorities personally. Similarly, priorities in education determine where initial funds are directed…then, communities need to seek other resources.

Oklahoma is fortunate to have a network of support from the private sector.” He cites the Oklahoma Arts Institute at Quartz Mountain, the Oklahoma Alliance for Arts Education, the Arts and Humanities Councils and many other organizations that support arts education and professional development for arts educators.

In fact, Oklahoma has formally established an organization to nurture creativity in the state: The Oklahoma Creativity Project ( Their vision is to “encourage and support creativity in the multiple areas of commerce, culture and education.”

The directors leading this organization are from higher education, business, law, non-profits, foundations and community leaders. They believe that in these “times of turbulent economic and cultural change…promoting higher levels of creativity and innovation in work, education and daily life is a necessity – not an option.”

Henry encourages parents to look to both schools and their broader community for support for arts education for their children. “Look to your neighbor and begin a dialogue. More importantly, share your passions with your child. We want our children’s generations of students to be equipped with the skills, the dreams and the abilities so that they will be dynamic and creative contributors. The worst thing for anyone is to wake up and not have a goal, a dream to pursue.”

The Argument for Creativity in the Workforce

In every discussion over the role of arts in education, two arguments have led the way. One is the noble argument – that the arts are the vessels of our culture and are the expression of our human spirit and, therefore, have intrinsic value. The second argument, thanks to brain research, is that the arts help build academic skills in other subject areas.

However, a new argument has entered the discussion: The 21st Century economy requires creativity, the ability to synthesize large quantities of information and an ability to see problems and products in new ways.

When Governor Brad Henry gathered some of the state’s leaders to look at the creative possibilities in Oklahoma, he invited Sir Ken Robertson, a world-renowned professor of education and creativity expert. Robertson sees creativity as important to education as literacy. He argues that educational systems throughout the world discourage mistakes and encourage children to “grow-out of their innate creativity.”

What we need for our children to learn, as we try to prepare them for an unimaginably different world in the future, is to “enjoy learning, seek out relevant information and apply knowledge in new and imaginative ways. The arts,” he states, “help develop creative thinking.”

Creative and flexible thinking are valuable assets to students as they enter the workforce. Phil Moss is executive director of Creative Oklahoma, Inc., a statewide effort to promote creativity and innovation, featuring connections with business and community leaders who support a more creative workforce leading to innovation.

“We understand that developing the imagination will benefit the workforce in every industry in the state,” he said. “We need workers and citizens who are resourceful, ingenious, and well-rounded. A more imaginative, interdisciplinary education will help nurture the creative capacities in every learner.”

Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, suggests that routine work, even at the professional level, is quickly becoming a relic. Anything that can be automated or routinized will not be where the economy will grow, he argues.

Accountant-produced tax forms are quickly being replaced by online programs such as TurboTax. Divorce lawyers face competition from web pages supply the necessary forms without the expense of a lawyer’s hourly fee.

“It is the big, bold conceptual leaps that make our economy,” he writes. “Who knew you were missing an iPod? There is a premium on giving the world something we didn’t know we were missing.” He notes that MBA programs are partnering with art and design programs; Mount Sinai Medical College takes their med students to museums to encourage observational skills; and that Robert Lutz, a 73-year-old former Marine at General Motors, told his stockholders, “We are in the arts and entertainment business – we build mobile sculptures.”

Pink wonders why, if creative thinking is crucial to our economic stability and growth and, therefore, should be a primary skill we nurture in our children, we have “an educational system based on standard routines.”

If it is our ideal to educate our children to achieve their greatest potential, based on the latest research, Pink asserts that they must have “early, sustained and robust exposure to the arts.”


Categories: Teens, Tweens & Teens