New Reasons to Teach and Learn Through the Arts
Do you still sing the alphabet when you need to recall the order of letters? Do you chant the poem “Thirty Days Hath September…” when trying to remember how many days there are in a month? Now think about your time in school. My guess is that, like me, you remember school plays, a catchy song when you studied a foreign language, or the content of a science or history lesson when you made a poster or diorama. Yet, how many of us remember the content of the tests or quizzes we took in school?
Most of us have had some experiences that support the idea that using art helps us to remember information better. We would also likely agree that as we progressed through our schooling, learning with and through the arts seemed to diminish, replaced with more traditional types of learning such as lectures and text-based inputs and outputs.
As a former school principal, I saw firsthand the importance of arts education (learning visual and performing arts) and arts integration (learning with and through the arts in non-arts subjects) for engaging students and making learning relevant. And while teachers often claimed that students learned information better when taught through the arts, I found that the evidence for how the arts might improve memory for content was largely anecdotal and the research correlational. Joining the faculty of the Johns Hopkins University School of Education gave me the opportunity to rigorously test whether or not arts-infused teaching would, in fact, promote better long-term memory for information learned in non-arts subjects.
To test this idea, our research team conducted randomized control trials in 20 fifth grade classrooms in two studies. We designed arts-integrated science units and paired control units that used conventional instruction. The arts-integrated and control units were matched using 1) the same content, 2) activities that would be taught within the same amount of time, and 3) the same mode of presentation (e.g. group vs. individual work; oral vs. written presentations). Each teacher taught both arts integrated and control versions of the units while each group of students received an arts-integrated unit in one content area and a control unit in a different content area.
Findings from our preliminary study showed that students—especially those who struggled with reading— remembered more in the arts-integrated condition when tested several months after the units were taught (See Hardiman et al., in Mind, Brain, and Education 2014, v.8, n. 3). Our second, larger study again found advantages for the arts integrated condition. Further, findings also suggested that the order of receiving either arts-integrated or control units first mattered. Students who learned science content through the arts-integrated units first—followed by the control units-- performed better in the control condition compared to the performance of students who were given the control units first. This suggests that students may have transferred the arts-infused skills they acquired through the arts-integrated lessons to their own learning, even when the arts were not infused in instruction. This raises interesting questions about how arts integration might influence how students think and learn more broadly. Could learning through arts-infused teaching influence thinking skills and problem solving generally? How might the arts instill engagement, creativity, and curiosity in learning? Clearly, more research is needed to answer these and other questions about the impact of the arts on thinking and learning.
Given the findings of our studies and the growing body of evidence that the arts help with student engagement and academic attainment, it would seem that arts education (“arts for arts’ sake”) and arts integration should be a focus of every school’s curriculum and every child’s learning experience. And teachers in formal and informal learning environments should receive support and training in how even simple arts activities can enhance teaching and learning. I have become more convinced than ever of the potential for the arts to be a transformative experience for every learner.