New Reasons to Teach and Learn Through the Arts

Posted by Mariale Hardiman, Mar 16, 2015 4 comments

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.

4 responses for New Reasons to Teach and Learn Through the Arts

Comments

March 21, 2015 at 9:23 am

Hello Carter and thank you for your thoughtful post. Indeed our work is focused on how the arts might enhance pedagogy. However, we try to be clear in our position that arts integration does not replace arts education. Every student should have ample opportunities to engage in robust arts programs. The arts must be viewed as core subjects that are part of a holistic education.

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March 20, 2015 at 5:31 pm

Hello Bill and thanks for your questons about our study. Yes, our curriculum-writing team wrote the treatment and control units. The team included science curriculum writers and arts integration specalists. We did incorporate a variety of visual and performing arts, making sure that each unit had a balance of various arts-based activities.
Thank you for your information on design and the great link.
Best,
Mariale

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Carter Gillies says
March 19, 2015 at 10:42 am

I'm not sure I see where you have made the case for supporting "arts for art's sake". In fact, everything you have argued for casts the arts as beneficial for some other good, a means to some other worthy end, such as "thinking skills and problem solving". But the problem this does NOT solve is that as a means to an accepted end art is simply one of several possibilities that has no priority in its own right. If the ends are the important thing then any means will do.

What if, for instance, science education was shown to improve "thinking skills and problem solving"? I'm sure you can find studies that make this case, but the point is that it could be anything. If we are trying to justify art on the basis of how well it improves these other things, then we have to admit that there are other paths to those goals and that some may even work better. And the truth is that some may be independently preferable simply because we already see the inherent value of those things in themselves.

If we defer the virtue of things like art then we are only making a weak case that art is instrumental for other goods, not that they are goods in themselves. Things like science have made the more successful argument that they are not just instrumental but are goods in themselves. We have the proof almost every minute of every day with our dependence on the technology that science brings to the world. Science is already respected because we don't know what life would be like without it. We have yet to make that case for the arts, unfortunately. And trying to prove the worth of art merely as a means is both demeaning and counterproductive. If there is even the slightest chance that something like science does these things as well as art (or possibly even better), why would we spend so much effort playing a weak hand for such high stakes?

The problem with instrumental arguments is that they are most useful as preaching to the choir. You won't convert nonbelievers, because that is not the game being played. At best the folks who didn't think highly of the arts will come to see them as sufficient means to otherwise important ends, but they will never come to see the arts as important ends in themselves. Those were never the cards on the table.

And the further truth is that people act counter to their acknowledged ends all the time. We are trying to make the case that eating well is good for our health, but many folks will still pop some vitamins rather than turning to a better diet. Not only that, but when folks are shown that smoking is bad for their health they continue to smoke. And why? Because smoking supports other virtues (emotional, etc) and can even become so routinized as to be an end in itself. Doesn't this disturb us when we look only to the importance of the arts for their instrumental value?

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March 18, 2015 at 8:48 am

Mariale,

It would be interesting to see the actual teaching materials used in the arts-integrated condition. Were these materials created by your team for the trial? Were they a mix of visual and auditory art infusion?

In the visual (graphic) design profession "information design" is used to visually support the presentation of concepts that lack any actual visual content. This area of design has become very creative and may be of interest to you.

A site with examples- http://designspiration.net/

Bill

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