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Getting scientific about arts education

A new interdisciplinary field researches the effects of learning fine arts on a student's brain.

May 24, 2009|Liz Bowie

BALTIMORE — For years, school systems across the nation dropped classes in the fine arts to concentrate on getting students to pass tests in reading and mathematics.

Now, a growing body of brain research suggests that teaching the arts may be good for students across all disciplines.

Scientists are looking at, for instance, whether students at an arts high school who study music or drawing have brains that allow them to focus more intensely or do better in the classroom.

Brain research in the last several years has uncovered startling ideas about how students learn. First came proof, some years ago, that our brains do not lose brain cells as we get older, but are always capable of growing.

Now neuroscientists are investigating how training students in the arts may change the structure of their brains and the way they think. Does putting a violin in the hands of an elementary school student help the child do math better? Will learning to dance or paint improve a student's spatial ability or ability to learn to read?

Research in those areas, Harvard University psychologist Jerome Kagan said, is "as deserving of a clinical trial as a drug for cancer that has not yet been shown to be effective."

There aren't many conclusions yet that can be translated into the classroom, but an interdisciplinary field is emerging between education and neuroscience.

Much of the research into the arts has centered on music and the brain. One researcher studying students who go to an arts high school found a correlation between those who were trained in music and their ability to do geometry.

A four-year study, conducted by Ellen Winner of Boston College and Gottfried Schlaug of Harvard, is looking at the effects of playing the piano or the violin on students in elementary school.

Winner said she was skeptical of claims that schools offering fine arts had seen an increase in test scores and a generally better school climate. She said she had examined those assertions and found that they couldn't be backed up by research.

The study Winner is working on has shown that children who receive a small amount of musical training -- as little as half an hour of lessons a week and 10 minutes of practice a day -- do have structural changes in their brains that can be measured. And those students, Winner said, were better at tests that required them to use their fingers with dexterity.

"It is the first study to demonstrate brain plasticity in young children related to music playing," Schlaug said.

About 15 months after the study began, students who played the instrument were not better at math or reading, although the researchers are questioning whether they have assessments that are sensitive enough to measure the changes.

The study will continue for several more years.

Charles Limb, a Johns Hopkins University doctor, studied jazz musicians by using imaging technology to take pictures of their brains as they improvised. He found that when they allowed their creativity to flow, their brains shut down areas that regulated inhibition and self-control.

So are the most creative people able to shut down those areas of the brain?

Most of the new research is focusing on the networks of the brain that are involved in specific tasks, said Michael Posner, a researcher at the University of Oregon.

Posner has studied the effects of music on attention. What he found was that in those students who showed motivation and creativity, training in the arts helped develop attention and intelligence.

The next focus in this area, he said, is on proving the connection that most scientists believe exists between the study of music and math ability.

Brain imaging is now so advanced that scientists can see the difference in the brain networks of those who study a string instrument and those who study the piano intensely.

The brain research, while moving quickly by some measures, is still painfully slow for educators who would like answers today.

Mariale Hardiman, a former principal, was once one of those educators who focused attention on reading and math scores. But she saw what integrating the arts into classrooms could do for students, and researched the subject.

She is now the co-director of the Johns Hopkins Neuro-Education Initiative, a center designed to bridge that gap between science and education.

She said the research that is just starting could answer myriad questions, but there are two she'd like to see approached: Do children who learn academic content through the arts tend to hold on to that knowledge longer? And are schools squeezing creativity out of children by controlling so much of their school day?

Even without research, Kagan said, an arts education can give self-confidence to many children who aren't good at academics.

"The argument for an arts education is based not on sentimentality but on pragmatism," he said. "If an arts program only helped the 7 million children in the bottom quartile, the dropout rate would drop."

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liz.bowie@baltsun.com

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