Michael Posner and Brenda Patoine make a neuroscientific case for arts education. They argue that teaching kids to make art has lasting cognitive benefits:
If there were a surefire way to improve your brain, would you try it? Judging by the abundance of products, programs and pills that claim to offer “cognitive enhancement,” many people are lining up for just such quick brain fixes. Recent research offers a possibility with much better, science-based support: that focused training in any of the arts–such as music, dance or theater–strengthens the brain’s attention system, which in turn can improve cognition more generally.
We know that the brain has a system of neural pathways dedicated to attention. We know that training these attention networks improves general measures of intelligence. And we can be fairly sure that focusing our attention on learning and performing an art–if we practice frequently and are truly engaged–activates these same attention networks. We therefore would expect focused training in the arts to improve cognition generally.
They even have some longitudinal evidence:
In 2004, E. Glenn Schellenberg of the University of Toronto at Mississauga published results from a randomized, controlled study showing that the IQ scores of 72 children who were enrolled in a yearlong music training program increased significantly compared with 36 children who received no training and 36 children who took drama lessons. (The IQ scores of children taking drama lessons did not increase, but these children did improve more than the other groups on ratings of selected social skills.)
Just a few additional thoughts. The current obsession with measuring learning certainly has some benefits (accountability is good), but it also comes with some serious drawbacks, since it diminishes all the forms of learning, like arts education, that can’t be translated into a score on a multiple choice exam. That’s why the research cited above is so important: it helps us appreciate the “soft” skills that we tend to neglect.
But I think that even this clinical evaluation of arts education misses an important benefit: self-expression. I shudder to think that second graders, at least in most schools, are never taught the value of putting their mind on the page. They are drilled in spelling, phonetics and arithmetic (the NCLB school day must be so tedious), and yet nobody ever shows them how to take their thoughts and feelings and translate them into a paragraph or a painting. We assume that creativity will take care of itself, that the imagination doesn’t need to be nurtured. But that’s false. Creativity, like every cognitive skill, takes practice; expressing oneself well is never easy.
Finally, I think arts education, and the self-expression it encourages, can give children a tiny taste of an essential mental state: flow. First proposed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, flow is a condition of complete and effortless focus, characterized by total immersion in the task at hand. We don’t notice the clock, or think about what we’re eating for lunch – we’re just thinking about what we’re doing. (Not surprisingly, people are exceedingly happy while engaged in flow activities, be it composing a poem or constructing a Legos set.*)
Children have an extraordinary natural capacity for flow. (I’ve always loved this Auden aphorism, which he adapted from Nietzsche: “Maturity – to recover the seriousness one had as a child at play.”) Unfortunately, I think most school kids never experience a taste of flow at school. Instead, they are drilled in all the usual subjects, from arithmetic to reading. The downside of this pedagogy is that it leads kids to conclude that learning is a dry and tedious pursuit, where we will always count the minutes until recess. Perhaps arts education improves our attentional system because it shows children that attention isn’t always hard work. Sometimes, we want to focus, because we enjoy what we’re focused on.
*I once wrote an entire essay in grad school on the presence of flow in the novels of John Updike. I think one of the reasons Updike was so interested in sex was that he saw the act of sex as a prime example of flow, a blessed state of grace in which we glimpse our larger purpose. Unfortunately, for most adults sex is their only flow experience, as work is full of meaningless drudgery.