Learning to make music and acting out stories can improve certain thinking skills in children, but those activities will not raise students’ grades or SAT scores, according to a study released last week by Harvard University’s graduate school of education.
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“There have been a lot of claims made that the arts make kids do better in school,” said Ellen Winner, a senior research associate at Project Zero, the division of the graduate school that conducted the study, and a co- researcher of the project. “The claims exceed the evidence.”
Ms. Winner and her colleague, Lois Hetland, analyzed nearly 200 studies of arts education from the past 50 years. They concluded that when children learned to make music, it improved their spatial-temporal reasoning—a process that Ms. Hetland described as “the ability to flip or rotate or turn images in your head through sequential steps of problem-solving.”
“I found a very specific link [from making music] to a very specific cognitive skill,” emphasized Ms. Hetland, a researcher in cognitive and developmental psychology at Project Zero.
Mozart and Learning
The study also confirmed a finding known as the “Mozart effect,” in which listening to some kinds of music appears to improve spatial-temporal reasoning. But the researchers note that the effect was found only in college students and that it wore off within 10 to 15 minutes.
“That doesn’t have much use educationally,” Ms. Winner said.
Frances H. Rauscher, one of the researchers who originally documented the Mozart effect, welcomed Project Zero’s findings. She sounded amused by the ways she says her study has been misinterpreted by the public.
Numerous companies have presented products targeted at parents suggesting that playing the music of Mozart to their children will make them smarter. In Georgia, former Gov. Zell Miller asked the legislature to pay for a program that would give classical-music CDs to mothers of newborns as they left the hospital; recording companies eventually picked up the tab.
“The claims are incredibly wild,” said Ms. Rauscher, now an assistant professor of cognitive development at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.
Researchers find no proof that arts education raises grades.
The Project Zero researchers also found that enacting stories, rather than just reading them, helped children with a variety of verbal skills, such as writing and oral expression.
They did not, however, find a significant causal relationship between the arts of any type studied—music, drama, visual arts, or dance—and improvements in SAT scores, grades, or reading scores.
Some other researchers and arts education advocates, though, said the Project Zero study fails to show the full picture of the link between arts education and students’ academic achievement because its scope is too narrow.
While the study reviewed 188 studies on arts education, it focused on rigorous quantitative studies, not qualitative ones.
“By design, their purpose was to look at tightly controlled quantitative studies from which causal inferences could be drawn,” said James S. Catterall, a professor of education at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the director of Imagination Group, an arts- research organization. “What that led them to is mostly studies that look at standardized-test scores. In doing so, they looked at a small fraction of what the arts has achieved.”
He questioned the methodology of one aspect of the study, which he said led the researchers to downplay the relationship between learning piano-keyboard skills and students’ improved math skills.
By averaging the effects of several kinds of music instruction, some of which had less impact on math skills, the researchers glossed over the value of keyboard instruction, Mr. Catterall maintained.
A researcher of drama education agreed that the Harvard researchers had skipped over an important body of information in concentrating only on quantitative studies.
One set of qualitative studies, by Philip Taylor, a drama education researcher at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia, shows how drama can help children gain a deeper understanding of social studies, said Johnny Saldana, a professor of theater education at Arizona State University and a researcher with the American Alliance for Theater and Education.
“The study may give the false impression that the arts may not have much value,” said Mr. Saldana, who had read only an executive summary of the study.
Protecting the Arts
The Project Zero researchers said they consider themselves to be advocates for arts education. But they added that they hope to caution people against justifying such instruction by claiming it teaches skills that can be transferred to other subjects.
Such arguments put the arts in a vulnerable position, Ms. Winner said. “As soon as someone comes along and shows that direct training in math works better than teaching music to teach math, then there go the arts.”
It’s better, she said, to justify the arts by highlighting what they offer in themselves, such as how they allow for the expression of deep personal meaning and how they enable children “to grapple with open-ended, messy problems.”
She and Ms. Hetland don’t feel they’ve proved that there are no situations in which skills learned in arts education can be transferred to other school subjects. Rather, Ms. Winner said, “we’re saying the evidence is not there because the research is too weak.”
The study, titled “The Arts and Academic Achievement: What the Evidence Shows,” was paid for by the Bauman Family Foundation and published in the fall/winter issue of The Journal of Aesthetic Education.