Curriculum Opinion

Does Studying the Arts Enhance Academic Achievement?

By Ellen Winner & Lois Hetland — November 01, 2000 8 min read
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The best hope for the arts in our schools is to justify them by what they can do that other subjects can’t do as well.

In today’s educational climate, basic skills are valued and the arts are treated as frills. In an attempt to strengthen the position of the arts in the curriculum, arts educators and advocates have argued that the arts are a means to improved basic skills. According to a 1995 report by the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, “teaching the arts has a significant effect on overall success in school.” The report justifies this claim by noting that both math and verbal SAT scores are higher for students who take the arts than for those who take no arts courses. Similarly, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke passionately in 1998 of how exposure to the arts, and particularly music, enables children to enhance their spatial- and analytic- reasoning abilities.

Just what evidence is there from research that studying the arts enhances non- arts academic skills? And is this the kind of evidence we should be seeking in order to convince the public to make the arts strong in our schools? At Project Zero, a research group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education dedicated for over 30 years to research in arts and education, we conducted a series of quantitative syntheses of 188 published and unpublished studies appearing since 1950 on the question of whether studying the arts in school leads to greater academic achievement in non-arts areas.

We found no support at all for the most commonly heard claim—that taking art classes, or being in a class in which the arts were said to be integrated with the academic curriculum, leads to higher academic performance as measured by standardized verbal and mathematics test scores or overall school grades. We also found no evidence that teaching the visual arts, music, or dance enhances children’s reading skills. (“‘Mozart Effect’ Goes Only So Far, Study Says,” Sept. 27, 2000.) But we did find some evidence that study in particular art forms transfers to some particular non-arts skills. We found that music listening (which is not “study”) enhances some forms of spatial reasoning for college students (the “Mozart effect”), but only for 10 to 15 minutes. Hence, the immediate educational implications of this finding are nil. We also found that music instruction enhances some forms of spatial reasoning in young children. While this effect is not transitory, we don’t know how long it lasts. Moreover, the implications of improved spatial skills depend greatly on whether and how spatial ability is used in teaching and learning, so the educational benefit is not at all clear. We found that music may have a positive effect in mathematics, but there are just too few studies looking at math outcomes to be sure. We also do not yet understand why there seems to be some link between music and spatial reasoning, nor do we understand the basis of the possible link between music and math.

Thus far, research confirms only a few links between arts study and academic performance.

The only area in which we found a strong causal link which can be explained plausibly and which has indisputable educational implications was in classroom drama: When children act out stories, their verbal skills, including comprehension, grow more than when they simply read the stories and discuss them.

Of course, one can never prove that there is no causal link between arts study and academic performance. What we have shown is that there is thus far research evidence for only a few such links, and in only one case can we state unequivocally that the link has strong educational implications. Whether other links exist or not will require more—and more rigorous— research.

Some potential links have not been carefully examined. For example, many teachers believe that the arts are an effective way to get non-academically inclined students interested in an academic subject. This possibility seems quite plausible and may be true, and research should explore this question. In addition, when students work in the arts they are forced to grapple with open- ended, messy problems with no right and wrong answers. And students in the arts must develop the habit of close observation, revision, and perseverance. Research should examine whether such higher-order thinking skills and work habits can transfer to other areas of the curriculum, and what steps teachers can take to ensure such transfer.

Research should examine whether the higher-order thinking skills and work habits required by arts study can transfer to other areas of the curriculum.

Much of the research that examines potential arts-academic links has been weak. For one thing, the studies typically say nothing about the quality of the arts programs, and they say nothing about the kinds of thinking and learning actually promoted in the arts programs. Future studies on these questions should examine only high-quality arts programs and should first examine just what kinds of skills are learned in these programs. Only then should we look for transfer of these skills to non-arts domains. Perhaps we will then demonstrate transfer. Or perhaps not.

Our report has been seriously misunderstood as an attack on the arts. We have been criticized both for releasing these findings and for carrying out the study in the first place. We have been told that we have provided policymakers the excuse they need to cut the arts from the curriculum. A belief that we are anti-arts-education could not be more wrong. We and our colleagues at Harvard Project Zero have devoted our lives to the study of what children learn in the arts and how arts learning can be strengthened and deepened.

But we need to distinguish core justifications for teaching the arts from bonus justifications. Core justifications are the central reasons—they are about learning in the disciplines of the arts themselves. Bonus reasons are the side effects—enhanced learning in non-arts disciplines, which may or may not occur. The longer arts education is justified on the basis of bonus effects, the more damage will ultimately be done to arts programs, for three reasons.

The longer arts education is justified on the basis of bonus effects, the more damage will ultimately be done to arts programs.

First, some of the bonus claims are unfortunately just plain bogus. The arts cannot hide behind deceptive claims forever. Eventually, the truth will out.

Second, if the only valued goal of education is the enhancement of “academic” skills, the arts remain vulnerable. The arts are unlikely to be as effective a means of instilling academic growth as are academic subjects. Why use the arts to improve test scores when you can probably improve test scores more by spending more time on direct math and reading instruction?

And third, allowing bonus reasons to become the primary justification for arts education has already led arts teachers to stray from the heart of the arts and to teach the arts in ways that will enhance academic (rather than artistic) learning. Thus, we have found dance programs using dance to teach reading by asking children to form their bodies into the shape of letters. We have seen researchers turn strings of music notations into multiplication problems and bill this as music education, the kind likely to improve math scores. And we have heard of music teachers teaching the physics of sound in music class rather than the aesthetics of sound, or having students build musical instruments (because it may improve their spatial abilities) rather than learn to play those instruments.

An analogy from medicine may prove instructive. Vegetables are good for us—we all know that. Until recently, we believed that vegetables protected against colon cancer because of their high fiber content. But new research has failed to support this protective effect of high fiber. Should we suppress the research because people will stop eating their beans? Of course not. The results suggest that we should do more research to figure out just what benefits the eating of vegetables really has. Does this new research provide us with an excuse to cut vegetables from our diet? Of course not. Vegetables are still delicious and provide vitamins, even if they aren’t anti- carcinogens. The challenge for researchers is to demonstrate the gains that come from eating vegetables that cannot be found from eating other kinds of foods.

It is high time to state the right arguments for the arts in our schools and to begin to gather the right kind of evidence for those arguments. The best hope for the arts in our schools is to justify them by what the arts can do that other subjects cannot do as well, or cannot do at all.

The two most important reasons for studying the arts are to enable our children to be able to appreciate some of the greatest feats humans have ever achieved (for example, a Rembrandt painting, a Shakespeare play, a dance choreographed by Balanchine, a Mozart sonata), and to give our children sufficient skill in an art form so that they can express themselves in that art form. The arts are the only disciplines in which recognizing and expressing deep personal feelings and thoughts, often in nonverbal form, is the essence of the enterprise.

If we can finally understand that the arts are as important as the sciences, then the arts will take hold in our schools.

People have told us that we are just returning to “arts for arts’ sake” arguments, and that these old arguments just won’t wash. But this is an admission of defeat. If we can finally understand (as many other cultures have) that the arts are as important as the sciences, and that a central purpose of education is to teach our children to appreciate great human creations of all sorts, then the arts will have a strong hold in our schools.

But if we let ourselves get brainwashed by today’s testing mentality and come to believe that the arts are important only (or even primarily) because they buttress abilities more valued than the arts, we will unwittingly be writing the arts right out of the curriculum.

Ellen Winner is a professor of psychology at Boston College and a senior research associate at Harvard Project Zero in Harvard University’s graduate school of education. Lois Hetland, an elementary and middle school teacher working on her doctorate at Harvard, directs Project Zero’s Summer Institute for Educators and was the project manager for REAP, the Reviewing Education and the Arts Project.

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