How the Arts Deepen Student Thinking

There was a great article in last week’s Boston Globe.

The authors – Ellen Winner and Lois Hetland – dismiss the idea that arts education produces higher test scores. While it’s true, they say, that students who are involved in the arts do better in school and on the SAT, it’s not about the test scores. Their own research found no evidence that arts training is what’s causing scores to rise. The correlation is not the cause.

They argue that there are many reasons to teach art but that raising test scores is not one of them. Their research in Boston-area schools found that quality arts program teach a critical set of intellectual habits and skills that are rarely addressed in the other areas of the curriculum. They are critical because they have been identified as crucial to the students future development as thinkers and people.

Specifically the habits and skills taught and developed in the arts but rarely elsewhere include:

Developing artistic craft – Students learn the specific skills of different kinds of art.

Persistence – Students in good programs work on projects for extended periods of time and persevere through frustration.

Expression – Students are urged to move beyond technical skill to create works that express emotion, atmosphere, and their own voice and vision.

Making connections – Students are constantly asked to find links between the classroom and the real world outside, past and present.

Observing – Visual arts students are trained to look more carefully and objectively at the world and get past their preconceptions.

Envisioning – Students are taught to form mental images and use them to guide actions and solve problems.

Innovating through exploration – Arts classes put a high value on breaking the mold – experimenting, taking risks, or just mucking around to see what can be learned.

Reflective self-evaluation – Arts classes are not a break from thinking, as many believe, but involve heavy-duty nonverbal and verbal thinking. Good art teachers push their students to engage in reflective self-evaluation, step back, analyze, judge, and sometimes re-conceive their projects, asking questions like, “Is that working? Is this what I intended to do? Can I make this better? What’s next?”

They write: “It is well established that intelligence and thinking ability are far more complex than what we choose to measure on standardized tests…. They reveal little about a student’s intellectual depth or desire to learn, and are poor predictors of eventual success and satisfaction in life.”

The authors spent a year studying five visual-arts classrooms, videotaping and photographing classes, analyzing what we saw, and interviewing teachers and their students.

They found that the skills taught in arts classes taught “a remarkable array of mental habits not emphasized elsewhere in school.” These skills include visual-spatial abilities, reflection, self-criticism, and the willingness to experiment and learn from mistakes.

Winner and Hetland conclude: “We don’t need the arts in our schools to raise mathematical and verbal skills,” conclude Winner and Hetland. “We already target these in math and language arts. We need the arts because in addition to introducing students to aesthetic appreciation, they teach other modes of thinking we value.”

Winner is a professor of psychology at Boston College and Hetland is an associate professor of art education at the Massachusetts College of Art. Both are also researchers at Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
“Art for Art’s Sake”
by Ellen Winner and Lois Hetland in The Boston Globe, September 2, 2007.

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