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Shifting the Arts Debate from One-Way Transfer of Skills To the General Development of Critical Thinking Abilities

The Center for Arts Education Research is shifting the debate over the value of arts education in schools.

Its new report, Learning In and Through the Arts: Transfer and Higher Order Thinking, breaks from the current trend of arguing that critical thinking skills in the arts can help students increase their performance in reading, math and other subjects. The value of good arts programs is that they help students develop "a rich array of complex cognitive abilities," and not merely because they might help students in other disciplines.

The study was funded by the GE Fund and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. It was based on tests, surveys and interviews with 2,046 students and their teachers and administrators at 12 elementary and middle schools in Connecticut, New York, South Carolina and Virginia.

The authors of the report-Judith Burton, Chair of the Arts and Humanities Department; Robert Horowitz, Associate Director of the Center; and Hal Abeles, Professor of Music Education-wrote: "The issue of transfer from the arts to other subject disciplines has almost become a leitmotif of arts education. Perhaps because the arts have lost ground in recent years, it has become almost axiomatic to claim their importance in learning to read, write and compute, or to learning any other subject discipline of current favor."

That argument is fundamentally flawed, they argued. First, it is flawed because "neuroscience has given us a different picture of the human mind actively creating connections and associations across a broad front of stimuli. Thus, there is no common-sense or theoretical reason to believe that learning from other subject disciplines does not in some fashion also 'travel back' to enhance arts learning."

The second flaw in the arguments of transfer proponents is "that capacities usually identified as 'engendered by arts learning,' such as creativity, imagination, and critical and divergent thinking, are also dimensions" of other academic subjects.

"Unlike other studies of this type, we looked at arts as they were. We didn't try to force arts into categories," explained Horowitz. "We didn't start off with assumptions about transfer. We didn't simply look at music classes to see if they improved students' math scores."

On the other hand, he said: "We found significant relationships between the arts and various cognitive and social dimensions, such as the ability to think elaboratively, to take creative risks, to focus perception and attention, and to explore vantage points."

Horowitz explained that these effects are more pronounced in schools where there is a strong commitment to arts learning. These schools devote more time to the arts, provide instruction in several arts disciplines and support integrated teaching relationships between arts teachers and classroom teachers.

Added Burton: "In our study, we have tried to reposition the debate. For instance, you don't learn the arts so you'll learn geography better. By the same token, no one would argue that the sole justification in learning science is to learn art better."

Burton said the researchers were much more interested in what constitutes learning in the arts and how that supports learning in general, rather than in positioning arts as merely supportive to certain other subjects.

According to the researchers, arts learning also supports the development of compassion and empathy. For example, a New York City middle school, Manhattan East in Community School District 4, presents a play based on the Vietnam War, with the students performing monologues based on actual letters from the period. Later, the students visited the Vietnam Memorial in Washington.

Their teacher told the research team: "As we walked past the wall, children stopped. They read the inscriptions. They read the cards and the letters. They sobbed. One comforted another. At the other memorials, as the kids walked through they were just conversing, but not attending to what they were seeing. We had to push them out of the bus to see a lot of the other memorials. At this one, they were still. One student picked up a letter that had fallen, and stood and read it, and she fixed the flowers. It took the children a very long time to walk through it. It was my first experience with anything like that, where kids had studied in depth and performed it and then seen it. I saw the impact. There was still a hush when the kids got back on the bus."

One eighth-grade girl who went to the memorial said: "I had to study so hard for the show about Vietnam and then we went there and I could really see those soldiers and feel for them. I actually felt like a mother for a moment, even though I could never know exactly until I am one. But I was very upset."

An arts specialist told the researchers that the arts help the students develop a sense of "ownership of learning." Commenting on the reasons that she has her students do visual projects, she said: "This is another way they understand what is going on. They bring their own perspective into it, and it gives them ownership. It's their work, it's not what I taught them."

One principal told the researchers: "You are talking to somebody who had very little to do with arts before I came here. This has changed me enormously. I have an appreciation for the arts that I never had before in every arts area. I have seen youngsters come through here that perhaps weren't as motivated, and I have seen them take off and fly because we pulled them into an art and opened up new avenues. I couldn't work in a school that wasn't totally immersed in the arts anymore."

The researchers concluded: "Teaching that assumes transfer-along a one way street-denies to arts learning a measure of dynamic interaction back and forth-along a two way street-that might be expected to add richness to youngsters competencies and skills."

"Put differently," the researchers continued, "arts learning, in its own subject distinctive manner, contributes to a constellation of critical higher order cognitive competencies."

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