Ellen Winner, Ph.D.'s  picture
Ellen Winner, Ph.D.
Professor of Psychology
Boston College
Thalia Goldstein Ph. D.
Thalia Goldstein Ph. D.
Pace University
Developmental Psychologist

The Power of the Arts

Recently we heard from a distressed high school art teacher about how the visual arts were being stripped bare in her town’s school system. The high school had lost the arts department head; art and music teachers were being cut, the remaining elementary school teachers had to travel from school to school with their art materials, and 7th grade visual art had been turned into a digital literacy program to achieve STEM goals.

In response to this kind of threat, art teachers often argue that the arts should remain in the curriculum because they result in improved test scores. They bolster this claim with quotes from the many arts advocates who have asserted that this is so. We understand and are sympathetic to their motivation. They are trying to save the arts in our schools. But there are two problems. First, there is no clear scientific evidence that arts education results in raised test scores. And second, making this kind of instrumental argument implies that the only reason we should teach the arts to our children is to raise their standardized test scores.

We know a great deal about what the arts can provide for our children, and it is not higher test scores. In this series of articles, five questions about the arts are addressed by both practitioners and researchers.  By pairing practitioners and researchers on each topic, these articles provide a multifaceted view of what it is that the arts actually do for our children.

How does instrumental music learning affect children? Adrian Anantawan and Kathleen Jara, musicians running the El Sistema music program at the Conservatory Lab Charter School in Boston, tackle this question. In the El Sistema program, all children are members of an orchestra and all children spent 15 hours a week on music. They discuss how the experience of working in an orchestra trains the ability to work collaboratively. Researcher Glenn Schellenberg describes his experimental research showing the effect of instrumental music lessons on children’s IQ.

How does involvement in theatre affect children? Theatre director and educator Annie Levy talks about the skills fostered by theater training: listening, public speaking, self-discipline, self-understanding. Researcher Thalia Goldstein writes about evidence that theater training improves children’s empathy and understanding of others’ minds – both keys to emotional intelligence.

Why study the visual arts? Cindy Meyers Foley, museum educator, argues that every school should have a center for creativity, and that should be located in the art classroom. Researchers Ellen Winner and Lois Hetland discuss the habits of mind that strong studio-based visual arts classes teach, habits such as learning to observe, reflect, and stretch and explore.

Should the arts be integrated with other academic subjects? Museum educator Emily Schreiner describes how the Philadelphia Museum of Art creates programs aligned with school learning standards so that children can learn through the arts.  Researcher Rena Upitis talks about the value of both arts integration and teaching the arts as stand-alone subjects.

Finally, how can healing happen through engagement with the arts. Art therapist Michaela Herr provides vivid examples of how she helps children cope with trauma through art making. Researcher Jennifer Drake describes her research showing that art making provides emotional benefits to children by inviting them to turn away from the stress in the lives.

We hope that these readings will help people to see beyond the test score argument for arts education and consider the rich rewards that the arts really provide—such as collaboration, self-discipline, emotional intelligence, reflection, and healing – as well as sheer pleasure.