Published: November 2007
Does listening to Mozart make children smarter? Will training and experience in the arts improve cognition and boost academic performance? In the face of school budgets cuts, advocates for the arts have seized upon reports of a correlation between exposure to the arts and higher performance in reading and math. “Teaching the arts has a significant effect on overall success in school,” according to a 1995 report of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, which goes on to suggest that students who takes arts courses in high school achieve higher SAT scores.
Psychologist Ellen Winner, who has long studied gifted children, found claims for a causal relationship between arts training and academic performance to be implausible. She explains, “I thought, ‘What would the psychological mechanism be that could explain why learning to draw, or learning to play a musical instrument, would improve your mathematical computation skills?’ As a cognitive psychologist, I couldn’t think of what a theoretical explanation would be for this.” With a group of colleagues Winner then surveyed a half century of studies aimed at determining the impact of arts learning on academic test scores. Studio Thinking: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education (Teachers College Press, 2007) reports the group’s findings: “Our analysis showed that children who studied the arts did no better on achievement tests and earned no higher grades than those who did not study the arts.”
Although they rejected a simple causal link, Winner and her coauthors believe that art training imparts more than skill in a specific discipline. For a year they observed students and teachers in visual arts classes and concluded that the arts programs developed a set of “thinking skills”—such as making careful observations from a variety of perspectives, envisioning possible outcomes, and being persistent. “Though far more difficult to quantify on a test than reading comprehension or math computation, each [skill] has a high value as a learning tool, both in school and elsewhere in life,” she and her colleague, Lois Hetland, wrote in a recent Boston Globe article. “If our primary demand of students is that they recall established facts, the children we educate today will find themselves ill-equipped to deal with problems like global warming, terrorism, and pandemics,” they assert. “Those who have learned the lessons of the arts, however—how to see new patterns, how to learn from mistakes, and how to envision solutions—are the ones likely to come up with the novel answers needed most for the future.”
In her interview with @BC, Winner discusses her recent work and her plans to devise methods for more rigorously defining the “thinking skills” derived from arts education and their relationship to intellectual development.