Using Learning Potential Through Arts Education

Arts education offers learning benefits

Two things always seem to be lacking in education: money and time. How can you gain more of either when there isn’t any available?

The simplest solution is to remove nonessential programs from schools in an effort to save money on resources and personnel as well as to increase classroom time in order to focus on core subjects. But what is considered important or valuable in education? Where is the line drawn, and who is qualified to make that decision?

An easy target: the arts

One of the biggest targets is arts education. When Chicago Public Schools were dealt a budget shortfall in 2013, over 10 percent of teachers laid off taught art or music education. Philadelphia experienced a $304 million budget cut and completely eliminated all arts and music programs.

A 2014 review of state budgets by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that at least 35 states were providing less funding per student during the 2013-2014 school year than in 2007. Even states who showed an increase in per-pupil spending were not providing enough funds to make up prior cuts to the money designated for education. When finances become tight, the typical response is to tighten belts by removing courses in an effort to save money.

For the casual observer, this seems like a common-sense move. After all, if dancing and sculpting are so important, why aren’t there standardized tests mandated by the state and federal government?

The neuroscience behind arts education

Visit a classroom, and you may see students writing an essay while listening to classical music. A teacher may justify playing music in the classroom because ambient music can enhance creativity. However, this only begins to scratch the surface of what structured arts education can do for the brain of students.

Top neuroscientists have spent years researching the effect that artistic stimulation has on the brain. Krista Hyde, assistant professor and research scientist at McGill University, has written several articles for the Journal of Neuroscience and has connected musical training to structural brain development.

Artistic expression through drawing, acting, movement, and music strengthens subsystems in the mind that improve memory, processing, and sequencing. Without the operating systems affected by the arts, students will not be able to grow academically at the rate needed to achieve at the highest levels and will not be prepared for college and career. This is especially true for children from impoverished areas where opportunities to experience theater or even a museum are extremely limited.

Building the brain

Aside from the brain-based reasoning for maintaining a strong arts program within the schools, it is important to look at all types of learners. Exposure to arts education can offer nontraditional learners an outlet to experience success and develop a commitment to their school.

A student who picks up an instrument or commits to a role in a performance learns positive habits, a sense of pride in something bigger than themselves, and engagement in activities that subconsciously strengthen academics.

Good news, bad news

Fortunately, communities understand the importance of the arts, and, as a result, there have not been significant declines of arts education programs on a national level. However, the variety of programs available has not increased.

In addition, building administrators continually limit teaching time for these programs. In order to achieve the maximum brain-based results previously described, students need 30-90 minutes of arts each day. This cannot be achieved when other academic activities such as tutoring, faculty meetings, or assemblies consistently take time away from arts education simply because they are not high-stakes tested subjects.

If a school’s goal is to achieve high levels of learning for students, then the educators within that school must be willing to look at the student as a whole. Recognize that there are many pieces needed to create a well-rounded individual, and this includes the need for artistic expression.

Occasionally putting down the pencil in favor of the paintbrush may be the best thing you can do for the child, and for the test scores.

Related: Arts Integration Crucial to Enhancing 21st-Century Classes

Dr. Jason Perez is the head principal at Heritage Trails Elementary in Moore, Oklahoma, as well as a faculty member at Concordia University – Portland, where he teaches Master of Education in Curriculum and Instruction courses, and an adjunct faculty member at St. Thomas University.

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