NASAA Notes: April 2008


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Jonathan Katz

April issue
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April 8, 2008

Executive Director's Column

The Dana Foundation is to be commended for sustaining its arts education program and connecting it with its brain research activities. The long-awaited findings of their investigation since 2004 on the relationship between study of the arts and the brain is now available. You can read or download Learning, Arts and the Brain from Here, from the press release, is a summary of what the group of scientists has learned:

  1. An interest in a performing art leads to a high state of motivation that produces the sustained attention necessary to improve performance and the training of attention that leads to improvement in other domains of cognition.
  2. Genetic studies have begun to yield candidate genes that may help explain individual differences in interest in the arts.
  3. Specific links exist between high levels of music training and the ability to manipulate information in both working and long-term memory; these links extend beyond the domain of music training.
  4. In children, there appear to be specific links between the practice of music and skills in geometrical representation, though not in other forms of numerical representation.
  5. Correlations exist between music training and both reading acquisition and sequence learning. One of the central predictors of early literacy, phonological awareness, is correlated with both music training and the development of a specific brain pathway.
  6. Training in acting appears to lead to memory improvement through the learning of general skills for manipulating semantic information.
  7. Adult self-reported interest in aesthetics is related to a temperamental factor of openness, which in turn is influenced by dopamine-related genes.
  8. Learning to dance by effective observation is closely related to learning by physical practice, both in the level of achievement and also the neural substrates that support the organization of complex actions. Effective observational learning may transfer to other cognitive skills.

I, for one, take heart in the hope that I can improve my dance moves by watching others. However, Dr. Michael Gazzaniga, who led the research team, warns that these findings are only a first round of the “neuroscientific attack on the question of whether arts training changes the brain to enhance general cognitive capacities.” Correlations, he reminds us, do not prove causality and, in any case, the questions of what brain processes or stages in brain development we could take advantage of in teaching the arts are still completely open. As we have learned to expect, these preliminary findings “offer the validity essential for the future studies” and the press release includes numerous suggestions for subsequent neuroscientific research.

“In my judgment,” says Dr. Gazzaniga, “this project has identified candidate genes involved in the predisposition to the arts and has also shown that cognitive improvements can be made to specific mental capacities such as geometric reasoning; that specific pathways in the brain can be identified and potentially changed during training; that sometimes it is not structural brain changes but rather changes in cognitive strategy that help solve a problem; and that early targeted music training may lead to better cognition through an as yet unknown neural mechanism. That is all rather remarkable and challenging.”

It is also remarkable and challenging that, despite

  • a mountain of research findings linking arts learning to many dimensions of student academic achievement and social development, as well as to school improvement; and,
  • the cumulative experience and testimony of teachers, parents, administrators and students; and,
  • the increasing realization on the part of business leaders that learning in the arts educates the imagination, which enables creativity in problem-solving, which influences the level of innovation and the quality of the work force, which shapes the economy in a major way;

the known and perceived value of arts learning is often ignored in the policy decisions and resource allocations of public education decision makers.

And so, I offer some questions for the reader, as a shaper of public policy related to arts learning, to consider:

  1. If research were to verify or to disprove causal relationships between arts study and brain development, what effect would those findings be likely to have on (a) the availability of arts learning in public education, (b) the objectives for arts learning in the curricula of schools where it is taught, and (c) the way art is taught in specific classes with specific learning objectives? Why? What premises about the realities of educational decision making influence your responses? Do your responses suggest priority directions for arts education advocacy and education policy development?
  2. Do you agree or disagree that, in the current policy environment, the only research finding that could make a significant difference in local public school decision making about arts learning would be that, in supplementing the hours already focused on preparing for the standardized reading, math and science tests, an additional hour of arts learning would yield greater test score improvement than an additional hour of reading, math, science or anything else? How does your response relate to (a) the relevance of arts learning to current public education policy concerns, (b) the relevance of arts learning to future public education policy concerns, (c) priority objectives for arts education advocacy, and (d) priority goals for the very limited research funds devoted to advancing learning in the arts?

I find that the more information revealing the value of arts learning is available, the more useful is the Arts Education Partnership’s brochure and publication entitled Gaining the Arts Advantage: Lessons from School Districts that Value Arts Education. They remind us that, while having people who understand the value of arts learning in key decision making positions and having a well-designed, reflective arts learning delivery system in place are essential to “gaining the arts advantage,” community engagement (translation: advocacy) is critical to sustaining all the other factors.

I’m pleased to see widespread, favorable and growing response to the Arts Education Partnership’s research and poll findings on the ImagineNation (see In February, I keynoted the Alabama Arts Education Summit on this topic. In mid-March, one of the highlights of the California Arts Council’s “The Future—What’s Next?” conference was AEP Executive Director Dick Deasy’s presentation on the same topic. And, on March 26, NASAA’s ImagineNation Web Seminar attracted record participation. The slides for that very successful event are available in the Members Only section of the NASAA web site and you can hyperlink directly from there to more information on the AEP web site. Within a few days, the AEP web site will also feature talking points for each slide, so you, your staff and others who speak on behalf of the value of arts education will find it easy to make a fully informed and compelling presentation.

Now is a good time to plan for Assembly 2008 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, September 11-14. I promise you the more you learn about the agenda, the city and the experiences our hosts are designing for us, the more excited you will be about participating. See you there!

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Legislative Update

Executive Director's Column

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