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For years, school systems across the nation dropped the arts to concentrate on getting struggling students to pass tests in reading and math. Yet now, a growing body of brain research suggests that teaching the arts may be good for students across all disciplines.

Scientists are now looking at, for instance, whether students at an arts high school who study music or drawing have brains that allow them to focus more intensely or do better in the classroom.

Washington County schools Superintendent Betty Morgan would have liked to have had some of that basic research in her hands when she began building a coalition for an arts high school in Hagerstown. The business community and school principals worked together, and the school will open this summer, but even at its groundbreaking a man objecting to the money spent on the school held up a sign of protest reading “Big Note$ Wrong Music.”

Scientists and educators aware of the gap between basic research and the school systems are beginning to share findings, such as at this month’s seminar on the brain and the arts held at Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum.

The event was sponsored by the new Neuro-Education Initiative at the Johns Hopkins University, a center designed to bridge that gap.

Brain research in the past several years is just beginning to uncover some startling ideas about how students learn. First came the proof, some years ago, that our brains do not lose brain cells as we get older, but are always capable of growing.

Now neuroscientists are investigating how training students in the arts may change the structure of their brains and the way they think. They are asking: Does putting a violin in the hands of an elementary school student help him to do math better? Will learning to dance or paint improve a child’s spacial ability or ability to learn to read?

Research in those areas, Harvard professor Jerome Kagan said, is “as deserving of a clinical trial as a drug for cancer that has not yet been shown to be effective.”

There aren’t many conclusions yet that can be translated into the classroom, but there is an emerging interdisciplinary field between education and neuroscience. Like Hopkins, Harvard also has created a center to study learning and the brain.

Much of the research into the arts has centered on music and the brain. One researcher studying students who go to an arts high school found a correlation between those who were trained in music and their ability to do geometry. Yet another four-year study, being conducted by Ellen Winner of Boston College and Gottfried Schlaug of Harvard, is looking at the effects playing the piano or the violin has on students who are in elementary school.


Liz Bowie
Baltimore Sun