Studies that have analysed the implementation of Arts Education in the classroom have revealed that the most powerful effects are found in those programmes that are fully integrated into the subjects of the curriculum, and that when this happens there are multiple benefits related to student learning and behaviour.
- There is greater emotional engagement of students in the classroom.
- Students work more actively and learn from each other.
- Cooperative learning groups turn classes into learning communities.
- Learning is facilitated in all subjects through the arts.
- Teachers are more collaborative and have higher expectations of their students
- The curriculum becomes more real by being based on project learning.
- Assessment is more reflective and varied.
- Families are more involved.
From a neuroeducational perspective, we are especially interested in three essential factors for learning that the arts can improve:
In a study with fifth grade students (10-11 years old), didactic units related to scientific subjects (astronomy and ecology) were designed following two different procedures: in one, the traditional approach was used and in the other, the arts were integrated into the unit.
Thus, for example, in the second case, the students carried out activities with defined didactic objectives that included theatrical performances, poster drawings, movement recreation or the use of music.
The analysis of the results revealed that the students who participated in the didactic unit in which the artistic activities were integrated improved the so-called long-term memory, especially the students with reading difficulties.
In a three-year longitudinal study, we wanted to analyze how the integration of different artistic programs affected the personal development of students between the ages of 9 and 15 who belonged to disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds.
In the first part of the programme, the students in the experimental group were allowed to choose between different artistic forms such as music, painting, video recording, script writing or mask design; in the second part, the chosen media were studied in greater depth through cooperative work; and in the final stage, in which all the students took part, a play was staged and a video was recorded about the school community itself.
The three years of implementation of the programme revealed that the students improved their artistic and social skills, reduced their emotional problems and, in general, developed a range of interpersonal skills such as communication, cooperation and conflict resolution more than the control group.
The arts teach children that real problems often have more than one possible solution, that tasks need to be analysed from different perspectives, that imagination is a powerful guide in the resolution process, or that there are not always clear-cut rules when they have to make decisions.
When artistic disciplines are integrated into teaching practices, students are encouraged to think creatively and divergently, and not only that, but they also develop deeper thinking.
An example of the latter can be found in the Artful Thinking program developed by Harvard’s Project Zero, which used the power of visual images, such as those of works of art, to stimulate in students processes such as curiosity, observation, comparison or the relationship between ideas that are essential for the development of creative thinking and learning.
Music produces well-being because it stimulates our brain reward system that releases dopamine and that makes us feel good. It is beneficial from an emotional perspective to listen to music, but from a cognitive perspective it is better to practice it.
Thus, for example, the simultaneous activation of sensory and motor areas when playing a musical instrument leads to the improvement of general abilities such as working memory or attention. However, there are many misunderstandings about this.
Does music make us more intelligent?
There are several studies that suggest that children who receive music education obtain better academic results. However, the existence of a correlation does not mean that there is a causality. The child may obtain these better results due to other factors related, for example, to their own abilities or to the family environment in which they develop.
When rigorous experimental designs are used in which there is a group of randomly assigned children who receive music instruction and another control group who does not, the results are different.
And while it may seem surprising, there have been very few such experiments with unclear results about the cognitive benefits of musical activity.
Elisabeth Spelke’s research group has looked at these questions in a very recent investigation. In one of the experiments, 29 four-year-old children were randomly assigned to 45-minute music or visual arts classes for six weeks.
After that period of time, a series of tests were conducted and no differences were found in those measuring the language and math proficiency of children in the two groups and a very small difference in the spatial tests.
As a replica of the previous experiment, the researchers designed a similar experiment that now involved 45 children who were assigned to either the experimental group receiving the music lessons or a control group receiving no instruction at all.
Does this mean that music instruction does not produce cognitive benefits? Obviously not. On the one hand, more studies are needed to complement this research, and on the other hand, this study did not measure the general intelligence of the children as others did, but was more aimed at analyzing specific areas such as mathematics.
The debate on the importance of music education in particular, or art education in general, should not be focused on external benefits (such as the mathematical improvement that is questioned in the study mentioned above) but on the benefits inherent in art such as those related to emotional or social issues. And those do not require any empirical demonstration.
This finding was completely distorted by the media into believing that children’s early exposure to classical music would improve their IQ. The truth is that this has never been proven and the so-called “Mozart effect” should be considered just another neuromusic.
The human brain has developed an extraordinary ability to create internal mental images and it has even been shown in neuroimaging studies that the same brain regions are activated when seeing a real scene as when imagining it.
This is very interesting, because visualization is a powerful tool in the processes of memorization.