Let’s start with the hard truth that teachers in the creative arts don’t want to hear. The arts do not improve students’ abilities in mathematics, language or any other subject in the school curriculum. If you want to get better at solving quadratic equations, do more of them.
My aim is to offer hard justifications for the arts. Firstly, it is necessary to debunk the transdisciplinary magic that is attributed to arts education. I will provide a quick delve into the origins of why it has become routine to refer to the arts as catalysts to academic prosperity.
The discourse stems from a study commissioned by the US Education Department in 1988. This was a longitudinal study involving more than 25,000 students across a 10-year period. The study aimed to provide trend data about the transitions experienced by students as they leave elementary school and progress through high school and into college or their careers.
“Even if these findings were true, they justify the need for arts education as a subservient mechanism to improving students’ test scores.”
A decade later, Catterall et. al analyse this data with a specific aim to look at correlations between students’ exposure to arts programmes (APs) and their SAT scores. Catterall et. al concluded that students who were involved in APs attained significantly higher SAT scores than students who had no involvement in APs. These findings inspired an explosion of rhetoric from members of creative industries and policymakers that championed arts education for its transformative powers to improve children’s abilities in mathematics and language, and more importantly, their ability to score highly on standardized testing.
Today, a simple Google search will provide a flurry of parent forums, newspaper articles and school websites making the boldest of claims on how research proves that arts education can make a child more intelligent, more confident, more sociable and evidently more successful in life.
There are two issues with this mantra. The first being that even if these findings were true, it justifies the need for arts education as a subservient mechanism to improving students’ test scores in mathematics and literacy. The second issue is that the evidence is at best, wishful. The best rebuttal to Catterall et. al’s findings is a counter study by Winner and Vaughan. Winner and Vaughan accept that the data shows that students who engaged in APs scored higher in their SATs than those students who didn’t engage in APs. However, they explain the obvious flaw with Catterall et. al’ analysis, which is that the data are purely correlative and account for no causal inference.
“If you want to get better at maths, it is better to do more maths than do some drama.”
We cannot irrefutably deduce that enrolling these students in arts courses is the only, or principal, mechanism to achieving high SAT scores. Furthermore, Winner and Vaughan explain that students who actually enrolled in courses that were specific to the content of the test they were sitting, i.e., four hours of additional mathematics or literacy every week, scored better than those students engaged in four hours of APs. I return to my opening point – if you want to get better at maths, it is better to do more maths than do some drama.
Simply put, the evidence is flawed, and even if it were not, the proposition is still unfavourable. Some readers may be desperately scrambling for articles or YouTube videos explaining how neuroscientists have observed the effects of music on the brain and its multi-lobar activity.
It is quite irrefutable that music does engage areas of the brain that are responsible for developing language and logic, especially when experienced at a young age. I think the evidence is compelling that music does have properties to develop brain function in young children, however, we have no available data to allow for causal inference.
There are better, harder justifications for the arts in education.”
It could be that parents who invest in music lessons for their child are more likely to come from higher socio-economic households, which research suggests has a significant effect on a child’s vocabulary and in turn their progress in general education.There is no strong evidence that shows how musical exposure at a young age plays a significant role in achieving high scores in formal standardized testing in later life.
There are better, harder justifications for the arts in education. Below I outline mine, which are based on what I consider to be the three main purposes of education: People, Knowledge, Economy.
The arts are intrinsic to being human
If you were to ask, as I have done, an auditorium of students to raise their hand if they play a musical instrument, you will see quite a lot of hands go up. If you then ask them to keep their hand up if the reason they chose to learn an instrument was to get better at maths or vocabulary, all hands would be lowered. This simple, but powerful display tells us that there is an innate desire for human beings to play music, and likewise, to draw, to act out stories and to dance. We don’t need to justify why we do these things. We just do. Picasso once said, all children are artists, the problem is to remain an artist as we grow up. As a father of a three-year-old that doesn’t stop drawing, I promise he was right.
The arts cultivate different forms of intelligence
The developmental psychologist Howard Gardner changed people’s perceptions of intelligence when he flipped the question from How smart are you? to How are you smart? Gardner’s influential theory of Multiple Intelligences argues for the existence of at least eight different kinds of intelligences: Logic-Mathematical, Linguistic, Musical, Spatial, Bodily-Kinesthetic, Inter-personal, Intra-personal, Naturalistic.
Gardner’s research comes from observing the behaviours of patients who suffered a form of neurological pathology, such as stroke or tumour. He observed that while some patients had lost functionality in one domain, they still had competence in another, e.g., they may have been unable to perform simple calculations, but they were still able to play the piano with great fluency.
“Most of us are smart in some things, mediocre in others and novices or even incompetent in the rest.”
There is nowhere near enough word count in this piece to explain the depths of Gardner’s theory, but the essence lies in the notion that our brains do not function like one central computer. Most of us are smart in some things, mediocre in others and novices or even incompetent in the rest. So, we can argue that we study music to improve our Musical Intelligence; we study visual art to improve our Spatial Intelligence; we study dance to improve our Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence: we study drama to improve Inter-personal and Linguistic Intelligences.
The arts contribute more to the national economy than most other industries
Every arts teacher hears the same profound concern at parents’ evening when their child has decided to pursue their interest in the arts at a university or arts college – What are they going to do for work? The teacher will grin politely before firstly confirming that the odds of their child headlining Glastonbury or becoming the Prima Ballerina at The Royal Ballet are not impossible, but fairly slim. Then, the teacher should assure the parent that the same odds apply to a physics graduate flying to outer space or a law graduate representing Hollywood A-listers.
Few people will reach stardom, whether it be on Broadway or the Milky Way. There is, however, still a large industry of employment for our graduates in whatever discipline they choose. Before the global pandemic in 2019, the creative industries contributed over £115 billion to the British economy. That contribution dwarfs the combined revenue of the space industry (£15 billion), legal industry (£37 billion) and private medical industry (£6.17 billion).
“Dismiss the weak reasonings that justify our profession.”
If we are having conversations around certain subjects’ economic worth, then perhaps the government should consider including arts subjects in the English Baccalaureate (as does the International Baccalaureate) in order to provide students with an opportunity to work in the one of the most lucrative industries and contribute substantially to national GDP.
In closing, I sincerely hope that this article has helped teachers in the creative arts rethink their position on why we do what we do. Dismiss the weak reasonings that justify our profession. All teachers can help foster creativity, collaboration skills, critical thinking – including arts teachers. But the arts are worth more than that. They stand alongside literature, mathematics, linguistics, science and humanities. They were pillars to antiquity and will build bridges to the future.