SHORT-CHANGING THE BRAIN !


I’m always amazed when they get away with it! Who are “they” and what is “it?” They are the politicians whose sole concern is money and it is the cut-back in our schools ARTS programs every time there’s a financial storm on the horizon.

Politicians who justify cutting the ARTS from educational curriculums support the mistaken notion that reading, writing and arithmetic alone are the essential necessities for success and that theatre, music and any and all artistic experiences are not. The Arts, they argue, are mere fluff, unnecessary luxuries!

In my opinion, as well as in the opinions of most educators, that way of thinking couldn’t be more inaccurate!

Children – and that would include those who are deprived as well as those who are privileged – are far more likely to have the desire to read, to become educated, to be more aware of the world in which they live when they become involved in their school’s theatre productions, visit museums with their class and view the works of great artists (past and present), listening to performers – often their peers – and learn to sing or play musical instruments themselves.

Allowing their imagination to take off in creative ways – musically, theatrically, or with pen or brush is as essential to the student’s sense of self as knowing that one plus one equals two. It develops that part of the brain that processes a theorem in geometry.

Exposure to the arts adds to the wonder and the excitement of being a part of something larger than one’s self. It is a universal that connects us to others, to history and to various cultures.

In a study titled “Arts, Neuroscience, and Learning,” James E. Zull, Professor of Biology, Director of the University Center for Innovation in Teaching and Education at Case Western and the author of THE ART OF CHANGING THE BRAIN, questions what the arts and learning have taught us. His findings are fascinating and corroborate my premise.

He writes: “One thing we have found is that the brain physically changes when we learn. And that change is most extensive and powerful when emotion is part of the learning. The chemicals of emotion, such as adrenalin, serotonin, and dopamine act by modification of synapses; and modification of synapses is the very root of learning.

Changing connections in the brain is learning. In some cases, such change does not occur at all unless the emotion chemicals and structures in the brain are engaged. The important idea, then, is that the arts trigger emotion. This could be part of the answer to our question: what is art? Artists create things that engage others emotionally. And, of course, creating itself is engaging – the artist also feels emotion. The arts, then, change the brain of both the creator and the consumer.

“Another thing that changes the synapses in the brain is practice. We learn the things that we repeat the most. But we repeat the things that we care about. So we enjoy the arts and repeat them over and over. This intensity of effort and focus is healthy for learning. It also changes the brain.

“The importance of the arts in school, then, is strongly associated with motivation and interest. Students love and remember their art classes, theatre experiences, musical performances, and creative writing. But, beyond this, they may also love their algebra, chemistry, and history. In fact, they will love these academic experiences if we allow the normal neurochemistry of learning to take over. To the extent that they provide freedom, creativity, and mastery, the academic basics become an ‘art.’”

In conclusion, Zull supports my claim. Realizing the central importance of the arts and learning for people of all ages, he argues that when budgets are cut and schools cut out the arts they do so because “the arts are so much fun, there is an assumption that the arts are less important. However, the finding of neuroscience now allows us to defend our belief in their value.”

As a graduate of Bennington College, I am grateful that Bennington’s philosophy did not promote the teaching of art appreciation but required students to partipate in learning by doing. If one wished to study the history of the theatre one had to perform, create sets, design costumes and learn by being creative in addition to being emersed in the history of a given play or playwright. Likewise, studying anything about any of the arts – music, for example – one had to study the history of music as well as select a musical instrument to play. That is how I learned that to be truly educated means that appreciating the arts is insufficient, that participating in creative work is what truly matters. At its core, the gift I was given is that learning history through literature, music, the visual arts, dance, and drama is a more profound way to learn than merely poring over texts.

And studies continue to prove that arts in education actually results in greater academic achievement and higher test scores. In a paper,Learning Through the Arts, Dee Dickinson, recently retired founder, President and CEO of New Horizons for Learning, a non-profit educational network focused, since 1980, on helping to implement the most effective ways of learning at all ages and abilities, demonstrated that the arts are essential. She quotes Dr. Ernest Boyer, from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching: “We recommend that all students study the arts to discover how human beings communicate not only with words, but through music, dance, and the visual arts … and during our visits to many schools we found the arts to be shamefully neglected. Courses in the arts were the last to come and the first to go.”

After studying the programs at several schools where the arts were an integral part of rich curriculums with diverse activities including multi-arts programs, Dickinson states that “the students who might not have been otherwise successful were flourishing. Discipline problems nearly disappeared and academic achievement was consistently rising.”

She goes on to quote a principal from a magnet high school in Virginia who, in commenting on his school’s success, said: “In order to be a good scientist, one must be a good humanist. The arts and humanities are as richly evident as the sciences in this school.”

In support of the studies, Marian Diamond, neuroscientist at Berkeley, was quoted as stating: “The human brain is the most complex system on earth, yet it is too often used in schools primarily as a simple device for storage and retrieval of information … New neural connections that make it possible for us to learn and remember and problem-solve can continue to form throughout life, particularly when human beings are in environments that are nurturing, stimulating, and that encourage action and interaction. Such environments are opposite from dull, boring, rigid environments in which students are the passive recipients of information. The arts provide the means for the human brain to function at its highest capacities.”

This is not to say that basic skills are not important. It is to say, however, that the arts are tools that help students at all levels of ability master those skills faster and with greater retention.

All the more reason to create environments that are not rigid, that do not produce robotic responses to our complex world!

As a psychoptherapist, I like to think that I help to expand the choices and behaviors of my patients and have always resented the term “shrink” for that reason.

In that spirit, I believe we must advocate for the teaching and experiencing of the arts in all schools and at every level. It is a cause worth the fight for this generation and those that follow!

Please do share your thoughts on this topic with me!

Regards, Linda

1 Comment

  • Anonymous says:

    Well said! You have a way with words and speak from the heart as well as the mind. When will THEY ever learn?
    GGS