Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

On the Goals and Outcomes of Arts Education, an Interview with Lois Hetland: A Leading Researcher Points out How Little We Know about the Effects of Studying the Arts ... and Why That Shouldn't Stop Us from Advocating for More Arts Instruction

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

On the Goals and Outcomes of Arts Education, an Interview with Lois Hetland: A Leading Researcher Points out How Little We Know about the Effects of Studying the Arts ... and Why That Shouldn't Stop Us from Advocating for More Arts Instruction

Article excerpt

KAPPAN: What's the best way to persuade Americans that the arts should have a significant place in K-12 education? Should we support the arts

for art's sake? Should we argue that they have beneficial side effects, helping students become more successful across the curriculum? Or would you frame the argument in another way entirely?

LOIS HETLAND: I would choose a third way: My argument is that the arts are essential tools for thinking and communicating.

Keep in mind that the arts have been created and appreciated in every culture dating back to the earliest days of homo sapiens. This suggests that they are part of our basic human equipment, allowing us to ex press things that can't be expressed otherwise. So I think it's a false dichotomy to choose between "arts for art's sake" and art for instrumental purposes. I prefer the phrase "art for our sake," as my colleague Ellen Winner and I put it in an article that we wrote for the Boston Globe several years ago. People hunger for art because it allows them to connect the rational with the intuitive, the brain and the body...It allows them to express a sense of the whole human being.

But I'm not saying that art is more important than other subjects. I agree with people who say that schools need to do more to prepare students academically so they can succeed in college and careers. It would be irresponsible and elitist to say otherwise. But there also has to be time in school to teach people to be fully human, which includes teaching them to "read" works of art and to create new ones. If we don't do that in school, then we produce impoverished citizens--and an impoverished society.

KAPPAN: Ironically, though, some people interpreted your early research to be hostile to art education, right?

HETLAND: True, and that was a shock. I was an elementary and middle school teacher for 17 years, and I always infused the arts into my instruction, so I never thought anybody would accuse me of denigrating the field. But here's the story: In the late 1990s, while earning my doctorate, I worked with Ellen Winner, my informal adviser, on a large-scale research project at Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. At the time, a lot of people were saying that art classes could make kids smarter --for example, if students studied music, they would do better on the math portion of the SAT. It was an odd idea, but people were making these claims as a way to advocate for arts education at a time when budgets were being cut.

So Ellen and I decided to take a careful look at the evidence to see if the claims were true. Over two years, we did a huge meta-analysis, which is a statistical review of all of the previous research in this area. We started by gathering all of the existing studies we could find, both published and unpublished--every bit of research into the ways in which the arts might be connected to things like spatial awareness, logical reasoning, general academic performance, and so on. In all, we considered 10 distinct capacities that might be influenced as a result of studying music, drawing, and other arts.

For seven of those 10 capacities, we found no conclusive evidence that studying the arts had any significant effect at all. In some areas, we found strong correlational evidence. For example, Ellen found a link between taking a lot of arts classes and doing well academically in school. But this could just mean that the sorts of kids who do well in school tend also to be the sorts of kids who play in the orchestra; it doesn't show that playing in the orchestra leads to better grades. When she analyzed just the experimental studies (which were designed to see if studying art caused an increase in academic performance), the effect size more or less disappeared. In other words, the existing science simply didn't support the claim that art has a positive effect on academics.

KAPPAN: So you found no evidence that studying art had an effect on seven out of 10 capacities--but what about the other three? …

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