Students in the arts gain many of the skills needed to succeed as successful adults in the world at large. Those who benefit from studying music, theater, and dance learn how to think deeply, focus sharply, gain resilience and become more aware of how to self regulate. Arts provide students with the skills needed to be happy and productive integrated members of society.
At the turn of the 19th century, Francis Parker, wrote that “all deep learning was ‘expressive’ and combined ‘the manifestation of thought and emotion” ( Wolf, 1999).
Education was not about getting students to memorize large quantities of information but it was to teach students how to think for themselves. He rejected formal rote memorization in favor of a more holistic approach to learning that involved “arts and crafts”, manipulatives and excursions out into the world. John Dewey further argued that arts should play a central role in all general education (Wolf, 1999). A century later, educators are returning to take a serious look at the ideas of these great thinkers.
Many studies have been conducted on whether arts matter in education. The research suggests that, indeed, integrating arts into the general curriculum is crucial to creating well rounded students and ultimately productive members of society.
Studies show that students who are committed to pursuing an artistic talent have better focus (Csikzentmihalyi, Rathunde, & Whalen, 1993). In pursuing something the student enjoys, he easily enters into a “flow” or intense level of concentration. Accustomed to hours and hours of rehearsals an actor, dancer, or musician easily becomes so involved in an activity that he will lose track of time and not realize he is hungry or tired.
The actor, artist, dancer learns what it feels like to focus sharply without distractions. A dancer working on perfecting a dance routine can easily get lost in his performance. This state of intense focus or “flow” not only is beneficial to pursuing excellence it brings a healthy joy and satisfaction that seems unsurpassed by other pursuits and endeavors. One parent observed about students in the arts, “They seem to be in their own world; when they are performing they are lost in their music; they are totally focused” (Baum, Oreck, McCartney, 1999). The ability to focus seems to help the students in their general studies as well. One student who had problem focusing attention and getting her work done participated in the Arts Connection music program and after two years her overall academic performance improved significantly. “She went from the bottom of the reading group in the fourth grade to the top in grade five” (Baum, Oreck, McCartney, 1999). Her teacher said “She seemed to feel better about herself. Somehow she got the message that she was special and a good person” (Baum, Oreck, McCartney, 1999).
Students engaged in the arts learn about self regulation. The research shows that students who are busy in activities that highlight an artistic talent demonstrate extraordinary ability to regulate their own learning (Zimmerman, 1996). As learners become aware of the way they learn best, they can select effective strategies to complete a task. For example, as an arts student myself, when I am trying to reach high notes in singing, I discovered that if I visualize myself climbing a stair well and then shooting a basketball into a net I can reach the note. As students go through the process of self regulating their artistic talent, the research showed that the students were then able to transfer this ability to other areas of their personal and academic lives. One middle school school student reported “I think you call it mind over movement. You have to really listen to the song and while you’re playing you still have to listen to make sure you’re in the right key. So you use your mind to tell you the part of the song, and you use movement to keep playing it and doing what you’re doing. The mind over movement has helped me listen and take notes at the same time” (Baum, Oreck, McCartney, 1999). A student who initiates the process of learning is on his way to becoming an independent learner.
Art students learn resilience. Being part of a cohesive group that shares your interests helps promotes emotional bonds. A person who has strong relations with his peers and feels part of a community is better equipped to handle adversity. He becomes more resilient (Beardslee, 1989) The ability to seek advice and comfort from friends is crucial in being able to deal with the problems life throws us. A middle school student who participated in an afterschool music program, stated “Without (the group) I’d have no real friends who love music the way I do. School is awful and nothing is right. My uncle was killed, there’s no music at school, and no opportunities for me” (Baum, Oreck, McCartney, 1999). In the inner cities where life often feels hopeless and helpless, the ability to get up each day and continue working towards a goal is vital.
Art students learn how to think critically. In a study that attempted to analyze what students learn from being in an opera company, teachers testified that the “ opera makes students work harder and smarter” (Wolf, 1999) . It is suggested that one reason why opera learning might contribute to achievement is that the students collaborated on matters of high quality. They were encouraged to solve artistic problems in the opera. As they worked together they became better at taking turns and asking questions. The students learned how to build off of each other’s ideas and work towards a coherent work of quality. (Wolf, 1999)
In conclusion, art matters in education . Music, theater, dance instruction gives a person the opportunity to study something he enjoys in depth. It helps a person to “flow”, gain resilience, think critically, self regulate and experience the social benefits of being part of a group. Whether or not art will become a central part of their life, all children deserve and need arts instruction in school. Research shows that “ultimately the skills and discipline students gained, the bonds they formed with peers and adults, and the rewards they received through instruction and performancing helped most achieve success both in and outside of school” (Baum, Oreck, McCartney, 1999).