Fine arts instruction is finally coming of age in a scientific world. Many arts educators say it’s about time.

New research, some more solid than others, is linking fine arts instruction to significant improvement in how much and how well children learn academic skills.

“The research makes absolute sense to me. The arts are a mode of learning that is really valid,” says Ronne Hartfield, director of museum education for the Art Institute of Chicago. “Art is such a basic human activity. You can’t do it without reading or doing math.”

Meanwhile, some educators are pleased to see scientific backup for what they already know to be true from classroom experience. “I’ve always felt that [fine arts] was something that should be part of any curriculum,” says Ted Washington, principal of Randolph Magnet School in Englewood.

Randolph was one of four schools that participated in a much-praised study commissioned last spring by Whirlwind, a Chicago arts education group that uses drama to teach reading.

Karl Androes, Whirlwind’s executive director, says that drama and reading, for example, have parallel skills. “Reading comprehension is the ability to say back and use the facts and inferences that are in a piece of written text, a story—to figure out who did what when and where,” he explains. “And then, on the inferential side, to figure out and be able to say why they did it.”

Similarly, he says, actors preparing for a role “figure out who they are in the play, what they’re going to do, when they’re going to do it, who they’re doing it with, where they enter, where they exit, what they say. And then they figure out why; they figure out the inner life of the character.”

Whirlwind found, though, that it needed more than instincts and theory to sell its program to Chicago schools, which risk probation and reconstitution if reading and math test scores fail to measure up. With little hard research available on the academic impact of the arts, the group decided to commission its own study. Specifically, it would compare reading test scores of children who participated in its Reading Comprehension through Drama program with those of students in the same schools who didn’t participate.

Developed in consultation with Chicago principals and teachers, the program sends actors, opera singers and other artists into classrooms twice a week for 10 weeks to help students convert a story into a mini-play. Using drama games, acting and discussion, the artists help students think through the process.

“We want them to practice something that’s flat on a piece of paper and turn it into something three-dimensional, in this case acting out the story with your body,” says Androes. “The hope is that when kids get to the Iowa tests, they will read, then form images and pictures in their heads, and can better comprehend and infer from text.”

For the study, conducted last spring, the program was provided free of charge to four schools with diverse student bodies: Randolph, Stagg in Englewood, Waters in Lincoln Square and Pulaski Academy in Logan Square. Two 4th-grade classes were selected at random from each school: one would use Whirlwind, the other would follow a traditional curriculum and serve as a control group.

A San Francisco-based consulting firm, 3-D Group, set up and conducted the study.

The results supported Whirlwind’s theory. Overall, students in the Whirlwind classes raised their reading scores on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills three months more than did their counterparts in the control classes. However, most improvement was in factual recall, with no significant increase in drawing conclusions.

Still, educators were impressed. “They did a great job,” says Stagg Principal Albert Sterling. “The end result was important to me: higher test scores.”

Teachers learned to teach on a different level, adds Waters Principal Tomas Revollo.

Despite the positive results, only one of the four schools, Pulaski, worked Whirlwind into its program this school year. In most instances, state Chapter 1 budget cuts and rival arts programs forced the other schools to cut Whirlwind.

Androes acknowledges that arts programs continue to be a tough sell.

“Schools have it in their minds that arts are fluff,” Androes says. “I don’t know if one study is enough to convince them that the arts are not fluff, that the arts can get the bottom-line results they want.”

Beyond Chicago, other researchers are finding similar, though more loosely-based, connections between arts and academic achievement.

In a series on child-rearing, NBC’s “Today Show” featured Dr. Frances Rauscher, a research psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh whose neurological studies link music with higher IQ test scores.

In one project, Rauscher and her colleagues studied 78 preschoolers who ranged from 3 to 5 years old. The children were divided into three groups: some learned to play piano, others to use computers, and the rest had no lessons.

When tested after six months, the piano group displayed higher spatial-temporal skills than either of the other groups. Spatial-temporal reasoning is the type of abstract thought required to play chess or solve math and engineering problems. The relationship between pitch and piano keyboard layout is a rudimentary lesson in spatial relationships.

Mozart Effect

In an earlier study, Rauscher found similar results after testing a group of low-income 3-year-olds who had daily singing lessons.

Previously, Rauscher advanced the notion that just listening to classical music could improve IQ. Dubbed the Mozart Effect, college students who listened to 10 minutes of a Mozart piano sonata got a temporary boost in spatial reasoning, compared to those who listened to another genre of music or did not listen to music at all.

“We have now confirmed what teachers have long suspected: Music does more than entertain our children, it also shapes their minds,” Rauscher wrote in the September/October 1996 edition of Early Childhood News.

The Mozart Effect has made an impression on Chicago school officials, who began testing the theory last month. The Classical Music Society raised money to supply 23 schools with 60 hours of classical music tapes and a portable stereo system to play them during independent study or reading periods. Rauscher has agreed to evaluate the program, says Diane Chandler, CPS director of cultural arts. If found to be successful, it may be expanded throughout the system, she says.

Other researchers are publishing reports with related theories. A California researcher says schools with drama programs have higher test scores and more community involvement. In Rhode Island, 1st-graders in a music and visual arts program exceeded grade level scores in math.

“Research is showing different ways of enhancing mind and brain,” says Nadine Saitland, director of the Illinois Alliance for Arts Education. She credits Harvard University Education Prof. Howard Gardner with sparking the inquiry into the various ways children learn.

In the 1980s, Gardner influenced educators across the country with his theory of multiple intelligences. Gardner argues that human intelligence can be measured in at least seven different areas: linguistics, logics-math, spatial relationships, music, body movement, intrapersonal and interpersonal skills.

Educators have used the theory to devise a variety of teaching techniques, some of which are hotly disputed.

Gardner himself stresses that multiple intelligence is a theory about the brain, not how to teach children. “When I originally wrote about different intelligences … I was not writing from the perspective of education,” he says in an interview in the January/February 1998 issue of High School Magazine. “I was very surprised at the amount of interest that was shown and continues to be shown by educators both in this country and abroad.”

As for the specific connection between arts and academic learning, some arts educators want to see more and better research. “My sense is no good, highly qualified researchers have taken on the task of studying art’s benefit to education,” says Judith Dawson, an art consultant with the Illinois State Board of Education.

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