A+ Advice for Parents

Arts Education Helps Students Become Critical Thinkers

Q: Our district is shifting from STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) to STEAM, adding Arts, supposedly because they will help students do better in STEM subjects. I'm for bringing arts back into the curriculum, but do they really help kids score better in math and science?

A: A growing group is advocating for a STEAM approach -- from parents and teachers who think that integrating arts into subjects motivates students, to business leaders who say that an arts education produces more innovative thinkers and better problem solvers.

Many cite the work of the late Stanford University theorist, Dr. Elliot Eisner, who identified 10 lessons the arts teach. (See arteducators.org/advocacy/10-lessons-the-arts-teach.)

There are good reasons to "bring back" arts to a STEM-heavy curriculum, but improving math and science scores is not among them.

Eisner rejected research purporting to show that music, dance and painting boost test scores. He promoted arts study for arts' sake. His Discipline-Based Art Education (DBAE) stresses four aspects: making art, appreciating it, understanding it and making judgments about it. He thought that the critical thinking required to create artistic works is relevant to all curriculum areas and helps students learn that problems can have more than one solution and that questions can have more than one answer.

University of Arkansas education professor Dr. Jay Greene agrees that there is "almost no rigorous evidence" showing that arts improve test scores. However, his recent research shows that the arts can have important positive effects on students.

He and his colleagues randomly assigned 11,000 students from schools in Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma to two groups. One took a series of field trips to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. The other group did not.

The researchers were "careful to focus on outcomes that could plausibly be altered by the arts," says Greene. They measured whether field trip art experiences had an effect on student values, such as tolerance and empathy, and whether students' ability "to engage in critical thinking about the arts was affected by these experiences."

The results showed that not only did the cultural experiences improve students' knowledge about the arts, but the exposure also affected students' values, "making them more tolerant and empathetic," Greene notes. "We suspect that their awareness of different people, places and ideas through the arts helps them appreciate and accept the differences they find in the broader world."

The museum experiences also boosted critical thinking. Students took "the time to be more careful and thorough in how they observe the world." (For more on the study, see educationnext.org/the-educational-value-of-field-trips.)

"Arts integration is a powerful tool for engaging students," says John Ceschini, an arts education officer in Prince George's County, Maryland. As past principal of Seven Oaks Elementary School, a STEAM school in Maryland's Anne Arundel County, he saw firsthand how integrating the arts into STEM lessons can motivate kids and "foster critical-thinking skills -- analyzing, assessing, categorizing, classifying, predicting, justifying, interpreting."

The arts may not guarantee top grades in STEM subjects. But the other benefits to students -- learning to view the world from multiple perspectives, to empathize, create, collaborate and problem-solve -- are good reasons for arts integration to go full-steam ahead.

(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)

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