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An Argument for Arts Education

Advocates of arts education, including presidential candidate Barack Obama, have long asserted that art, theater and music classes are an essential part of a child's education.
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But in this era, where test scores seem to be the ultimate arbiter of
academic success, arguments for the importance of inspiring creative
thinking only go so far. School boards faced with having to cut
programs are looking for scientific proof of what the arts provide.

A detailed new report by the Dana Arts and Cognition Consortium will provide arts advocates some needed ammunition. This three-year study, conducted by cognitive neuroscientists at seven major American universities, found a number of fascinating correlations between cognitive development and arts training.

Lead author Dr. Michael S. Gazzaniga of UC Santa Barbara, noted that “an interest in a performing art leads to a high state of motivation that produces the sustained attention necessary to improve performance, and the training of attention that leads to improvement in other domains of cognition.” In other words, kids who are bored in a classroom might love being on stage or in an art studio, and the patience they develop working on projects they care about helps them learn better in more traditional educational environments.

In addition, Gazzaniga noted several apparent benefits to music training. “Specific links exist between high levels of music training and the ability to manipulate information in both working and long-term memory,” he said. “One of the central predictors of early literacy, phonological awareness, is correlated with both music training and the development of a specific brain pathway.”

It all sounds good, but there’s a catch: The researchers found correlations, but they haven’t proved cause and effect. That will be the subject of further study. Nonetheless, Gazzaniga concluded, “We now have further reasons to believe that training in the arts has positive benefits for more general cognitive mechanisms.” Something worth bringing to the attention of your local school board the next time there’s talk of cutting the music program.