Visualizing the Future of Education: The Effects of Visual Art Programs on Academic Performance
On March 14, 2016, The Washington Times released an article with the following headline: “Arts programs in schools often in danger of being cut.” This headline was not an exaggeration or a statement devoid of evidence. Only four years prior to the Times article, the National Center for Education Statistics revealed how fewer elementary schools are offering visual art programs with almost four million elementary school students lacking visual art education (Parsad). Almost exactly one year after the Times article, President Trump’s administration revealed its blueprint for the 2018 federal budget. In the proposal, Mick Mulvaney, the Direct of the Office of Management and Budget, states that the budget has been crafted to eliminate “Government inefficiency and waste” (“America First” 3), which includes the removal of funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (“America First” 5). Thus, the recent rhetoric describing art programs reveals the perception of visual art as unimportant and wasteful. This misconception is unsettling considering the numerous studies that suggest art instruction can promote creative thinking, problem solving, and improved academic performance. Therefore, the federal government should not cut funding for visual art programs, especially in public elementary schools, because of its potential worth for students.
Experiencing and creating visual art is a process that activates a wide variety of regions within the brain. Boccia et al.’s 2015 study about the effects of visual aesthetic experiences (VAE) on neural activation exemplifies this idea. The study analyzed functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data to determine which regions were activated during VAE (Boccia et al. 66). The results showed that along with the expected activation of visual regions, such as the occipital visual areas and the ventral visual stream, the medial and lateral frontal regions of the brain along with the default mode network (DMN) were also activated (Boccia et al. 70). The medial and lateral frontal regions are involved in emotional processes while the DMN is responsible for cognitive processes such as episodic memory, autobiographic memory, and introspection (Bolwerk et al. 1). Specifically, it is the anterior cingulate cortex, which is a part of the DMN, that showed consistent activation in the fMRI scans (Boccia et al. 70). Since the anterior cingulate cortex is thought to serve as a connecting point or “central hub” between emotional and cognitive responses, the data reveals that the visualization of art involves a joint cognitive and emotional neurological response (Boccia et al. 70). Thus, reactions to VAE are not as passive as one may expect since the brain provides a cooperative, multi-faceted response. Cognitive, emotional, and sensory processes are all utilized during VAE, which are similar processes that are activated when responding to visual communication. Therefore, visualizing and evaluating art is more than having a mere reaction to its aesthetic; instead, it is biologically comparable to communication and language.
The idea that art can serve as a method of communication makes intuitive sense. Artists convey ideas and emotions through their illustrations and allow viewers to interpret their creations. While artwork can be a visual reflection of how an artist feels about a subject, it is also a reflection of how the viewer interprets the message. This key relationship between the communicator (the artist), the message (the art), and the interpreter (the viewer) is something that exists in the most basic form of communication, even in animals. Although art has not always existed in human civilization, there is strong evidence that suggests humans began creating art as an alternative to courtship displays of animals (Zaidel). In typical animal courtship, the male attempts to convey a message to a female to garner her attention. Peacocks are an excellent example of animal courtship since male peacocks attract females by spreading their tails to display their feathers. Since it is more difficult for a male to survive with a larger and more elaborate tail, the size, arrangement, and colors of the feathers and the tail speak volumes about the male’s strength and fitness (Zaidel). For her part, the female must accurately interpret the “message” conveyed by the male by evaluating the display of his feathers (Zaiedel). Ultimately, the goal is for the male to effectively communicate with the female through his “art” (feathers) and for the female to choose the strongest male that can provide the strongest offspring based on the “art” presented to her (Zaidel). Obviously, this is much different from how the way we interpret artwork has evolved today, but the premise is similar: just as the male peacock must use his art to effectively convey something about himself to a female, artists utilize their artwork to convey messages about themselves to viewers. Therefore, humans started creating art not only to communicate “sociocultural ideas” but to also use their creation as “a display of biologically-based signals of genetic talent, skill, and cognition” for others to view and interpret (Zaidel).
Today, the visualization and interpretation of art has become more complex as illustrated in Boccia et al.’s study. But once we recognize that art is indeed a complex, joint response between multiple regions of the brain and has deep biological roots, we can begin to understand the significance of such a complicated response. More specifically, we can examine how the joint cognitive, emotional, and sensory responses that take place when visualizing art can be academically beneficial.
Promoting visual art programs in schools can increase cognitive processes and even academic performance. In fact, a 2001 study found that students who took some type of art course had a higher average SAT score than those who did not take any art courses (Vaughn and Winner 86). Students who took studio art or design courses averaged a 497 on the math portion of the SAT and a 448 on the verbal section while students who did not take any art courses scored almost 50 points lower with an average of 465 on math and 401 on verbal reasoning (83). Though the study concluded that the relationship between art courses taken and resulting SAT score is purely correlational, their study was conducted more than ten years prior to more recent studies, such as the ones conducted by Boccia et al., where knowledge about how visual art creation activates the cerebral regions responsible for memory and cognitive processes is more abundant.
Regardless, having a positive correlation between art courses and improved SAT scores does not pinpoint what specifically improves academic performance. It is true that creating art involves a multi-faceted neurological response in terms of utilizing sensory, emotional, and cognitive processes, but its applicable effects thus far have not been explored. In other words, the characteristics of academic performance, such as problem-solving and creative thinking, need to be examined. Before we examine how problem-solving and creative thinking are affected by visual art, we must first define a few terms.
Problem-solving involves two distinct forms of thinking: divergent and convergent. Divergent thinking requires thinking of multiple responses that are relevant to one specific subject, such as coming up with as many different uses of a pen (Chermahini and Bernhard). This type of thinking is what we may colloquially refer to as “thinking outside the box.” On the other hand, convergent thinking requires one to think of a single, correct response per subject, such as coming up with the best word that can be used to describe “hair,” “stretch,” and “time” (Chermahini and Bernhard). Convergent thinking leaves little room for ambiguity and typically requires only one correct answer (in the preceding example, the best answer would be “long”). Thus, divergent thinking is associated with creative thinking and coming up with multiple solutions for a given problem while convergent thinking generates a singular response based on a set of related topics (Chermahini and Bernhard).
Now that we can distinguish between these two types of thought processes, we can look at how visual art affects convergent and divergent thinking, especially in younger children. In a 2014 psychological study, researchers Chishti and Jehangir argue that experiencing visual art in early childhood development is the most effective in developing problem-solving skills later in life (84). The critical foundation for developing problem-solving ability, such as learning how to consider many aspects of a problem at once, takes place during the ages of seven to eleven (Chishti and Jehangir 84). Thus, the study used college students as its sample size and categorized them based on whether they had visual art instruction during elementary school. Those who did not have any visual art instruction as children served as the control group while those who did were further separated into two more groups to account for whether the visual art instruction was student-centered (students work more independently) or teacher-centered (Chishti and Jehangir 85). The researchers used three different tests to determine convergent thinking ability, divergent thinking ability, and problem solving ability using Standard Progressive Matrices, Wallach and Kogan Creativity Tests (WKCT), and Problem Solving Ability Test (PSAT) respectively (Chishti and Jehangir 84).
Chishti and Jehangir’s results showed that the college students who took art classes as children had higher PSAT scores, meaning they became better problem solvers as adults and showed greater development in divergent thinking (85). The art students also scored higher on the convergent thinking test and the WKCT, demonstrating that even their convergent thinking was better than the students who did not take any art classes (Chishti and Jehangir 85). This may have been unexpected since both visual art and divergent thinking are associated with creative, not convergent, thinking. Thus, the study ultimately concludes that visual arts should be implemented in all learning environments, especially for children, because of its future academic and problem-solving benefits.
Equally important to the increased cognitive mechanisms that result from creating art are the creative benefits. Inspiration, which is closely associated with creative thinking, is imperative in mental function because it is at the intersection of cognitive, emotional, and conative processes, such as desire, ambition and will (Tyler and Likova 4). Since “the arts provide an ideal platform for learning about the pleasure of knowing” and provides the inspiration to know more, ask questions, and engage in more convergent and divergent thinking (Tyler and Likova 3), the overlooked value of visual arts lies in the creative benefits of inspiration and exploration. Inspiration is what motivates people in the learning experience, which is extremely important to keep students engaged so that they can perform better academically in all learning environments.
But while it may be difficult to implement visual arts in all learning environments, implementing more visual arts in science classes could be a more viable and beneficial solution. Drawing shares similar neurological processes to writing, some of which are responsible for improving memory and spatial relations (Tyler and Likova 3). In fact, brain scans reveal that a professional artist’s brain has more effective cognitive processing than an artist who is a novice (Tyler and Likova 2). Therefore, implementing more visual art creation could be especially beneficial in science classes since many scientific topics can be more easily depicted as illustrations. In addition, given the complex nature of many scientific subjects, illustrating a scientific process would make it easier for the student to remember the steps or location of the process since drawing can improve memory. As mentioned previously, and reaffirmed by researchers Tyler and Likova, art is a communicative medium that can convey ideas more effectively since creating art involves a “complex interplay between multiple sensory-motor and higher cognitive mechanisms” (Tyler and Likova 5).
In fact, teachers who have implemented visual arts to teach Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) find that students are more engaged in the learning process when they have the chance to visualize the material they are learning (Dhanapal 12). Ninety-four percent of the students surveyed in a science class that used visual arts to teach concepts reported that they enjoyed creating three-dimensional models to visualize the topic they were studying (Dhanapal 15), illustrating that the process of actively creating art is an enjoyable process and provides an engaging visual to more easily learn the topic. Not only does the implementation of visual arts create a beneficial method to more easily grasp scientific concepts, it also develops social and emotional processes. Creating art promotes confidence, communication, and self-expression, which is especially beneficial for young children (Dhanapal 6). Using art as a means of expression improves language skills in terms of conversation and discussion abilities and enhances the perception of emotions (Dhanapal 8).
Though the research conducted by Dhanapal provides promising information about the success of utilizing art in classes that were not about visual arts, the students who participated in the study were not involved in a formal art program. The Promoting and Supporting Early Literacy through the Arts (PASELA) program, on the other hand, was a program created in 2010 and implemented in Pennsylvania that “[integrated] the arts into all children’s learning in all domains” (Phillips et al. 111). Specifically, this program focused on helping literacy development for children from ages three to five and only lasted for thirteen months (Phillips et al. 114). The program was created to study the efficacy of a formal art program on literacy development and yielded impressive results, especially in terms of Early Learning Standards Inventory (ELSI) improvement (Phillips et al. 115). The ELSI was designed by the researchers as a measure for teachers to comment, using statements such as “rarely/never, sometimes, always,” on the frequency of the children’s behavior throughout the course of the study (Phillips et al. 115). The types of behavior were categorized into Approaches to Learning, Creative Arts, and Language and Literacy and sample behavioral actions included decision-making, persistence in finishing tasks, and ability to retell a story without illustrations or props (Phillips et al. 120). Around eighty-four percent of children improved their ELSI scores after PASELA (Phillips et al. 116), with three-year-olds having significantly higher improvements than four and five-year-olds (Phillips et al. 117). These findings are significant because PASELA was only a 50-week program and still had impressive results whereas a formal art program that could be implemented in an elementary or middle school would have almost five years to help students. Thus, based on PASELA’s success, a program of similar nature in public schools would have substantial benefits.
Thus, the most effective to manner the visual art dilemma is to increase the use of visual arts in subjects that do not typically involve much artistic creation, such as math and science, especially for students in elementary schools or even younger. If a program like PASELA is implemented for more than one year, the benefits could be even greater. While it is true that some of the research about the effects of visual art programs only alludes to potential benefits, the research involving younger children provides much more substantial evidence for improvements in development. This is especially important since art programs in elementary schools are often the first to be cut because they are not considered to be essential for succeeding on standardized tests (Dickson). Clearly, as recent budget cuts illustrate, this seems to be the case today. But as recent research has proven countless times again, art programs are not “waste” or “inefficient.” They are at the very least excellent supplements, if not essentials, for improved childhood development.
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