Ever since arts instruction was introduced into our schools with drawing and singing in the middle of the nineteenth century, a fiery debate has raged over the role of the arts in education. Countless position papers, articles, letters to the editor, and other documents have been created to put forth the arguments in favor of and against arts education in our public schools. Since the middle of the twentieth century, in the face of cuts in arts education due to budgetary constraints and educational movements from “Back to Basics” to high-stakes testing, arts educators have cast themselves in the role of advocates as they have lobbied for arts in education at school committee meetings and public hearings. In the late 1960s, researchers in cognitive development began to turn their attention to the arts and education with the founding of Project Zero, an educational research organization devoted to the study of the arts and education. Buoyed by Project Zero’s groundbreaking efforts, many artists, arts educators, and researchers have published books and articles about the educative value of the arts. Over the last two decades, a growing body of research on the arts, learning, and the brain has received international attention. Educators, parents, administrators, and policymakers are struggling to make sense of these well-publicized studies and what they may or may not suggest about the place for the arts in public education.
Eric Jensen, the author of Arts with the Brain in Mind, is neither an arts educator nor an artist, but a researcher. Jensen has compiled and reviewed research studies on the arts, the brain, and learning, which has convinced him that the arts are vital to educating our children and should be taught every day in our schools, just like language arts, math, science, and social studies. In effect, by conducting his review of the research, Jensen has become an advocate for the arts in education. Arts with the Brain in Mind serves as Jensen’s treatise for his newfound advocacy.
The bulk of the book focuses on a review of the research on the arts, the brain, and learning. This review is divided into three sections: musical arts, visual arts, and what Jensen calls kinesthetic arts (including dramatic arts and dance, industrial arts and design, and recreational activities and physical education). Two short chapters serve as bookends on either side of the research review — an introductory chapter about the arts as a learning discipline and a chapter on assessment and the arts.
In the first chapter, “The Arts as a Major Discipline,” Jensen outlines his main argument: that research on the arts, learning, and the brain demonstrates that the arts merit a place in public education equal to the other disciplines. Jensen compares the arts with what he considers major disciplines or essential curriculum areas that should be studied every day. He frames his comparison within seven basic features of major disciplines, which he says 1) are assessable (measurable criteria for success have been developed); 2) are brain based (places in the brain can be identified that respond only to the discipline); 3) are culturally necessary (they serve the needs of a culture); 4)have little to no risk (there is little to no negative effect of study in that discipline on learning); 5) are inclusive (they can be learned by the masses); 6) have survival value (they are necessary for survival of the species; and 7) are wide-ranging (are composed of subdisciplines that lend breadth and depth to their study). As the chapter proceeds, Jensen demonstrates that the arts share all seven of these features, thus qualifying as a major discipline of study.
The next three chapters all take shape in the same format. After defining the type of art that he is addressing — musical, visual, and kinesthetic arts, respectively — Jensen outlines several themes that have emerged from his review of the research on learning and the brain that are related to activities in that particular artistic domain. These themes form arguments that support a relationship between artistic activities and learning or brain development. For example, themes from the section on the musical arts include claims that music enhances our cognitive systems, emotional systems, perceptual-motor systems, and stress-response systems. As he discusses each theme in turn, Jensen provides short summaries of various research studies that support the theme’s main argument. In the section on the musical arts, for example, he describes correlations that have been found between music and IQ through a study of brain coherence, or connections among sections of the brain, as measured by electroencephalogram (EEG) readings of four-year-old children who listened to classical music for one hour a day, as well as another study of EEG readings of male and female musicians.
The pages of each of these chapters are peppered with sidebars that provide what Jensen terms practical suggestions or ideas for activities that parents or educators can facilitate with students or young people. One practical suggestion from the chapter on the musical arts is that learning days begin with a vocal toning warm-up, including humming and making sounds using various vowels. Jensen also suggests that teaches and parents introduce structurally and harmonically complex music to their students and children. He lists a number of classical works by Mozart and Haydn and names a few jazz and popular music artists whose repertoire meets this criteria. Finally, each of these chapters dealing with a specific type of art concludes with a summary that sets forth implications for policy. For example, Jensen summarizes the section on musical arts, saying, “The message with music education is, start early, make it mandatory, provide instruction, add choices, and support it throughout a student’s education” (p. 48). He mentions that music education is required of all students in other nations, including Japan, Hungary, and the Netherlands, and is quick to point out that students in those three countries boast some of the highest mathematics and science test scores in the world. Regarding the visual arts, Jensen concludes, “Research from the studies discussed in this book and the experience of countless classroom educators support the view that visual arts have strong positive cognitive, emotional, social, collaborative, and neurological effects” (p. 68). He notes that teachers whose students receive regular visual arts instruction report stronger academic skills on the part of their students, including increased retention, higher levels of student confidence, and more highly developed independent thinking skills. At the end of the chapter on kinesthetic arts, Jensen offers the following summary: “Here’s the bottom line on the kinesthetic arts: The research, the theory, and real-world classroom experience clearly support sustaining or increasing the role of movement in learning” (p. 102). He argues that schools should take advantage of the cognitive, emotional, social, collaborative, and neurological benefits of the kinesthetic arts.
The concluding chapter of the book is devoted to the thorny issue of the arts and assessment. While Jensen notes that arts educators have developed forms of assessment that measure content knowledge, evaluate students’ responses to works of art, and grade young peoples’ artistic performances or products, he argues that these forms of assessment do not address what he believes to be what the arts are about. For Jensen, the arts “are about life, growth, and expanding who we can become as human beings” (p. 110). Further, linking this chapter to the research studies that he cites earlier, Jensen claims that the arts defy conventional notions of assessment because what he considers to be the primary benefits of participating in artistic activities — the development of complex neurobiological systems — are difficult to measure and unfold over long periods of time. Citing Waldorf schools and other schools as sites in which new forms of assessment have been taking place, Jensen calls for arts courses to be pass/fail and for arts educators to develop new forms of assessment that take students’ long-term progress into account through the use of portfolios of their best work and “processfolios” of drafts, sketches, and works in progress.
Arts with the Brain in Mind will appeal to those interested in knowing more about what the recent research has shown regarding the potential for the arts in education. Researchers might be frustrated by the brief descriptions of the studies that Jensen cites, but the extended bibliography provides the resources that might be of interest. Jensen’s clear, readable style makes the book easy to follow. Arts educators like myself might wince at the practical suggestions that he offers, as they sound more like quick fixes for educational ills — listen to an hour of Mozart and your test scores will rise — than like practical ways the arts can benefit teachers, students, and parents. Furthermore, Jensen’s definition of the arts appears suspect. While he reaches far and wide when he speaks of the arts, including physical education, industrial arts, auto repair, and health programs in his kinesthetic arts category, Jensen ignores literary arts. Artists, arts educators, and researchers would consider music, visual arts, dance, drama, and creative writing to be artistic domains, thus defining the arts more narrowly and including the literary arts. Still, Arts with the Brain in Mind makes a substantial contribution to the dialogue on arts education and research into the brain and learning.