- Richard Rodriguez at the Sesquicentennial symposium on "Migration: Past, Present, and Future" (pg. 26)
- "Fellow citizen," one freshman's journey to a naturalization ceremony (pg. 32)
- Scenes from the naturalization ceremony (pg. 32)
- "The Future of Catholic Periodicals"—a panel of editors discusses (pg. 40)
- Bishop Robert McElroy's talk on "The Challenge of Catholic Teaching on War and Peace in the Present Moment" (pg. 42)
- Peter Fallon at the Greater Boston Intercollegiate Undergraduate Poetry Festival (pg. 48)
- "Mile 21: The day after," scenes from the April 16 Mass for Healing and Hope (pg. 10)
- "Anniversary moments," capturing the range of Sesquicentennial events (pg. 32)
- Close-ups of early diplomas (Holy Cross's and Boston College's) and the University's current one (pg. 13)
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Paint by numbers
The case for art in school
In 2000, as public school systems across the country were trimming their arts education budgets, Ellen Winner, a psychology professor at Boston College, and Lois Hetland, an associate professor of arts education at Massachusetts College of Art, published the controversial results of their study aimed at determining the effects, if any, of arts classes on a student’s overall academic success. In a special double issue of the Journal of Aesthetic Education, on which they served as guest editors, they provided their analysis of all research available in English, published and unpublished, between 1950 and 1998 that probed for connections between the study of art (music, drama, visual, and dance) and achievement in other disciplines, whether measured by grades, advancement, or standardized tests. Advocates of the arts in schools had long maintained that arts classes improve work in other subjects. And Winner and fellow researchers did conclude that strong math and verbal SAT scores frequently went hand in hand with two, three, and, particularly, four years of arts education. But when they examined only those studies comparing arts students with similar but art-deprived control groups, they found scarcely any causal link. One marked exception: the “Mozart effect”—whereby listening to classical music can improve spatial reasoning (though only for 10 to 15 minutes). The authors theorized that the correlations that existed between art and positive academic performance were due to the fact that, in the United States at least, high academic achievers tend to “self-select into the arts” (perhaps, say Winner and Hetland, to appear well-rounded for college admissions officers). By contrast, data from Britain revealed the opposite correlation; there, it is the below-average student who is most often channeled into arts classes. Seven years after their report, writing on their latest investigations in a new book titled Studio Thinking: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education (Teachers College, 2007), Winner and Hetland recall the anger that greeted their earlier study: “One scholar told us that we . . . should have buried our findings.”
For their recent analysis (undertaken with Shirley Veenema, an art teacher at Phillips Academy, Andover, and Kimberly M. Sheridan, a professor at George Mason University), Winner and Hetland observed an academic year’s worth of art classes at two Boston-area high schools specializing in the arts—one a public urban pilot school, the other a private suburban boarding school. This time, their approach was qualitative rather than quantitative, as Winner explains: “We [were] really trying to change the conversation about why we need the arts”—away from how ceramics or drawing may enhance students’ efforts in physics, say, or history, toward how students “learn to think” as they confront the challenges of making art.
If the arts “are another way of knowing the world,” the authors write, then the language of the studio is revealing: “The teachers we observed often used such words and phrases as decisions, planning, think about, what if.” The researchers identified general “cognitive and attitudinal” dispositions—what they call “studio habits of mind”—fostered by arts education: persistence, envisioning, observing, expressing, reflective self-evaluation (which includes developing critical verbal skills), and stretching and exploring (which includes learning to adjust to mistakes and even to capitalize on them). In a ceramics class, for instance, a teacher helped students envision a complicated tile project: “You need to know what each tile will look like before you start,” he said. A design teacher bolstered observation skills by having students look with one eye through a rectangle cut in a piece of cardboard. “Forget that you’re looking at somebody’s arm or a table,” he advised. “Just think about the shapes, the colors, the lines, and the textures. . . . Do you notice something that you’re not used to paying attention to?”
Winner and Hetland are developing a follow-up project to assess the extent to which complex thinking cultivated through art classes transfers to other disciplines. To test the portability of observation skills, for example, they will look at whether art students are more successful than others in finding fractures in an X-ray. Meanwhile, the authors of Studio Thinking point to California’s 2006 decision to resume large-scale arts funding in public schools (after a marked famine during which, for example, the number of students taking music halved between 1999 and 2004) and to a growing cadre of scholars choosing to study “what the arts in themselves do” as among “promising signs” that support for arts education is on the rise.
Katie Bacon is a freelance writer in the Boston area.
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