Learning in Art Through Mental Stretching

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Education in art is often about learning something through artistic engagement. However, the need for schools to clearly define what is being learned in each subject has delayed the full integration of art into all subjects. If this sounds complicated, let’s define some terms.

Schools have been organized around subject categories forever. What is your favorite subject, you might ask a teenager, and get the response, English is my favorite, or I really like Math. Yet, in English and Math teachers have used art in the form of pictures, as a way to help their students see how math is applied or how English poems about landscape relate to the countryside. So learning through the arts probably exists informally in many subjects and in many schools today.

Arts Integration, the formal term meaning to use the arts to enhance learning in other subjects, is relatively new to educational research, and rigorous studies of its effect on student achievement are few and far between. Our work in Rochester, NY has shown that the intentional connection of arts and subjects yields great learning in student achievement as measured by teachers and New York State tests:

The average effect size in year 3, 2013, of the four year study, 2011-2014 was 41.4% more students receiving arts integration passed the ELA Test, and 38.0% more students passed the Mathematics Test. This exactly replicates the 0.40% average for meta-analyses of the effect of integrating curricula (Hattie, 2009, p. 298). This research found that it is possible to develop significant arts integration with disadvantaged urban populations through “mental stretching” (Gardiner, 2000, p. 72). The arts skills are not so much transferred as they are over-lapped—in a deliberate effort to improve performance. The active acquisition of arts skills overlaps the needed subject skills such as elaboration and oral production and the student’s brain handles this integration through mental stretching (Southworth, Rochester, NY).

To take on example that everyone, not just students, can experience, go to your local museum! I took my family to the Museum of Fine Arts here in Boston, MA and we looked at Picasso, the art of the Americas, and the art of Europe. Most importantly we looked at a new (to us) set of paintings from Canadien painter Lawren Harris. The funny thing is, that these paintings were done in the 1920s and 1930s and this is the first showing in the United States. So if you can, stretch your mind, look at the work presented here, read the MFA‘s introduction to the work on their website and integrate this: This work is being compared to Edward Hopper and Georgia O’Keefe:


Lawren Harris (1885–1970) was a pioneering modernist whose visionary paintings have virtually defined 20th-century Canadian art. His scenes of an evocative northland, isolated peaks, and vast expanses of shimmering water are considered essential images of the country. This exhibition—guest curated by collector, actor, writer, and musician Steve Martin and organized by the Hammer Museum (Los Angeles) and the Art Gallery of Ontario (Toronto)—will include approximately 30 major paintings of Harris’s idealized northern landscapes from the 1920s and 1930s, one of the most significant periods of the artist’s career. The exhibition draws from the AGO’s substantial holdings, as well as from major public and private collections across Canada—including the National Gallery of Canada and the McMichael Collection—and is the first major solo exhibition of Harris’s work to be shown in the United States.