Neuroplasticity Education

The Arts Help Students Learn

I have been doing a lot of thinking about the outcomes of our research that shows a strong connection between arts integration and positive educational outcomes.

The use of the arts, in this research case through arts integration, in order to help learning in English and Math is well understood by teachers. For example, when teachers use a song to help students remember content and students quietly replay that song in their head during the test. Or for example, when teachers help students use the visualization of a painting of George Washington crossing the Delaware to recall the role played by Gloucester fisherman in “Durham iron-ore freighters” commandeered by Washington early in December 1776:

,,,four replicas,16-foot long, two-man oars, plus, at the stern, a 33-foot steering oar require great strength and skill. Which is why Washington asked Col. John Glover, a sailor from Marblehead, Mass., to take charge of the 1776 transport, manning the boats with his own recruits from the ranks of Gloucester fishermen. In tribute to his services a statue of John Glover stands today on Boston’s Commonwealth Avenue (Washington Post).

All one has to do is recall the picture, and associate the material learned about that picture, and the power of the arts to help this recall can be realized. Most people remember that George Washington is standing up, but few recall that the rowers were Gloucester fisherman. Now you can easily recall that fact through visualization. These examples of the uses of the arts to help students access the curriculum, engage in the content, encode the curriculum in memory and consolidate its recall do a much better job of helping students learn.


Norman Doidge discusses how the neuroplasticity of the brain helps it to change itself by changing how it thinks and functions. Neuroplasticity is the, “property of the brain that enables it to change its own structure and functioning in response to activity and mental experience.” As Doidge describes the reigning 400-year metaphor, the brain was a machine that could not change, but simply store information. The last use of that metaphor is the computer, constantly storing and retrieving information. But the 2000 Nobel Prize honored Eric Kandel for, as Doidge tells us, “as learning occurs, the connections among nerve cells increase; and learning can switch on genes that change neural structure.”

Fluid Intelligence

The overlap of our research and cognitive development seems to be that arts integration, using our (Southworth, Gardiner and Westervelt’s, 2017 ) new definition for that, i.e., overlapping skill learning, analogous thinking and mental stretching, may also fit into Jaeggi et al.’s (2008), work on fluid intelligence in that, as Robert Sternberg helps us to list:

  1. “fluid intelligence is trainable to a significant and meaningful degree
  2. The training is subject to dosage effects with more training leading to greater gains
  3. The effect occurs across the spectrum of abilities, although it is larger toward the lower end of the spectrum
  4. The effect can be obtained by training on problems that, as least superficially, do not resemble those on the fluid-ability tests.
  5. Working memory has come to be viewed as a key determiner of fluid intelligence.
  6. Conventional tests of intellectual abilities and aptitudes provide indices that may be dynamic rather than static and modifiable rather than fixed.” (Sternberg, 2008).

Fluid Intelligence Leads to Neuroplasticity Education

So if we have proven that working memory, analogous thinking, acquisition of skill overlaps and experiential learning improve through arts integration, then education systems should be developed that support this type of better learning. This learning is handled by a changing student brain that can change its structure to produce more meaningful understanding. Neuroplasticity can be honored in education by asking the brain how and what it is learning, rather than by standardizing the how and the what it learns. A more dynamic process of education would reflect more interaction between the learner and what is being learned, for example, with teachers facilitating a process to cue students on what to ask, but recording what they actually asked and what they actually learned, would be most interesting. Measuring student learning would become much more robust.

Neuroplasticity in education that leads to better learning should also be encouraged by designing more accurate assessments of student learning. Current measurement of student learning superficially lumps students along a 0-100, A, B, C, D, F continuum of success. What a mistake! Asking students to learn only about others and measuring that as a set of facts to be recalled on standardized tests ignores all the learning that these brains are doing. Designing new tests, especially assessments that are more accurate, such as creative assessments that honor individual creative choice would help education become more fluid.


Doidge, N. (2015) The Brain’s Way of Healing. New York: Viking.

Jaeggi, SM, Buschkuehl, M, Jonides, J., Perrig, WJ. (2008). Improving Fluid Intelligences with Training on Working Memory.Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS), Vol. 105, no. 19: 6829-6833.

Southworth, R., Gardiner, M., & Westervelt, N. (2017). Measuring the Effectiveness of Arts Integration on Instructional Improvement and Student Achievement in Disadvantaged Populations. San Antonio, TX: Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association annual meeting.

Sternberg, R. (May, 2008) Increasing Fluid Intelligence is Possible After All. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS), Vol. 105, no. 19, pps. 6791-6792.