David Byrne’s, “How Music Works,” (2012), starts with the chapter called, “Creation in Reverse.” In this first chapter, Byrne’s insight is that “context determines what is written, painted, sculpted, sung or performed” (page 13). He argues that artists don’t create out of thin air, they create what can fit into the context they are given. For example, if you compose music in a small room, you will tailor the sound and the loudness to it. You will paint for the size of your canvas, and you will perform for the size of your stage or dance for the size of your dance floor. You will choose to organize your creation in an art form for the context in which it will be viewed.
For Schools and students, the context is severely restricted to the classroom, and perhaps the desk. Students are asked to draw, create, imagine at their desk, and perhaps to put that up on the wall for others to review. This tight context with peers watching can be inspirational, but may be more stifling of creativity than we have previously researched. I can imagine that creativity flourishes as long as the private desk context reinforces that sense of possibility, and I can also imagine that creativity is threatened to the extent that the context of the desk, or the classroom wall, limits creativity’s possibilities.
The same creative limit on creativity could be observed about academic content retention. To the extent that students can read and absorb their assigned homework is the extent to which they can remember and recreate their knowledge to be used on a test several weeks later. However, what we found in our research was that the intentional use of the arts with academic content, the process of arts integration where students learn about academic content through the exploration of the arts, results in longer term memory and higher test scores (Southworth, 2014). So the logic model for our work is that students who create art in the context of academic content are making memories that are intertwined and overlapping and that can be more easily recalled and retained for future knowledge use. Arts integration helps creativity within the context of core academic content.
The field of arts education has long argued that there is very little direct transfer between the arts and academic content areas. Transfer is seen as the important research lens as it would prove that the arts are useful to core academic content. Our research shows that direct transfer is not an accurate focus for the lens of arts integration research where there is a larger interactional effect of using the arts with core academic content. Transfer may be a helpful lens for limiting the research for direct causation of music and math, but there is something much more powerful going on that requires a wider lens, more accurate research measurement methodologies and much more understanding of long-term human memory! The assumption of transfer as the most important avenue of research has obscured our focus on the larger issue of interactional effect, overlapping memory and skill sharing.
Skill Sharing is Learning
The stronger avenue of research is identifying the skills that are promoted in the arts—such as creativity, interactional effects and memory—with the use of that skill in core academic contents areas. When children memorize the core history content of building the Erie Canal in New York State, we found that their learning is substantially buttressed when they have to draw a picture of the locks that lift or lower the canal boats to new heights. Once the 4th graders draw the locks, the gates, the pumps and the changing levels of the water involved, they never forget how these work. They can answer exam questions with ease and confidence months after they have learned the content. They are perceived as smart, but I would argue that they have always been smart, because when we give them arts skills and overlap those skills with academic content, they build shared skill memories that recall the context for when these skills were learned, perfectly! So let’s look at how music, painting and drawing, dance and theater are not only enjoyable and valuable for their own sake, but they are also valuable in motivating students to develop capabilities in the arts that help them more broadly in skill learning with all academic contexts (Gardiner, 2008, p. 18; Southworth, 2014).
Southworth, Gardiner & Westervelt. (2014). Measuring the Effect of the Arts on Academic Achievement in Disadvantaged Populations. New York, The SchoolWorks Lab, Inc.
Gardiner, M. (2008). Skill Learning, Brain Engagement, Context and The Arts. In Vrobel, Rossler & Marks-Tarlow (2008). Simultaneity: Temporal Structures and Observer Perspectives, Springer: 195-214.