Looking at the impact that arts education could have on the development of various skills sets was the original idea behind the OECD’s book Art for Art’s Sake? The book consists of a rigorous ‘meta-analysis’ or review of the existing research literature on arts education. Thousands of articles in scientific journals were categorized and analysed and a vast number of fascinating research results could be listed.
And, indeed, arts education seems to yield some very promising results. Students who took various art classes also performed better on various other cognitive tests and in many other school subject assessments. Several studies in the US revealed that test scores improved when students took drama, music or other arts classes. Students taking arts classes benefited in IQ, general academic performance, language skills, and even math.
Unfortunately, there are two very important caveats to these promising findings. The first is that research on creativity outcomes of arts education is still very rare and yields only weak results. This is mainly due to the fact that the research community still doesn’t seem to be able to measure and assess creativity well. Definitions differ and it’s not easy to find an agreement on how exactly to assess creativity. So, we need many more studies on assessing creativity skills. That’s also one of the big ambitions that OECD’s CERI has for its future work.
The second caveat is that a lot of this research is able to establish relationships (“correlations” as researchers call it), but no causal relationships. We know that students attending arts classes perform better, but we can’t say that they perform better because they attended art classes. There are only very few studies that have the necessary scientific rigour and depth to find causal relationships. And the few ones that are around, temper our enthusiasm: they were not able to show any causality. So, probably, there was a selection effect in the positive results: if students who follow art classes get better academic marks, it probably is because they just are better students. So, not only do we need more research, but we also need more sophisticated research.
At the same time research has revealed two other very promising findings. First, there are many reasons why arts classes probably have a beneficial impact: neurological reasons (art classes activate more and different areas of the brain than other school subjects), cognitive (art classes train cognitive skills on other matters and hence reinforces them), social (art classes develop a student’s social skills), and motivational reasons (art classes provide motivational stimuli for students, who tend to also start to like other topics).
And, secondly, the way art is taught seems to be extremely important. An art class is not valuable because it is about art, but because it can engage students in different, more active ways. A math class can teach creativity and imagination if well-taught; and an art class can leave creativity and imagination untouched if poorly taught. Art education can be very powerful, but only if it really engages students in developing their creativity skills. Nothing worse than a boring art class…