The Art of Relationships: Correlations Between Art, Education, and Society

By Cosette Fehribach

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Image Credit: Pixabay

Imagine this: Bright walls, plastered with posters of short quips and smiling students holding broad picture frames, disappear into the frenzied atmosphere of airborne paint splatters and graphite-smeared cheeks. Crisp, thick canvasses surrender to brisk strokes of color while high-pitched laughter filters through the bitten cheeks and pursed lips of thought. Creation lingers in pencil-calloused fingers, and slowly, gradually, the sound fades. Peripherals darken. Only one student remains, hovering over her artwork with motherly devotion.

The atmosphere of an art class in the United States varies depending on the school, and the thrill of expressing thoughts and messages through a visual representation depends on the artist, but what about its relation to other core subjects? How does engagement in an arts classroom correspond to math, science, or reading? As art continues to influence and develop the minds of students, researchers have grown more focused on the influences of an arts-based curriculum as well as the effect of art on other subjects. Despite increasing interest in the benefits of art, a recent study by the National Center for Education statistics noted a decline in the number of schools offering a visual arts class, a four percent drop from the 1999-2000 school year to the 2009-2010 school year (Parsad 4). Because education continuously devalues the importance of art education, leading figures in education, psychology, and art education race to provide more evidence backing the necessity of art in school systems. As a result of the mounting studies provided by interested parties, researchers already have statistics supporting the relationship between art and other subjects. One question remains: How does the extensively studied correlation between visual art and learning affect the current curriculums utilized in the American education system?

Research suggests that art cannot be viewed simply as a tool to accentuate other studies, but as a subject in its own right that can, when well understood and correctly utilized, act as a stepping-stone between one-dimensional learning and the needs of a global society. To fully answer the question, several viewpoints are needed. In this paper, I will analyze the relationship between art and learning through the framework of education, incorporating evidence from recent studies in the fields of neuroscience and psychology to support my claims.

Before addressing the relationship between art and the education system, one should first understand the nature of American schools. Having a better understanding of the educational system allows one to understand the scope of learning and how schools have evolved throughout American history. Because society and education are in a constant state of development, adapting different forms of education can positively benefit student learning. As the American culture shifts to value different traits, schools should also learn to adapt to teach said values. I propose that visual art can be utilized in these changing education systems to teach twenty-first century skills and that incorporation of the arts in educational systems is essential. Because this paper will focus mainly on how American schools' curriculums relate to art education and education reforms, I will focus on three main points of education systems: the hierarchy of control over curricular decisions, common core standards issued by government education agencies, and standardized testing.

While the national government has the broadest control over schools, local and state agencies determine the vast majority of school policies. Specifically, schools receive funding and instructions from three distinct levels: federal, state, and local ("National Core Arts Standards" 4). The local agencies defer to state agencies, and state agencies defer to federal agencies in terms of class requirements; however, local agencies have significant power over their school's curriculum. Sadly, "The quality and availability of education in dance, media arts, music, theatre, and visual arts vary widely, particularly in locales where arts education is not compulsory" ("National Core Arts Standards" 4). Before American society can focus on shaping the current curriculum to correspond to the known correlations between art and learning, correlations discussed later in this paper, America must first ensure that all students have equal accessibility to the arts. This is an ironic reversal of the main question I am exploring: How does the relationship between visual art and learning affect the current school curriculums? Rather than the arts influencing the education system, the current set-up of the education system—and its inequalities in various schools—affects the eventual use of research findings regarding visual art. This suggests a complicated relationship between art and the education system. Even after researchers fully understand how visual arts can be used in school systems, these findings cannot be incorporated unless all students have equal accessibility to arts education.

Because inequality exists in the current system, many attempts have been made to level the playing field. After several states created similar sets of standards that students should learn while in school, the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governor's Association passed a set of nationwide standards for Math and Language Arts; consequently, arts standards quickly followed (Sabol 40-41). Although the standards have not changed resource availability for schools, they have ensured that all students from kindergarten to twelfth grade follow the same basic standards, equalizing—at least partially—the value of education throughout the United States. According to "National Core Arts Standards," "while the standards are rooted in an outcomes-based approach, they are also built on balance between the existing structure of American schools and an attainable vision of what that structure could and should be" (8). Though the standards acknowledge their limitations, they also allow society a gateway to change the education system into its ideal form; consequently, the national standards will play a large part in any forms of educational reformations. By redefining national standards and by clarifying national art standards, the government can continue to equalize the availability of arts education across the United States. I argue that, because educators have to teach art and other subjects through common core standards, new standards will allow art and learning research findings to be incorporated into the education system.

While changes in national standards can reap large benefits, other changes in the education system have debatable consequences. After the "No Child Left Behind" Act passed in 2002, education has become more focused on standardized testing than at any other time in American history (Sabol 36). Because student test scores now contribute to teacher evaluation, educators spend more school hours focusing on test material. However, art teachers face challenges when attempting to put creativity and personal expression—indicators of a good education—into numbers and measurements (Sabol 36). More importantly, most standardized tests disregard art education. In Indiana, for example, students from the third to eighth grades take ISTEP (Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress) assessments focused on math, language arts, science, and social studies ("ISTEP+ Grades 3-8"). What does that mean for art teacher evaluations? In a 2015 Washington Post article, writer Valerie Strauss bitingly comments on the nature of teacher evaluations in New York City: " Because we cannot bog down kids with standardized tests in every single subject, schools pick their poison, deciding which out-of-subject teachers will be assessed with students' math scores and which will be assessed with English Language Arts scores" (Strauss). As evidenced by state standardized tests and by public opinion, flaws exist in the current set-up. Although many subjects relate to each other through interconnected mind processes and occasionally subject material, evaluating art teachers' effectiveness based on students' math scores undermines the value of art education by defining art teachers solely in terms of more-valued subjects. The current limitations imposed on standardized tests confines education within certain parameters. Until statewide assessments acknowledge the importance of subjects outside of math, reading, and writing, the relationship between art and education is crippled, thereby affecting the ideal model of a well-rounded curriculum.

As the struggle between arts education and standardized testing continues, new research focuses on justifying the arts on the basis that they improve learning in other subjects. Although the official stance of the government affirms art's standalone importance ("National Core Arts Standards" 2), researchers continue to look into visual art's possible connections with other educational aspects, such as memory and language development. This provides a unique look into the American psyche. This current strain of research suggests that Americans feel pressured to justify the inclusion of the arts in the education system; as a result of this tension, researchers and educators fall into one of two categories: those who support the importance of the arts as an individual subject, and those who support art on the basis that it can benefit learning in other areas. The contrast creates an on-going tug-of-war in the field of research, effectively diminishing the possibility of incorporating a strong arts education in the American school system. Unless researchers support the arts on a single front, they remain divided and cannot effectively make a case for the inclusion of the arts in the education system. In the next several paragraphs, I will focus on the first category, summarizing three different articles that relate visual art to memory, language development, community, and health and wellness.

A study headed by psychologist James Tyler Rosier attempted to determine if art positively affects memory. He conducted two experiments. In the first, Rosier worked with eighty college students who would participate in one of four conditions, each lasting five minutes. The conditions made the students use creativity to make an original piece of art, view famous pieces of artwork, identify geometric shapes, or write a short essay about their college classes. Afterwards, they completed a short memory test, a creativity assessment, and a personality assessment (Rosier 268-270). Because the results suggested several possibilities, Rosier fixed flaws in his first experiment and enacted a second study with the same general framework (Rosier 271). He also asked participants to fill out a mood assessment (Rosier 273). Although the study failed to definitively prove that engaging in art-related tasks or viewing art improves memory, it showed a correlation between creativity and a more accurate memory. As art often induces creativity, it may indirectly improve memory. If educators can harness the interconnectedness of art and creativity, they can potentially take advantage of the relationship and improve education. Knowing that creativity seems to positively affect short-term memory, and knowing that art often results in creativity, researchers should consider the complexity of the three items and consider how they can be exploited in the education system.

Other researchers have connected visual art to language development, potentially justifying art teachers' language arts-based evaluations. In a study by education researchers Shirley Brice Heath and Shelby Wolf, a professional visual artist engaged with grade school students at least once a week. They attempted to find a correlation between art engagement and language development (Heath 38). Wary of claiming a causal relationship between visual art and language development, Heath and Wolf argue that at least four variables resulted from the students' association with a professional artist: "extensive practice with technical tools under the direct guidance of a professional," "activation and deepened comprehension of technical terms integral to the arts as well as the sciences and mathematics," "development of cognitive strategies essential to internalising the process of working from initial idea through planning to project execution," and "emotional maturation that comes from carrying a project from beginning to completion with ongoing critique" (Heath 39). By working with the professional artist, many of the students grew accustomed to looking at objects from multiple perspectives and, as the two education researchers conclude, to using visual art as a tool to improve their language development (Heath 44-45). Heath and Wolf explicitly emphasize how the arts improve thought processes, even mentioning that those thought processes can be applied to math and science (Heath 39). Although Rosier focused on his study, ignoring the tug-of-war in art perspectives, Heath and Wolf further their argument by drawing on art's relationship with other core subjects. They exemplify the divide in arts education by undermining the standalone importance of the arts.

Despite the different perspectives, Heath and Wolf have discovered an opening in the education system for implementation of the arts. As observed before, the relationship between art and learning can be integral to new education reforms, especially as art appears to positively influence other avenues of thought. In the first study, researchers found a link between creativity and memory. In the second, researchers observed that visual art could act as a gateway linking critical thinking and language development. In both reports, art indirectly—but positively—affected the learning experience. In the next paragraph, a similar relationship will be seen between art and community and health and wellness.

Health psychologists Elizabeth Thomas and Anne Mulvey propose in their article that inclusion of the arts in education benefits student understandings of health and community (Thomas 239). Rather than conduct an original study, they compiled a collection of diverse sources to make an argument. For example, to incorporate visual arts into their argument, they utilized an account from a Mexican-American student to illustrate the beneficial social aspects of individuals creating a mural together. After five months of working together on the project, several of the students—who had previously been known as troublemakers—caused less problems with authorities and found a public-approved method of self-expression (Thomas 246). Similar to Heath and Wolf's study, this article focuses on art's relationship to other aspects of learning, arguing for the arts on the basis that they can help students better understand health and community. As in the first two articles, the researchers felt compelled to justify the inclusion of visual arts in the American education. They operate under a pressing question: Unless the arts benefit learning in a subject that society deems important, why should students learn about them?

The many studies of art-related benefits show that, while national standards perceive art to be important as a standalone subject, researchers have also found beneficial relationships between visual art and other school subjects. The article by Heath and Wolf takes into account positive social effects of art engagement. If art also influences social aspects of students' lives, it has a broader scope in education. It extends beyond the boundaries of academic learning and into community-based values.

Although the previous studies and research compilations exemplify the public's belief that the arts improve other forms of education, other researchers dislike the studies for the reason that they often ignore art's individual importance in education. As the National Core Arts Standards states,

The arts have always served as the distinctive vehicle for discovering who we are. Providing ways of thinking as disciplined as science or math and as disparate as philosophy or literature, the arts are used by and have shaped every culture and individual on earth. They continue to infuse our lives on nearly all levels— generating a significant part of the creative and intellectual capital that drives our economy. ("National Core Arts Standards" 2)

Art should be considered an integral part of the education system because of its long history in human culture. Justifying its inclusion in the education system on the basis that it improves learning in other subjects suggests that society is slowly gravitating away from its ancient appreciation of different art forms. The standard even emphasizes that the arts stand on equal ground with math and science, although research has derailed from that line of thought.

Other academics, meanwhile, have grown frustrated with the current direction of research. Art education researcher Lois Hetland and psychology researcher Ellen Winner reason in their article "Art and Academic Achievement: What the Evidence Shows" that the value of the arts can be lessened by the argument that they promote learning in other core subjects. Because the arts are important in their own right, for reasons addressed by the National Core Arts Standards and by Hetland And Winner later in their article, advertising art as a secondary learning tool to improve test scores can destroy art education if scores fail to improve (Hetland 3). In seven concise sentences, Hetland and Winner summarize society's (flawed) need to justify the arts:

"The arts offer a way of thinking unavailable in other disciplines. The same might be said of athletics. Suppose coaches began to claim that playing baseball increased students' mathematical ability because of the complex score keeping involved. Then suppose re-searchers set out to test this and found the claim did not hold up. Would school boards react by cutting the budget for baseball? Of course not. Because whatever positive academic side effects baseball might or might not have, schools believe sports are inherently good for kids." (Hetland 5)

This sadly illustrative example highlights how society has moved away from appreciating art for art's sake. While the National Core Arts Standards firmly state the importance of arts education, as seen above, reality differs from ideals.

Although Hetland and Winner make valid points about the standalone importance of the arts ("The arts are as important as the sciences: they are time-honored ways of learning, knowing, and expressing") (Hetland 5), they also acknowledge that no one definitively knows the best way to teach children to become productive members of society. However, they draw on human history, noting that the arts existed before the sciences and that cultures assessed each other based on the quality of their arts (Hetland 5). The arts, though losing value in today's society, have proven their individual worth; however, that does not mean that researchers should stop looking for correlations between art and other studies. Rather, they should continue to search and apply their findings to education reforms (Hetland 5). The continuing search for links between art and learning creates a complicated dilemma as it suggests that society still feels the need to justify arts education in schools; however, the continuing search for links also provides data to improve the education system.

Thus far, my research has largely been philosophical and supported by brief studies without significant causal effect. Nevertheless, recent neuroscience studies have discovered interesting activities in the brain when an individual is exposed to visual art. Because of advances in science, humans continue to learn more about the brain and how it learns best. Once researchers fully understand how the brain receives and perceives visual information, educators can take advantage of the knowledge and incorporate it into their teaching methods.

Based on several researchers' analyses, individuals access both more and different neurological pathways when they engage in the arts. For example, neuroscience researcher Eric Jensen found evidence hinting that when working with the visual arts, individuals use greater capacities of their brains, incorporating information and abilities learned from disciplines outside the arts. He also proposed that visual art engagement results in greater integration of information and abilities than engagement in another discipline (Sabol 34). Researchers of art-science interactions Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein noted that many Nobel Prize winners engaged in artistic endeavors, perhaps allowing them to make connections—through different neurological pathways—that they would not have made otherwise (Sabol 35). Arts education scholars Dorn, Effland, and Eisner analyzed different learning processes utilized when individuals work with visual arts, suggesting that "thinking about and making art are intelligent behaviors and explain how higher-order thinking and problem-solving activity function in the act of creative formation" (Sabol 35). As neuroscience researchers continue to work with art education researchers, psychologists, and educators, society may begin to see shifts and changes in the education system as links and correlations are artfully sewn into the fabric of schools.

The current education system is in a state of constant flux, and art education, though nationally considered a part of a well-rounded education, has become less available during the past decades. Because of this, researchers have attempted to justify art through its relation to other core studies. Although art is important on its own, these studies have shown an enlightening array of evidence that art can also be used to improve learning in other subjects. Neuroscience and psychology articles provided more evidence for the education-based studies and support my hypothesis that educators can take advantage of the relationship between art and learning. Art education will heavily influence the evolution of American schools because teachers will be able to take advantage of the relationship between art and learning. In addition, national school standards can utilize this correlation to apply global values to education systems. For example, twenty-first century skills include communication, innovation, creativity, critical thinking and more. A group of researchers even mapped how different forms of art education include all of these twenty-first century skills (Sabol 40). Despite the ongoing battle between viewing the arts as either the tool or the mechanic's hand, studies have shown that the arts can benefit student learning in schools and prepare students to become successful contributors to American society. When art education supporters unite on a single front, they can fight for changes in school systems and improve the availability of arts education across the United States, stabilizing the value of the arts before looking further into art and learning studies. I offer no detailed solutions to increase the availability of equal arts education in schools or to fix the perception that the inclusion of arts education needs to be justified, nor do I fully understand how the arts may specifically be incorporated into schools, but I do present a new argument for scholars to consider. As cultures shift and evolve, and as art education continues to foster relationships with other subjects, reforms in the education system become essential to educating the next generation of citizens to succeed in a rapidly changing world. I propose that school systems should adopt the arts as both a standalone subject and as a secondary tool through which to teach other core subjects. With future studies and with resolution between opposing viewpoints, the American education system can find the perfect equilibrium.

Imagine this: White walls, plastered with posters of grammar rules and smiling students holding sports trophies, disappear into the frenzied atmosphere of airborne paint splatters and lab-goggled faces. Thick literature books surrender to yellow highlighters while quick-worded theories filter through the bitten cheeks and pursed lips of thought. Creation lingers in pencil-calloused fingers, and slowly, gradually, the sound faces. Peripherals darken. Only one student remains, hovering over her studies in inspired ecstasy.

Imagine the perfect balance.