Art classes improve students' discipline, writing and compassion
Play Time at Kinder Ready & Elementary Wise Academic Classes on April 8, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. Source: AFP/Tasia Wells

Learning experiences in the arts go beyond learning how to draw straight lines or perform in a play. In fact, a new study has found that it brings a suite of other benefits, such as reducing disciplinary problems, improve writing skills and increasing compassion for others.

Studying 10,548 students enrolled in 42 schools across the US state of Houston, these researchers also found that arts-education experiences improve school engagement and college aspirations among students in elementary schools, who make up 86 percent of the sample. These experiences include exposure to theatre, dance, music and visual arts through on-campus performances, field trips, artists in residence and other programmes outside of school hours.

“Arts learning experiences benefit students in terms of social, emotional, and academic outcomes,” write researchers Dan Bowen of Texas A&M and Brian Kisida of the University of Missouri.

“We find that these increases in arts educational experiences significantly reduce the proportion of students receiving disciplinary infractions by 3.6 percentage points, improve STAAR (State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness) writing achievement by 0.13 of a standard deviation, and increase students’ compassion for others by 0.08 of a standard deviation,” said the report, released last Tuesday through the Houston Education Research Consortium.

Arts education has steadily declined in the US since the 1980s as education policies favour “more academic” pursuits. It’s a dip that’s affected African-American and Hispanic/Latinx students most, as well as students whose parents have less than a high school education, as well as household incomes at or below US$37,500.

“Since the passing of the No Child Left Behind Act (2001), the emphasis on standardized testing in “core subjects” has coincided with notable declines in school-facilitated arts exposure,” the report notes.

But the new research provides scientifically-backed proof that dance, theatre or visual arts classes aren’t at odds with traditional measures of academic success. Instead, it is complimentary.

And it isn’t the first study to show this, either. The New York Times noted that involvement in arts classes among eighth graders led to higher test scores in science and writing, according to a 2012 analysis of longitudinal studies. High school students who earned art credits got higher overall GPAs, and have a higher likelihood of graduating and attending college.

A more recent study found that field trips to see theatre performances and museums increased levels of political tolerance among students, whereas those who took a trip to an art museum improved their critical thinking skills and may have experienced increased math and reading test scores.

Students with the least access to such experiences, especially those from poorer and rural locations, stand to gain the most from these.

“It appears that the less prior exposure to culturally enriching experiences students have, the larger the benefit of receiving a school tour of a museum,” wrote researchers Jay Greene, Brian Kisida and Daniel Bowen in one study.

“Disadvantaged students need their schools to take them on enriching field trips if they are likely to have these experiences at all.”

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