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Arts and Smarts: Test Scores and Cognitive Development

(Editor’s Note: we are pleased to bring you this arti­cle thanks to our col­lab­o­ra­tion with Greater Good Mag­a­zine.)

At a time when edu­ca­tors are pre­oc­cu­pied with stan­dards, test­ing, and the bot­tom line, some researchers sug­gest the arts can boost stu­dents’ test scores; oth­ers aren’t con­vinced. Karin Evans asks, What are the arts good for?


When poet and national endow­ment for the Arts Chair­man Dana Gioia gave the 2007 Com­mence­ment Address at Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity, he used the occa­sion to deliver an impas­sioned argu­ment for the value of the arts and arts education.

Art is an irre­place­able way of under­stand­ing and express­ing the world,” said Gioia. “There are some truths about life that can be expressed only as sto­ries, or songs, or images. Art delights, instructs, con­soles. It edu­cates our emotions.”

For years, arts advo­cates like Gioia have been mak­ing sim­i­lar pleas, stress­ing the intan­gi­ble ben­e­fits of the arts at a time when many Amer­i­cans are pre­oc­cu­pied with a market–driven cul­ture of enter­tain­ment, and schools are con­sumed with meet­ing fed­eral stan­dards. Art brings joy, these advo­cates say, or it evokes our human­ity, or, in the words of my 10–year–old daugh­ter, “It cools kids down after all the other hard stuff they have to think about.”

Bol­ster­ing the case for the arts has become increas­ingly nec­es­sary in recent years, as school bud­get cuts and the move toward stan­dard­ized test­ing have pro­foundly threat­ened the role of the arts in schools. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, passed in 2002, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment started assess­ing school dis­tricts by their stu­dents’ scores on read­ing and math­e­mat­ics tests.

As a result, accord­ing to a study by the Cen­ter on Edu­ca­tion Pol­icy, school dis­tricts across the United States increased the time they devoted to tested subjects—reading/language arts and math—while cut­ting spend­ing on non–tested sub­jects such as the visual arts and music. The more a school fell behind, by NCLB stan­dards, the more time and money was devoted to those tested sub­jects, with less going to the arts. The National Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion has reported that the cuts fall hard­est on schools with high num­bers of minor­ity children.

And the sit­u­a­tion is likely to worsen as state bud­gets get even tighter. Already, in a round of fed­eral edu­ca­tion cuts for 2006 and 2007, arts edu­ca­tion nation­ally was slashed by $35 mil­lion. In 2008, the New York City Depart­ment of Education’s annual study of Read the rest of this entry »

Learning & The Brain: Interview with Robert Sylwester

Robert SylwesterDr. Robert Syl­wester is an edu­ca­tor of edu­ca­tors, hav­ing received mul­ti­ple awards dur­ing his long career as a mas­ter com­mu­ni­ca­tor of the impli­ca­tions of brain sci­ence research for edu­ca­tion and learn­ing. He is the author of sev­eral books and many jour­nal arti­cles, and mem­ber of our Sci­en­tific Advi­sory Board. His most recent book is The Ado­les­cent Brain: Reach­ing for Auton­omy (Cor­win Press, 2007). He is an Emer­i­tus Pro­fes­sor of Edu­ca­tion at the Uni­ver­sity of Oregon.

I am hon­ored to inter­view him today.

Alvaro Fer­nan­dez: Let’s start with that eter­nal source of debate. What do we know about the respec­tive roles of genes and our envi­ron­ment in brain devel­op­ment?

Robert Syl­wester: Genetic and envi­ron­men­tal fac­tors both con­tribute to brain mat­u­ra­tion. Genet­ics prob­a­bly play a stronger role in the early years, and the envi­ron­ment plays a stronger role in later years. Still the mother’s (envi­ron­men­tal) use of drugs dur­ing the preg­nancy could affect the genet­ics of fetal brain devel­op­ment, and some adult ill­nesses, such as Huntington’s Dis­ease, are genet­i­cally triggered.

Nature and nur­ture both require the sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tions of the other in most devel­op­men­tal and main­te­nance func­tions. We typ­i­cally think of envi­ron­men­tal fac­tors as things that hap­pen to us, over which we have lit­tle control.

Can’t our own deci­sions have an effect in our own brain devel­op­ment? For exam­ple, what if I choose a career in invest­ment bank­ing, vs. one in jour­nal­ism or teaching?

We make our own career deci­sions in life, and most of us make a com­bi­na­tion of good and bad deci­sions, which influ­ence our brain’s maturation.

My father was very unusual in his career tra­jec­tory in that he worked at one place through­out his entire adult life, and died three months after he retired at 91. I’ve always thought that it’s a good idea to make a change every ten years or so and do some­thing dif­fer­ent either within the same orga­ni­za­tion or to move to another one.

It’s just as good for orga­ni­za­tions to have some staff turnover as it is for staff to move to new chal­lenges. The time to leave one posi­tion for another is while you and your employer are Read the rest of this entry »

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