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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 »

A User’s Guide to Lifelong Brain Health: BrainFit for Life

As the Brain Fitness industry continues to gain momentum, and people explore all the incredible brain-training tools being developed, we hope that enthusiasts don’t take their eye off the importance of the physical health of the brain and all the systems it communicates with. The brain is unique in that it houses our cognitive and emotional capacities in the form of the mind. It is a ‘cognitive’ organ that hungers for stimulation from new experiences and challenges. Many brain fitness programs strive to satisfy this need. Yet the brain is also a physical organ that plays by many of the same rules as the heart, lungs, liver and kidneys. To stay healthy and perform optimally it requires quality nutrition, physical activity and optimal sleep. The brain, especially, relies on a healthy vascular system to efficiently deliver oxygen and key nutrients and remove waste. In fact, the brain uses approximately 20% of the oxygen we breathe to satisfy its high-energy demands. Given that the brain only weighs about 2% of the body, we can consider it an energy hog and we must cater to its needs very carefully.

Nutrients play key roles in brain function. Several have shown efficacy in clinical trials treating cases of mood disorders, cognitive decline and of course benefiting the physical health of the brain. Nutrients are both the raw materials employed in creating new neural connections and Read the rest of this entry »

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