|October 12, 2000|
Arts-to-smarts link overblown: Researchers sing a new tune for the Mozart effect
By William J. Cromie
That's the conclusion of the largest, most comprehensive study ever conducted on the effects of arts on education. Researchers at Harvard's Graduate School of Education analyzed 188 studies, conducted over 50 years.
"Arts advocates need to stop making sweeping claims about the arts as a magic pill for turning students around academically," says Lois Hetland, project manager of the study. "Arts teachers should not be held responsible for better test scores in math or history."
Budget problems around the nation are causing schools to question the value of spending money on arts education, and the Harvard study results seem to justify cutting back. But Hetland and her colleagues insist that is the wrong way to read their conclusions.
"Arts should be justified in terms of their intrinsic merit; they offer a way of thinking unavailable in other subjects," she says. "Arts have always been a fundamentally important part of culture. An education without them is an impoverished education leading to an impoverished society."
Take music, for example. "Every human has musical intelligence," Hetland notes. "It's the responsibility of schools to develop that along with other types of intelligence."
Mozart effect is mixed
The study found "absolutely no evidence" that playing Mozart or any other music for unborn babies, infants, or toddlers ups their IQ. Hetland calls that idea "totally bogus. It's motivated not by education but by a desire to sell CDs. I feel sorry for parents who are duped by the hype."
The idea of Mozart as an easy path to greater intelligence arose in 1993 when researchers at the University of Wisconsin linked listening to 10 minutes of a Mozart sonata to an eight- to 10-point rise in IQ test scores. But the subjects were 36 college students, and they were tested on paper folding not IQ. Students who listened to the great Austrian composer did better on a test that required them to visualize changes in shape produced by cutting and folding pieces of paper.
"Such results are difficult to quantify," Hetland comments. "To make them more understandable, the researchers compared the size of the effect to an eight- to 10-point rise in IQ."
The relative advantage lasted only 15 minutes, and other researchers cannot always reproduce the Wisconsin effect. Last year, Christopher Chabris, a psychologist at the Harvard Medical School, analyzed 16 studies of the Mozart effect and found no real change in comparative improvement. However, that hasn't stopped several states from giving classical music CDs to all new mothers, or the music industry from profiting from the idea.
Hetland has changed the tune of the controversy by concluding that the effect does exist. She found that learning music in school, as opposed to listening to it in the womb or in diapers, can produce an effect on spatial reasoning. That's the type of thinking that improves students' ability to manipulate objects in their minds, understand graphs and maps, and find their way in a new school or city.
What's more, learning to read musical notation produces a stronger effect, no matter what style of music the student plays.
The finding doesn't translate into a recommendation that all students should take piano or violin lessons in school, and learn to read music to do better in other classes. Spatial skills can be taught more directly using blocks, paper, and other objects.
"Strong spatial skills could give students an advantage in subjects like geography or math, depending on how these subjects are taught," notes Ellen Winner, a psychologist at Boston College who worked on the Harvard study. "Sadly, however, many schools offer few chances to apply spatial abilities."
The big mystery is why music affects spatial thinking at all. Gottfried Schlaug, a neurologist at the Harvard Medical School, discovered that musicians with perfect pitch have an area on the left side of their brains that is larger than usual. The area, known as the planum temporale, specializes in processing music.
"Areas of the brain dealing with spatial orientation and music may stimulate each other through brain-cell connections, or both areas may be used together while making music," Hetland speculates.
Even so, the Harvard researchers don't recommend changing school curricula to take advantage of any benefit that comes from the connection. "It's dangerous to justify arts education by secondary non-arts effects," Hetland believes. "More research needs to be done on how the brain could provide such cross-stimulation and how long any effect lasts."
Acting out pays off
A better case can be made for using drama to help students with reading, writing, and speech. Based on 80 studies, Winner, Hetland and their colleagues report a strong link between acting out classroom texts and increased understanding of stories, improved language development, and better reading achievement.
"Drama not only helped children's verbal skills with respect to the texts enacted, it also helped when verbal skills were applied to new non-enacted materials," Winner notes. "Such an effect has great value for education because verbal skills are highly prized. Adding drama techniques cost little in terms of effort or expense, and a high proportion of students are influenced by such curricular changes."
The research on dramatization effects was done by Ann Podlozny, who earned her master's degree from the Graduate School of Education and has gone on to work in the movie industry. The whole arts-effects study was funded by the Bauman Family Foundation and conducted by Project Zero, a Harvard research group that explores the development of learning in children, adults, and organizations.
When the researchers looked at programs that cover multi-arts -- music, drama, dance, and visual arts, they concluded that such a mixed bag of instruction does not increase test scores or grades.
Although students who study the arts did have higher test scores, that doesn't mean it was the arts that caused their test scores to rise. "All this link tells us is that children who study the arts tend to be high academic achievers, no matter what their racial or ethnic group or social class," Winner says. When researchers analyzed only those studies that directly investigated a connection between the arts and test scores, they found no improvement.
But Hetland and Winner emphasize that the purpose of arts study is not to improve test scores, just as it's not to provide better grades in math or other subjects. "Studying the arts should not have to be justified in terms of anything else," they say. "Cultures are judged on the basis of their arts. Most cultures and historical eras have not doubted the importance of including the arts as part of every child's education. They are time-honored ways of learning, knowing and expressing."
Copyright 2000 President and Fellows of Harvard College