Monday, October 31, 2011

Learning through the Arts: Notes from Day 1 of Art, Science & the Brain

Today, I attended a couple of sessions at Art, Science & the Brain, a conference on learning organized by ArtsSmarts at the MaRS centre in Toronto.

Here’s some of the key findings that came out of the talks for me in terms of learning through the arts. I've also noted, where possible, the potential implications for contemporary-art institutions like public museums and galleries:

- Teacher-Institution collaboration is the bedrock of a successful arts education program. This was reinforced in several sessions. Institutions can’t just create a program and put it out there and expect it to be used when teachers’ curriculum or other key needs are unaddressed.

- Institutions may wish, when possible, to consider supporting arts in the classroom, not just bringing students into the gallery. The Guggenheim Museum retains more than a dozen resident artists to go out into NYC public schools on 20-week programs each year. The Guggenheim program also requires three school visits to the museum, but most of the work is done in-class. This is likely an extreme example for the Canadian funding context, but worth considering – how do we follow up with kids in the classroom?

- Arts education programs like ArtsSmarts can enhance positive student behaviours and decrease disruptive ones in the classroom to a statistically significant degree. This finding is supported by an ongoing ArtsSmarts research study in Quebec public schools which has found the outcome to be true over a period of 2 years thus far. This is especially true, say teachers, for students with so-called "special needs." Personally, I think this is a remarkable finding as making the classroom an open environment for learning would seem to be half the battle in overloaded classrooms these days.

- Institutions need to be willing to work on basic logistics as needed. Cambridge Galleries found that teachers were interested in bringing their students to the gallery, but teachers found it was difficult to find appropriate and affordable transportation to do so. Luckily, Cambridge’s Education Officer managed to make a link to the local transit authority, which was delighted to handle the transportation as the 9am to 2pm window was typically a low-use period for them. Kudos to the gallery for working with the community on this solution to an unglamorous (but persistent) problem.

- Lessons learned in a visual arts program can benefit grades in other subject areas, anecdotally speaking. In one presentation about ArtsSmarts’ Quebec research project, it was noted that one teacher saw her students’ English Language Arts grades increase after the ArtsSmarts program. What she concluded was that her students learned a lot about creation and revision from the visiting artist, who would have students take a closer look at their watercolour paintings and revise them 4 or 5 times over the course of 4 or 5 weeks. As a result, students became more comfortable with the idea of producing and editing written work—rather than just working on writing one perfect sentence, they would write five good pages, then trim it back.

- Engaging multiple media enhances chances of learner success. The Textile Museum offers many hands-on, touchable experiences in its gallery, but it also has opportunities for students to follow up online and post their own views on artifacts through its Social Fabric site.

- Though no statistics are able to show so far that ArtsSmarts programs enhance student engagement, there is much anecdotal information to that effect, particularly where so-called "special needs" learners are concerned. One teacher told me, “I’ve dealt with kids who haven’t been to school for five years. But when they’re in this program, they don’t miss a day.” Pretty remarkable.

Also a few questions seemed to linger in the air during the day. Here’s a couple of note:

- Are current educational materials at Canadian museums and public galleries too dumbed down? This seemed to be the view of a few people at the conference. They would like to see more respect for the viewer offered in interpretive materials and texts.

- How can arts educational projects be funded consistently? It’s worth noting that the Guggenheim’s Learning Through the Arts program actually wasn’t initiated by the museum, though the museum has now taken it on. Currently, funding for these types of initiatives seems to be a patchwork, with more and more funding tied to “it better be good for the economy” outcomes.

- Is a conference of this sort too wide-ranging? Perhaps attendees would benefit from more indepth approaches to the arts or science or the brain, rather than all three.

- How is it that education has gone from being a core element of museums and public galleries to being a separate department, often with a separate space within the museum or gallery? How can the educational mandate of institutions be better integrated with their everyday activities and spaces?

- Are arts education programs such as ArtsSmarts most likely to be taken up by teachers who have high levels of student engagement in their classrooms already? Is there a temptation to test out these types of programs in classrooms that, in a way, need them the least, because a "good" class will better guarantee a "good" research outcome?

I hope to hit up a couple more sessions tomorrow and to post more notes then. For more information about the conference visit

(Image of an ArtsSmarts project from


Robert said...

Thanks for posting about the conference, Leah. I wish I were around to participate. I sure hope that the right people - the people capable of making change - are listening...

Leah Sandals said...

Thanks Robert! It's an interesting conference, though there's a lot of pedagogy-speak I'm really not getting! : )

Anonymous said...

A quick point re: statistical resarch on ArtsSmarts and student engagement for you, Leah. If you visit the ArstSmarts website, especially the research and reports section, you can find a study evaluating research done for projects undertaken between 2007-2009 that suggests a 30% increase in student engagement through participation is ArtsSmarts projects. You can find the report at

Leah Sandals said...

Hi Anonymous,

Thanks for the link. When I attended a session about an ArtsSmarts research project in Quebec, the researchers said quite definitively that they were not able to track any increase in self-gauged student engagement as a result of said projects.

I understand engagement stats may be available for other ArtsSmarts research projects, like the ones you point out, but since the session I attended emphasized the lack of movement in this area, that's what I noted here.

Thanks for the info!