Leveling the Playing Field

I have decided, contrary to my usual custom, to reprint this letter to Nature by researchers Martin Gardiner, Alan Fox, Faith Knowles, and Donna Jeffrey almost in its entirety, precisely because it is so succinct.

Sir — It has been suggested that musical experience or training can temporarily strengthen visuospatial reasoning. We report here further data on the relationship between arts training and some broader aspects of learning. In its first year, our study included 96 pupils (aged 5-7 years) in eight first-grade public-school classrooms. Four ‘test arts’ classrooms (two each in two schools) participated in a music and visual-arts curriculum which emphasized sequenced skill development1. Two other control, ‘standard arts’ classrooms in each school received the system’s standard visual arts and musical training. Curricula in all classrooms were otherwise identical. After seven months, the schools gave all students standardized First-Grade Metropolitan Achievement Tests, and in the 83% of pupils for whom the details were already on file, we compared the results with kindergarten achievement scores. Classroom teachers also evaluated each student on attitude and behaviour (on Likert-scale questionnaires) four times during the study. We found that, in the 83% of students with kindergarten scores on file, those in the test arts classes started behind the control children in having kindergarten tests at least at the national average grade level (38% compared with 47% [emphasis added]; P<0.05, X2), but after seven months, they had caught up to statistical equality on reading and were now ahead on learning mathematics (77% compared with 55% were now at grade level or above [emphasis added]; P<0.05, x2) >In the full first-grade sample, pupils in the test group were again equal to those in the control group on reading, but ahead on maths (75% compared with 53% at or above grade level [emphasis added]; P<0.05, x2)- This maths advantage did not depend on school, or on whether students entered after poor, average or good kindergarten performance [emphasis added]. . .). The results of the achievement tests were also above grade level: in the full sample, for example, the percentage increment of test arts pupils over controls fell only gradually over levels above the 50th percentile, and were still present to a small degree even at the 90th percentile, whereas in reading, the percentages between the groups remained roughly equal over higher percentiles [emphasis added]. Classroom attitude and behaviour ratings of test students began significantly behind those of controls, possibly reflecting their poorer kindergarten start, but reached statistical equality by achievement testing time [emphasis added]. This might explain the equality between the groups on reading, but not fully the improvement in maths.

We continued the study the following year in four test and five control second-grade classrooms at the same schools, all students again taking achievement tests after seven months. We found that test and control arts were again equal on reading, and that test arts pupils were again ahead on maths (73% compared with 55% at or above grade level on comprehension [emphasis added], F<0.05, x2; 71% compared with 63% on problem-solving). The percentage of students at or above grade level in second-grade maths was highest in those with two years of test arts, less in those with only one year and lowest in those with no test arts [emphasis added](on maths comprehension; P<0.01, CMH statistics).

We believe our data show that when students discover that participation in arts activities is pleasurable, they become motivated to acquire skills in the arts on which our programme focuses, with two types of result. First, from realizing that they can learn such challenging but desirable skills, students’ general attitude towards learning and school can improve. Second, learning arts skills forces mental ‘stretching’ useful to other areas of learning: the maths learning advantage in our data could, for example, reflect the development of mental skills such as ordering, and other elements of thinking on which mathematical learning at this age also depends [emphasis added].

Now, why have I decided to print almost the entire letter? In case you didn’t realize it, there’s a big debate going on, so let’s put this debate to rest once and for all. Some people theorize that better students are drawn to the arts, and that is why students in arts programs have better grades, behaviour, test results, etc. To put it politely, this study makes hogwash of that assumption. Children who were originally significantly behind the other students caught up and surpassed their peers who were originally ahead of them. Their reading was equal, their math skills better, and their classroom behaviour improved. Even in maths when children tested in the 90th percentile, the effect was still present (yes, to a smaller degree, because at the ends of the statistical curve, everything is at a smaller degree, there being less room for improvement).

Black and white photograph, teen girls in front row with flutes, boys in back with brass instruments

Students Practicing in Music Class at Woodward High School
Leonard Mccombe

This study also reflects the real-life, empirical results seen in El Sistema, Big Noise and the other arts programs around the world. So to dismiss the results of decades of research studies on this topic is not only foolhardy, it’s taking a position against the well-being of our children. The people who hold this position (and I’m sure many of them, if not nearly all of them, are well-meaning but sadly misinformed) that musical training only aggravates the disparity of better vs. poorer students are putting our children at a serious disadvantage. Don’t listen to them. Refer them to this blog. Whatever you must do to dispel this notion when you run across it, it is this kind of wishful pseudo-scientific thinking that is keeping our children from realizing their potential in the classroom.

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