Lois Hetland on Researching Arts and Education

On Tuesday, October 28, 2003, I heard Lois Hetland speak at Le Petit Trianon in San Jose. Her talk, entitled, “Studio Thinking: How Visual Arts Teaching Can Promote Disciplined Habits of Mind,” was part of the Cultural Initiatives Silicon Valley ongoing lecture series.    (9X)

Hetland’s research centers around the following question: Does arts education make people smarter? In other words, does it enhance overall cognitive capabilities? While her talk reported the most recent results of her research, she also revealed some very interesting ideas about the role of research in general.    (9Y)

Project Zero and REAP    (9Z)

Hetland is part of Project Zero, a program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Project Zero was founded in 1967 by Nelson Goodman, a philosopher of the arts, who — according to Hetland — said, “The communicable state of knowledge of the arts as a cognitive activity is zero.” (I found this quote appealing, because I feel very similarly about what we know about collaboration. The parallels between Hetland’s thoughts on arts education and mine on collaboration seemed to recur throughout the lecture.) One of Goodman’s first hire was Howard Gardner.    (A0)

Hetland led a project from 1997-2001 called REAP (Reviewing Education And the Arts Project), which began with 10 meta-analytic reviews of all studies on arts education starting from the 1950s. Her conclusion was that the research was lacking, with the claims greatly exceeded the evidence. She found only three definitive causal links between education in the arts and certain cognitive functions. Another roadblock she discovered was that there was no shared language for describing the quality of an arts program or for measuring learning in the arts. (Another parallel!)    (A1)

After discussing her findings, she explained her subsequent approach for studying the effects of arts educations on other cognitive capabilities: studying the best practices of great art teachers.    (A2)

Hetland and her research partners identified two high schools in Boston that focused on arts educations, then observed and analyzed the classes intensively. They focused on identifying patterns (parallel again!) and came up with eight “disciplned habits of mind” that the teachers seemed to emphasize: Develop Craft, Engage and Persist, Envision, Express, Observe, Reflect, Stretch and Explore, and Understand Art World. A teacher’s style could be described by how often these habits were addressed during class.    (A3)

There was some disconnect between the first and second parts of Hetland’s talk. In describing REAP, she criticized some of the existing research for failing to establish causal relationships between arts education and cognitive capabilities, but in describing her subsequent research, she failed to do the same. The habits of mind she described are certainly useful for other disciplines, but the teaching of these habits are not exclusive to the arts. What is the advantage of taking an arts class over, say, a history class that teaches and applies the same habits?    (A4)

The Research Quandary    (A5)

At the end of the talk, an audience member asked an interesting question: Why invest money into researching arts education rather than into arts education itself? Implicit in the question was the assumption that we already know that arts education is important, and that we don’t need research to prove it.    (A6)

To some extent, that certainly is a valid premise. If people did not already think that arts education was important, why would they be funding research to study it?    (A7)

Hetland had two responses. First, there are many, many organizations that do fund arts educations directly. Second, research is not about justification; it’s about understanding. Better understanding leads to improvement.    (A8)

Unfortunately, many research firms are in the business of justification: certifying claims that businesses want to make, whether they are correct or not.    (A9)

Another problem with justification is that people believe what they want to believe. Hetland cited two examples of this. One of the causal links she discovered in her research was that listening to music temporarily increased spatial reasoning. Many people misinterpreted these results to mean that listening to Mozart would make people smarter. The states of Georgia and Florida decided to mandate classical music in their classrooms based on these faulty conclusions.    (AA)

Hetland also told a story, which she wasn’t certain was true. Isaac Stern taught a one hour master’s class to 43 New York City school superintendents who were threatening to cut back their programs in music. Apparently, a good number of these superintendents were so inspired by the class, they returned to their districts and reversed their cutbacks. (I’m currently trying to verify this story. This New York Times article verifies that Stern did teach the class, but it says nothing about the results.)    (AB)

Even if the Stern story isn’t true, Hetland’s point is a good one. People are fickle animals. They believe what they want to believe. You are more likely to persuade someone of the importance of the arts by involving them in the arts experience rather than citing research.    (AC)

Leave a Reply