Sentinel High School choir teacher Jessica Tidwell is tired of having to justify the importance of arts education in schools.

No, listening to Beethoven does not improve a student's math scores (a common myth), but Tidwell has observed firsthand how music boosts confidence among teens, enhances creativity and is sometimes the very reason students even bother walking through the school's front doors each morning.

Arts education, unlike math and science, is oftentimes first on the chopping block when school budgets are tight. And so the value of an arts education at the primary level, much like the stir regarding humanities at the collegiate level, has come into question.

Ellen Winner, psychology professor at Boston College, researches cognition in the arts, and led a workshop at the University of Montana campus on Tuesday for teachers who aim to incorporate art into classroom teaching for all subjects.

Through her research, Winner has discovered there's no good evidence that arts education improves a student's grades and standardized test scores.

There have been studies as to whether theater can improve empathy among children and whether drama can help students memorize and understand subject material more easily than traditional methods, but research into the academic value of arts education is limited. And maybe it's better that way, she said.

To say that arts education improves a student's academic performance is a weak argument, she said, because arts education is valuable all on its own.

"Nobody asks you the importance of math and no one feels the need to justify math," she said.

The whole premise behind a liberal arts education, for example, is to train students to think and to stimulate the mind, not to get a job. Businesses want people who can think, Winner said. If the whole purpose was to simply gain employment, then people would enter apprenticeships and vocational schools, she said.

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Likewise, arts education teaches students to think creatively and without boundaries, explore and envision next steps - things not normally taught in the standard curriculum, said Randy Bolton, acting professor at UM's School of Theatre and Dance and a co-founder of Creative Pulse, a master's degree program designed to develop teachers in the arts, sciences and humanities.

"Studio work teaches self-reflection," he said. "That doesn't have high regard in normal teaching."

Plus, some students excel at art. Not exposing them to art is keeping them from reaching their full potential, Winner said.

The teachers attending Thursday's workshop are students of Creative Pulse, a 10-week master's course for teachers who want to integrate arts education into their regular curriculum. This becomes even more important in places that don't value arts education or have none, Bolton said. Creative Pulse is in its 21st year and has graduated more than 200 teachers from across the country.

Tidwell, a second-year student of Creative Pulse, received a bachelor's degree from West Virginia University in music education and could just as easily have earned a master's degree in choral conducting. But the Missoula teacher chose Creative Pulse because she wants to become more artistic in all aspects of her life, and thinks that will transfer into her teaching style.

Already, the course has Tidwell thinking differently and engaging new ideas. An interest in photography inspired her to shoot her choral classes' yearbook photos and she produced an end-of-the-year slideshow using photos of her students from their many performances. These are the things she hopes will enrich a student's overall educational experience, she said.

"Arts teachers are on the front line as far as connecting to kids from an emotional standpoint," she said.

Reporter Chelsi Moy can be reached at 523-5260 or at chelsi.moy@missoulian.com.

 

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