#WeAllDeserveArts: Susan Magsamen, Executive Director, International Arts + Mind Lab, Johns Hopkins University

March 12, 2021

Why Arts Education Matters in the Age of COVID-19

This article was originally published on the International Arts + Mind Lab blog as part of the COVID-19 NeuroArts Field Guide. Written and reported by IAM Lab Contributor Emily Gaines Buchler.

Editor’s Note:  Last year, students, parents and teachers waded into uncharted territory. In an effort to minimize the spread of COVID-19, many school districts opted for online or hybrid models of learning. Without the traditional face-time available to deliver a full curriculum, some school districts chose to sideline the arts in favor of tested subjects like reading, writing, math and science.

But, scientific research shows this is short-term and misguided thinking. At the International Arts + Mind Lab, we study the neuroarts, or how the brain and body measurably change on the arts. Our colleagues in the field have already shown that student engagement in the arts improves academic achievement, critical thinking, decision making and perhaps, most importantly, resilience.

Read on to learn more about how science is supporting what we’ve long known: #WeAllDeserveArts

When class resumed the day after Labor Day for Jazz Dance Level I at Towson University’s Community Dance Center, no children filled the room, stretching in front of the floor-to-ceiling mirrors. No Duke Ellington or Billie Holliday blared from the speakers. No parents chatted idly in the lounge.

Instead, children and teachers—holed up in their individual homes—logged in to Zoom to take the class online. This year, a mere three students had registered, compared with the 15 to 18 students who typically take the class in person.

What the Community Dance Center is experiencing reflects an unfortunate reality that many arts programs face during the COVID-19 pandemic. As some families and even schools and school districts prioritize academic learning in subjects like reading, writing, math, science, and social studies, the arts are at risk of getting short shrift. Nothing could be more misguided, experts and educators say, given the reams of data and research linking the arts to improved student learning.

Learning Essential Skills Through The Arts

Students who are involved in the arts are less likely to drop out and more likely to stay engaged in learning. In a 1997 national study involving 25,000 students, there were “substantial and significant differences in achievement and in important attitudes and behaviors between youth highly involved in the arts … and those with little or no arts engagement,” regardless of a student’s income level.

And the arts help improve student performance in non-art areas. In one decade-long analysis, students who took arts courses in high school had higher verbal and math SAT scores. Another study found that integrating arts in science education was correlated with significant gains in science achievement and abstract-thinking abilities. Indeed, research has found that involvement in the arts helps students develop social, emotional, and cognitive skills, like critical thinking and decision-making.

The benefits of the arts spans beyond improved academics and cognition to better health and well-being. Just last year, in 2019, the World Health Organization’s review of more than 3,000 studies from Europe concluded that the arts play a major role in preventing sickness and promoting health across the lifespan—all the more reason to partake in the arts during the coronavirus pandemic.

“The arts teach empathy and the capacity to respond to the unexpected,” says Yael Silk, Executive Director of the Arts Education Collaborative (AEC) in Pittsburgh, which works to make the arts central to teaching and learning in Pennsylvania. “These are precisely the skills needed in this uncertain time.”

Getting Support for Arts Education During COVID-19

In addition to the clear connection between the arts and learning, “teaching art is the law of the land,” Silk adds, pointing to the federal government’s Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which considers art part of a well-rounded education and requires state and local governments to provide arts programs in schools. And that’s where it gets tricky—during the COVID-19 pandemic, as schools scramble to create online and hybrid instruction, some fear the arts will get left behind, particularly in underserved schools.

“We’ve struggled for years to get Maryland to put into place policies that support arts education, but with the pandemic, the reality is that the arts are very far down on the decision-makers’ radar screens,” says Mary Ann Mears, the founder of Arts Education in Maryland Schools (AEMS) and a nationally known sculptor.

“Maryland has some of the best school arts programs in the country, and yet some schools have very limited programs, if any,” Mears says, noting the gap in equity that “has only increased during COVID.” To Mears, the focus on standardized testing leads schools to lavish attention on subjects tested—math, science, reading, and writing—and to treat core areas like the arts as “a fluffy add-on,” she explains.

This approach is a grave mistake, Mears and Silk say, not only because of the arts’ ability to promote learning but also for the enhanced diversity that happens when students learn in and through the arts. “In a country where more than 90 percent of our public school teachers are white and do not reflect our student population, arts programs help kids understand different cultures and identities, including their own culture,” Silk says.

In Pittsburgh, where Silk lives and works, community organizations and the public school district partnered to form “community learning hubs” for students from low-income families without an adult at home during the day to facilitate. The hubs are located at childcare facilities, Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCAs, and other community organizations, and many are staffed with arts teachers—and art supplies, thanks to a coordinated effort by the AEC—to engage students in visual arts activities.

Considering that most schools in Pittsburgh are fully virtual through October, arts teachers in the area—and across the country—are grappling with the transition to distance learning in a field accustomed to in-person classes with shared materials and hands-on work. “Art teachers are doing an incredible job of rethinking the curriculum to focus on household items that most students have on hand,” Silk says. For example, instead of assigning a project that requires construction paper, teachers give students the option to use newspapers, envelopes, or whatever form of paper they can get their hands on. “The flexibility is generating impressive results, with teachers seeing that kids are capable of adapting and thinking outside the box—and producing highly creative work as a consequence,” Silk shares.

Taking Arts Education Online

As the pandemic storms on, Silk advises arts teachers involved in distance learning to focus more on the process than the end product. With a process-oriented approach, students are forced to think through and explore ideas, plan, and problem-solve as they work to create something unique. This differs from a product-oriented approach, where students tend to follow steps to meet an expectation predetermined by an adult. While both approaches have a place in an arts curriculum, process-oriented projects tend to foster higher-level thinking skills—critical thinking, decision-making, and creativity—which experts say are critical to a 21st-century education.

Both Silk and Mears agree that the move to hybrid and virtual learning comes naturally to many arts teachers, who are accustomed to adaptability and ingenuity. Arts teachers are also used to collaborating and sharing lessons across digital platforms. On September 1, the AEC partnered with other organizations to launch the Creative Learning Network, a digital hub that collects and publishes video lessons by teachers of multiple arts disciplines. Teachers and families can search the database for free activities to try at home or school, from workshops on writing rap music to a series on Mexican folk art.

AEMS, too, started compiling and publishing arts lessons and resources as the pandemic altered school as we have long known it. It partnered with a national initiative called artlook®  Virtual Learning Library, a free directory of online arts classes, programs, and lessons created “to support teachers and families as we navigate the COVID-19 outbreak together,” the AEMS artlook®  Maryland webpage says.

As arts educators do what they’ve always done—inspire open-mindedness and creative and critical thinking—the challenge is convincing schools, decision-makers, and families to sign on. “Everyone gripes that kids get distracted and then disengage in the virtual environment, but what about the dopamine hit they get when they’re engaged in the arts?” Mears asks. “If there’s ever a moment when arts education is crucial, this is it.”

How to Get Started with Arts Ed at Home

Want to provide an arts education at home?  Here are some resources to help you get started:

#WeAllDeserveArts

Susan Magsamen

Founder and Executive Director
International Arts + Mind Lab, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Pedersen Brain Science Institute

Susan Magsamen is the founder and executive director of the International Arts + Mind Lab (IAM Lab), a pioneering neuroaesthetics initiative from the Pedersen Brain Science Institute at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Her body of work lies at the intersection of brain sciences and the arts—and how our unique response to aesthetic experiences can amplify human potential. Magsamen is the author of the Impact Thinking model, an evidence-based research approach to accelerate how we use the arts to solve problems in health, well-being, and learning. In addition to her role at IAM Lab, she is an assistant professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins and serves as co-director of the NeuroArts Blueprint project in partnership with the Aspen Institute.

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