Does including arts make science more accessible for children who struggle?

This new Johns Hopkins University concludes states that incorporating the arts–rapping, dancing, drawing–into science lessons can help low-achieving students retain more knowledge and possibly help students of all ability levels be more creative in their learning. This study does tick a lot of boxes as it is a randomized controlled trial with a clever design, but I do have some concerns.

What did the different groups had to do?

In the control condition, students displayed knowledge by completing a chart or presenting the information orally, whereas in the arts-integrated treatment condition they displayed knowledge through a variety of arts-based activities such as dance, tableaux, singing, or drawing. In the control condition, students expanded on their understanding of vocabulary by writing a sentence using the target word, whereas in treatment they demonstrated their understanding of the vocabulary by taking visual notes, which entailed drawing sketches and writing notes. To reinforce content, students in the control condition engaged in choral reading of specific passages; in the treatment condition, they sang a song or a chanted a rap. Essentially, we designed conventional lessons to match the modality of presentation of the arts-integrated lessons and the modality of student products. For example, instead of displaying knowledge by designing a collage of living and non-living things, students in the conventional conditional categorized living and non-living things in a simple chart. Students in both conditions displayed their knowledge through categorization of living and non-living things with a final product on paper, but the conventional condition student product was a traditional chart whereas the arts-integrated student product was a categorized collage. In conventional lessons, choral reading of a science text utilizes the same modality as singing, oral production of words while reading the words, but choral reading excludes the artistic factors of tonality, tune, and rhythm. A read-aloud, aka choral reading, of a science text does not include any arts-based activities, which is why we used this matched-modality activity for the delivery of content for conventional lessons when songs were utilized in the arts-integrated condition.

The researchers are a bit too optimistic imho concerning transfer as it’s not significant – and I’ve reviewed a lot of research on this topic not to be surprised -, but they do seem to find a positive effect of incorporating arts for the kids who have just basic reading skills, although the results are a bit mixed when looking at the other students:

This did make me wonder if some other elements can’t explain these results. E.g. if the basis reading group pupils had indeed trouble with reading for learning, the help of making a song or rap song about it, could help them remember stuff that they had trouble to read in the first place?

Examples of activities in the arts-integrated classes include rapping or sketching to learn vocabulary words, and designing collages to separate living and non-living things. These activities were matched in the conventional classrooms with standard activities such as reading paragraphs of texts with vocabulary words aloud in a group and completing worksheets.

But isn’t this a bit of a strange comparison? Reading paragraphs of texts with vocabulary words aloud in groups, well there wasn’t probably much thinking involved. And as Willingham stated ‘Memory is the residue of thought’. The completing worksheets would probably be more about thinking, but the collages were hopefully also.

A big limitation of the study is imho that the teachers teaching the different groups were different. The researchers did try to surpass this:

For example, the Chemistry units were taught by four teachers; two who taught in the arts-integrated condition and two who taught in the control condition in session 1. In session 2, the teachers taught the reversed condition to a different group of randomized students. This was done for all curricular units

But as session 1 seems to have a big impact on the knowledge of session 2, a teacher effect can still be present for sure as the amount of teachers was limited.

So, I do think this is a very interesting study but more research is needed.

From the press release:

Incorporating the arts–rapping, dancing, drawing–into science lessons can help low-achieving students retain more knowledge and possibly help students of all ability levels be more creative in their learning, finds a new study by Johns Hopkins University.

The findings were published on Feb. 7 in Trends in Neuroscience and Education and support broader arts integration in the classroom.

“Our study provides more evidence that the arts are absolutely needed in schools. I hope the findings can assuage concerns that arts-based lessons won’t be as effective in teaching essential skills,” says Mariale Hardiman, vice dean of academic affairs for the School of Education at the Johns Hopkins University and the study’s first author.

While research already shows that the arts improve students’ academic outcomes and memory, it remains unclear whether general exposure to the arts, adding arts to lesson plans, effective instruction, or a combination are responsible for these benefits, says Hardiman.

“When we talk about learning, we have to discuss memory. Children forget much of what they learn and teachers often end up reteaching a lot of content from the previous year. Here we’re asking, how exactly can we teach them correctly to begin with so they can remember more?”

In this study, the research team sought to determine whether an arts-integrated curriculum had any direct effects on learning, specifically students’ memory for science content.

Throughout the 2013 school year, 350 students in 16 fifth grade classrooms across six Baltimore, Maryland schools took part in the study. Students were randomly assigned into one of two classroom pairs: astronomy and life science, or environmental science and chemistry.

The experiment consisted of two sessions, each lasting three to four weeks, in which students first took either an arts-integrated class or a conventional class. In the second session, students received the opposite type of class; thus, all students experienced both types and all eleven teachers taught both types of classes.

Examples of activities in the arts-integrated classes include rapping or sketching to learn vocabulary words, and designing collages to separate living and non-living things. These activities were matched in the conventional classrooms with standard activities such as reading paragraphs of texts with vocabulary words aloud in a group and completing worksheets.

The research team analyzed students’ content retention through pre-, post-, and delayed post-tests 10 weeks after the study ended, and found that students at a basic reading level retained an average 105 percent of the content long term, as demonstrated through the results of delayed post-testing. The researchers discovered that students remembered more in the delayed post-testing because they sang songs they had learned from their arts activities, which helped them remember content better in the long term, much like how catchy pop lyrics seem to get more and more ingrained in your brain over time.

This addresses a key challenge and could be an additional tool to bridging the achievement gap for students who struggle most to read, says Hardiman, because most conventional curriculum requires students to read to learn; if students cannot read well, they cannot learn well.

The research team also found that students who took a conventional session first remembered more science in the second, arts-integrated session and students who took an arts-integrated session first performed just as well in the second session. While not statistically significant, the researchers suggest the possibility of students applying the creative problem-solving skills they learned to their conventional lessons to enhance their learning.

Looking forward, Hardiman hopes that educators and researchers will put their fully-developed intervention to use to expand on their study and improve understanding of arts integration in schools.

“Our data suggests that traditional instruction seems to perpetuate the achievement gap for students performing at the lower levels of academic achievement. We also found that students at advanced levels of achievement didn’t lose any learning from incorporating arts into classrooms, but potentially gained benefits such as engagement in learning and enhanced thinking dispositions. For these reasons, we would encourage educators to adopt integrating the arts into content instruction,” says Hardiman.

Abstract of the study:

Strong correlational evidence suggests that involvement in the arts improves students’ academic outcomes and memory of learning events [1–3]. It is unclear whether the improved outcomes are the result of general exposure to the arts, the integration of arts into content instruction, the use of effective instructional practices, or a combination of these factors. Moreover, as a growing number of studies suggest that arts-integrated pedagogy enhances learning, few empirical studies have explicitly examined the direct effect of an arts-integrated curriculum on learning and specifically on students’ memory for non-arts academic content. Thus, this study sought to determine the effects of arts-integrated lessons on long-term memory for science content. We hypothesized that embedding arts-based activities into conventionally taught lessons would produce learning outcomes as good as or better than traditional instruction. This paper describes the results of a randomized control trial that measured retention of science content using arts-integrated science units and matched units employing convention science instruction. The study was conducted in 16 fifth-grade classrooms in an urban mid-Atlantic school district.

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Filed under Education, Pop Music, Research

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