Brain Development and the Arts

Thanks to our friends at the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America for this report. Recently, Johns Hopkins University sponsored a one-day Roundtable on Arts and the Brain, based on a report released by the Dana Foundation that demonstrates how the arts light up parts of the brain like nothing else does. This was followed in Washington, DC by the tenth annual conference on Learning and the Brain. The Roundtable was an invitation-only event and included 200 researchers, teachers, educational leaders, superintendents, principals, and policy makers. According to Patrice Maynard, leader for Outreach and Development for the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America, who attended both events, one particularly moving presentation described the effects of music on the ability of the brains of children to receive and comprehend math concepts, offered by Dr. Elizabeth Spelke, from Harvard University. "Dr. Spelke stated that she has demonstrable evidence that in babies and young children the making of music (not the listening, but the singing, composing, playing an instrument) illuminates parts of the brain, as visible in fMRI imaging, that helps the comprehension of math to accelerate. She emphasized that the use of the playing of instruments should not be a substitute for the teaching of math, but rather, that understanding math concepts is easier for children who play a musical instrument." The Dana Foundation research report shows how arts activities influence cognition. The results demonstrate levels of brain activity that reflect engagement or attentiveness during learning, including the kinds of arts activities (music, dance, painting, etc.) that hold children's attention. The report validates scientifically what Waldorf educators observe on a daily basis in their classrooms: Artistic activity encourages motivation. Highly motivated children stay engaged in activities. Artistic activity stimulates both hemispheres of the human brain and deepens learning. The language of Waldorf teachers differs from that employed in the Dana report, but the report supports Rudolf Steiner's statements, made in the early part of the twentieth century, that modern science would catch up with his view of education and confirm the remarkable benefits it provides. The difference between the approach of the Dana Foundation and Waldorf education is the difference between materialistic science and a spiritual - or anthroposophical - view of human beings. The first proceeds from cause to effect; the second begins with the wholeness of the child, which it allows to develop at its own pace, knowing that all learning must be digested artistically, and that the engagement of a child in education is essential. Dr. Jerome Kagan, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, "made an impassioned plea for wholeness in human beings, ethical standards in child rearing and in the world, a remembrance of what real play was like, and less dependence on external things," states Ms. Maynard. The Dana report includes suggestions for to how to improve test scores and increase brain capacity through use of the arts, supporting a current "outcomes based" approach to education. Waldorf educators might also use the report as scientific verification of their practices and continue the important task of enthusiastically approaching the human being as a mystery to unfold, not a product to generate. The arts are among the best educational means to assist in just that task. For more information on Waldorf Education or to read more about the Dana Research Report, visit Eugene Waldorf School is a full member of the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America (AWSNA). AWSNA is a not-for-profit membership organization that supports independent Waldorf schools, initiatives, and teacher training institutes, and promotes Waldorf education throughout North America.Waldorf education is a holistic and developmental approach that integrates academic, practical and artistic elements as it addresses the changing needs of the growing child and maturing adolescent. Waldorf schools engage the heart and hands as well as the mind with a lively, experiential curriculum rich in the basics, literature, history, languages, the arts, the social and natural sciences and technology.