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How Arts Integration Helps with Memory Retention

Is it possible that the skills mastered in arts education could be transferrable to other areas of the curriculum?

It certainly seems that way.

But this shouldn’t come as any big surprise. After all, if you’re over the age of 40, you probably still remember the function of a conjunction thanks to Schoolhouse Rock. And we all learned the alphabet through song.

Consider everything else you had to learn through rote memorization though. How much of it do you remember?

Lessons are much more likely to stick if learned through music, poetry, visuals, or performance.

This is precisely how arts integration helps with memory retention.

Repetition is Key

Don’t believe us? Just ask Dr. Mariale Hardiman.

The professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Education also directs the neuro-education initiative there. She studies the ways in which children retain what they learn. And that means observing what they DON’T retain as well.

What makes Dr. Hardiman unique is that she’s spent time in the trenches. In other words, she was once a school principal.

During that time, she noticed that when arts were integrated into the curriculum, learning became more visible. Students were more effectively remembering information. And the teachers were thrilled.

But why it is this?

“Arts allow for elaboration, allow for repetition,” Dr. Hardiman says. “Memory is certainly enhanced through repetition, the more you revisit something, the more you remember it.” And this applies to the processes for creating visual and performance art as well.

They all encourage children to elaborate in creative ways on the material.

How Arts Integration Helps with Memory Retention

To measure the effects arts integration has on children’s memories, Dr. Hardiman and her researchers developed two different versions of the same curriculum. They had the same content and timing, and both involved active learning.

The only difference was, one included arts education.

So, for instance, one set of students learned vocabulary words via rote memorization. The other set would sketch their vocabulary words. Or when learning molecular motion, the first group was given a purely academic approach. The second group was encouraged to act it out with their bodies.

Researchers found that the students in the arts-integrated curriculum remembered more. But was even more interesting is that the effect was the most notable with students who were less academically inclined.

Integrating the arts enabled them to reach a higher level of achievement. For many of these students, their art classes are the bright spot in their day or week. It’s not about memorization and testing.

So integrating the arts into the academic curriculum could lessen the achievement gap.

Further Research from the Field of Neuroscience

Dr. Hardiman continues to explore the benefits of arts integration.

In a 2019 article in the journal Trends in Neuroscience and Education, she and her colleagues described the results of a randomized controlled trial where fifth-graders who were taught science content – once again, some using techniques from arts education, and others with more conventional instruction.

And once again, they saw an effect on the students with more limited reading skills. These students were able to retain more science when they learned it through arts integration.

These amazing insights from neuroscience clearly show the important role that arts education has on how children learn. Arts education builds resilience and determination in children. And it helps them to master complex skills.

Within the context of an arts integrated curriculum, children aren’t consigned to just “learning” the subject. They are encouraged to ask questions, use their imaginations, and approach the subject in a disciplined manner.

Yet, the arts in conventional schools have suffered as a result of the focus on STEM subjects. And since schools are subject to the accountability that comes from academic testing, budgets are frequently trimmed to cut away the arts. 

And it’s too bad. Because the studies not only back this idea. But so do a vast number of parents, teachers, and students who have experienced firsthand the benefits of arts integration.

Anecdotal Evidence Abounds

In a New York Times article that covered this topic, the comments section blew up with responses.

Among the nearly 100 responses, the vast majority supported arts integration: 

“This is so great. My daughter came home yesterday with a “pi” art project. They drew a beautiful sky with pastels and then put in black construction paper buildings. The number of floors in the buildings corresponded to the numbers in pi. (The first building was 3 floors, the second was 1, third was 4, etc…) They also got to eat pie. She was SO excited and was explaining about pi to the whole extended family. She’s only 6. I have no doubt that she will retain this information much better than if she had simply had a math lesson about pi.”

Another person wrote:

“The more ways that a concept is taught, the more likely that each student’s best modes of learning will be accessed. Also, it is extremely important for students to have access to classes specifically in art, music, dance, drama, etc. Often, students who are not that strong academically have real gifts in artistic areas and that is an area in which they can shine. Also, art classes help develop creativity and joy in the hearts of those students lucky enough to have access to them. I still remember how much I loved my music classes in elementary, middle, and high school. And for students with behavior or emotional problems, art classes can provide a wonderful outlet for them that can help them achieve more success in other areas of their lives.”

This came from someone in education:

“My Master’s thesis was exactly on this!  I developed a semester-long art curriculum to support writing (a state tested subject).  Every 3 weeks the subject would change based on what the classroom teacher was focusing on.  Example – the study of portraits ties into early US history and math.  I chose a grade that had two classrooms so I had a basis for comparison; one class had my program for the semester and the other did not. The semester-end writing results were significantly higher in word choice, creativity, and cohesion.  My conclusion was the arts help students tap into their creative minds and gives them the freedom to experiment with expression. Sadly the school district that I was in, like most, did not see the benefit of arts integration so my curriculum was never adopted.”

And this was a fond memory:

“Music stretches memory. I was a lackadaisical Latin student and by 4th year was hindered by the many words and rules I had not troubled to learn during first-year Latin.  Our excellent Ms. Fillion took a break from Cicero to teach us the “Mexican hat sum” which conjugated “sum, es, est” to the tune of the Mexican hat dance.  Lo, these many years later I can recall the third person plural future form of the verb “to be” without missing a beat.”

It’s hard to argue real-life experience.

Arts Integration Helps with Memory Retention  

Now that you know how arts integration helps with memory retention, what can you do, as a parent, to make learning easier for your child?

Perhaps when working with them on their homework, see if it helps to put the multiplication tables into a song. Or ask them to either sketch out or use their bodies to show an emotion in a story they’re reading.

And be sure to give them room to figure out how to solve problems on their own. By encouraging the creative process, you’ll be helping them master this skill.

Finally, consider the benefits of an arts academy high school. If your child continually struggles to learn, then Arts Academy in the Woods might be the perfect high school for them.

Contact us to schedule a tour of our school. And give your child a chance to soar.


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