Ellen Winner

Art for OUR Sake

VTR Date: September 14, 2009

Ellen Winner discusses the importance of school art classes.


GUEST: Ellen Winner
VTR: 04/14/2009

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And though she has studied long and written much about the real value of teaching our children art – indeed, the creative arts generally – it was in late 2007 that my guest today, together with a colleague, Lois Hetland, wrote a piece for the Boston Globe that perhaps put the matter most squarely before us.

“Art For Our Sake”…was Boston College Psychology Professor Ellen Winner’s title…”School art classes matter more than ever – but not for the reasons you think”.

And at a time – at least pre-Obama – when so many of us have bemoaned the fact that seemingly everywhere economically hard pressed schools are further and further limiting the exposure our children and my grandchildren receive to the arts – music, drawing, dance, the fine arts – I want first to ask my Radcliff BA, Harvard Ph.D. guest just what that subtitle means…”School art classes matter more than ever – but not for the reasons you think”. That’s a fair question … it’s your title.

WINNER: (Laughter) Well, there is … has been a long tradition in this country to claim that arts education is of great value because it will boost grade point average and will boost test scores.

HEFFNER: Practical argument, huh.

WINNER: A practical instrumental argument. It just happens, however, not to be true. And even if it were true, it’s not a particularly good argument to make for the arts.

About ten years ago my colleague Lois Hetland and I decided to take a cold, hard look at the evidence about whether or not the arts in schools really do raise test scores.

And so we did a search for everything that was published or unpublished since 1950 and written in English. And found that there were actually about 200 studies looking at this question.

And we decided to review the evidence and use what’s called a “mega-analysis” which is a quantitative synthesis of the evidence and you have to take studies that are similar in order to meta-analysis them, so we ended up finding ten different groups of studies.

Each group had similar studies in them and then we did a meta-analysis on each one. So, for example, one of the studies … one of the piles looked at whether music listening increased spatial reasoning.

Another pile looked at whether music training increased mathematical performance.

The pile that got us into the most trouble was the pile of studies showing … testing the claim that when the arts are infused into the curriculum or when students take lots of different kinds of arts courses, test scores go up.

And what we showed in our ten meta-analyses is that, the claims that are being made are way …go way beyond the evidence. Seven out of our ten meta-analysis showed there was absolutely no causal relationship between studying the arts and the kind of cognitive outcome that they were looking at. And it was usually test scores which means verbal test scores and mathematical test scores on multiple choice tests.

HEFFNER: So you were attacked then because it seemed that you were opposed to the teaching of the arts.

WINNER: We were vilified. We had people call us up saying “you are ruining quality arts education for the children in this country. You should never have done this research. You should have buried your findings.” And these were prominent people calling us up.

We argued that in fact … first of all we have a duty to tell the truth. We’re scientists. We want to find out the truth. We didn’t say that it’s impossible to get transfer of arts learning to other areas.

We simply said the research hasn’t shown it. And in fact there’s, there’s a lot of problems with the research that has been done which I can go into go. But in fact there is no evidence yet that studying the arts raises test scores.

But people felt that it was the only way that we could get the arts to have a foothold in our schools. And that the arts were becoming increasingly vulnerable to budget cuts, arts advocates felt that we had to hang on to the claim that the arts raised test scores because that would be the only way to keep the arts in school. So they were well meaning. They wanted to keep the arts in schools.

We, too, were well meaning. We thought that the most important thing to do would be to change the conversation about why we need the arts in schools, because to justify the arts in terms of a secondary bonus effect, which may or may not be true, is actually very bad for the arts.

Because all you need is some smart superintendent to say, “Ah, we’re just teaching the arts to raise test scores? Why don’t we just have another hour of test score prep? That’ll certainly do the job much better.”

HEFFNER: Pretty sad commentary isn’t it, upon a) the role of the arts in our schools and b) the role of those who were quite so critical of you.

WINNER: It’s a very instrumental, pragmatic kind of reasoning. And it’s the kind of reasoning that doesn’t stop to think about what it is that we want children to learn from the arts.

HEFFNER: What is it?

WINNER: Well, after we were attacked, roundly, as being against the arts which we weren’t, Lois Hetland and I went on to another project with two other researchers, Kim Sheridan and Shirley Veenema.

We decided to study what it is that the arts really do teach. Because one of the problems we found in our meta-analyses is that the studies we uncovered were … none of them looked at what students were really learning in an art form. They just said, “Oh, students are studying the arts, let’s see if their test scores go up.”

And by the way, there is a correlation. If you look at students who do take a lot of arts, they do have slightly higher test scores than students who don’t.

But that’s a correlation, it’s not a cause. And if you look at the experimental studies where you take kids who are the same, divide them up into two groups and give one group arts and one group something else. The arts group does not do better after the treatment.

HEFFNER: But let’s talk about the correlation …


HEFFNER: … what do you think that is?

WINNER: Well, you probably heard the claim that students who study the arts in our country do better on their SATs. And if you haven’t heard the claim, it is … the Music Educators National Conference puts out that claim every year in their newsletter and they get it from the College Board.

We took the College Board data and analyzed it ourselves and looked at what the average test scores … average verbal and math test scores were for students who took zero arts courses in high school, one, two, three and four.

And we found, yes, indeed, there is a rise. With every year of arts courses up to eight … up to three courses … test scores rise, both for verbal and for math. After three there doesn’t seem to be any change. Three and four are the same.

So why might that be? First of all, we cannot say that the arts are causing the change, because these are not … this is not, this was not based on an experimental study. This was simply a correlational analysis.

There’s all kinds of non-causal reasons. Students who come from families that value the arts and academics may do well in both. Students who have a great deal of drive may do … have … be driven to do in academics as well as in arts. My favorite explanation is a Machiavellian one.

HEFFNER: What’s that?

WINNER: Well, I noticed that the relationship between the number of arts courses taken and test scores got stronger and stronger over a ten year period … between the mid-nineties to about … between 1990 and 2000.

And it occurred to me that it’s getting increasingly hard to get into elite colleges and students are doing everything the can to get in … one of the things they’re doing is building up community services resumes.

But I think another thing they might well be doing is building up arts resumes because it’s no longer enough just to have all “A”s and straight … top scores on your SATs. You need something else.

HEFFNER: That is Machiavellian.


HEFFNER: But not on your part …

WINNER: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: … on, on their part.

WINNER: It’s just a sheer speculation.

HEFFNER: Well, what’s your own evaluation of that? Of that reason, not the Machiavellian reason? But that the family background, the kind of interest in the home …


HEFFNER: … the kind of native intelligence, and the kind of interest in life and in things …

WINNER: Right.

HEFFNER: … accounts for the parallel, the correspondence

WINNER: Right.

HEFFNER: … between doing … taking the arts and doing well in the SATs.

WINNER: Right. Well, you know, we don’t know what the reason is at the moment because we haven’t done the proper studies.

So it may well be family background. It could also be that strong schools are good in both the arts and academics. If you look at our best schools, they are usually good in both …

HEFFNER: That true?

WINNER: … let’s say you go to a school like, like Andover. That’s very strong in the arts and very strong in academics. So I think the best schools are strong in both.

HEFFNER: I’m glad you picked Andover. My grandson’s school … great school, too.

WINNER: (Laughter) And one of the co-authors of our book Studio Thinking: the Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education, Shirley Veenema is one of the Arts teachers there.

You know, they did the same kind of study in the UK and in the Netherlands and they got very different findings.

In the UK they actually found that the more arts … that students who were placed into the arts track actually did worse on their comprehensive exams at the end of high school than students who were not on the arts track. And they didn’t say “Oh, that means that the arts causes academic performance to go down.” They had a perfectly plausible explanation for that, which is that in England students who are struggling academically are often counseled out of the academic track and are counseled into the arts track. We don’t do that with our students who are struggling. We give them remedial education, but we don’t say, ‘You’d better go into the arts, or you better take more arts classes.”

HEFFNER: What do you think about the, the motivation there, or the understanding of the human mind that leads to that kind of tracking and then saying, “You can do academic work, just do the other thing.”

WINNER: Yes, I think it’s very unfortunate, but to think that “oh, the arts aren’t really important …”, but they are hitting on something. And that is that you can be very strong in the arts and not strong in a traditional academic area. And you can also be very strong in academics and weak in the arts. So I think for students who … one of the reasons I think arts education is so important …and it’s just one … is that there are many students who really are strong in the arts, who are not going to go on in academics. And if schools only offer core academic subject matters those students will never discover their strengths.

HEFFNER: Discover their strengths … that’s the key to it all, isn’t it? The multiple strengths?

WINNER: Absolutely. In the Netherlands they did the same study and they found simply no relationship at all. So, why is it that we find a relationship? England doesn’t … England finds a negative relationship. The Netherlands finds no relationship. I think it, it tells us we’d better be cautious about assuming that there’s a causal relationship.

Also, I wanted to point out that the, the difference in test scores between students who take three years of arts and students who take no arts is … it may be about 30 points on average. And that maybe about … worth about three multiple choice questions. So it may be statistically significant, but it’s probably not educationally significant.

Also, Elliot Eisner a professor of arts education at Stanford looked at these same data and he said, “Okay, students who specialize in the arts get higher test scores. Maybe students who specialize in anything get higher test scores.”

And he looked at students who take four years of chemistry or four years of physics, or four years of English AP, and he finds that no matter what, students who specialize do better than students who don’t.

And, in fact, if you specialize in chemistry, you do much better on your SATs than if you specialize in the arts, which is not surprising since the SATs are measuring the kinds of things that you learn in chemistry.

HEFFNER: Makes a lot of sense.

WINNER: Right.

HEFFNER: What would you like … funny question … what would you like your studies to result in?

WINNER: Well, you know, we have gone one to do some more work in this area. We spent two years looking at what is taught in high level visual arts classes at the high school level.

We videotaped 38 three hour long classes in two different schools and then we spent a year “coding” what we saw being taught. And our goal there was to say, “What are students supposed to learn in our best visual arts classes?” And once we figure that out then we can find out do they learn it and does that transfer to another area?

I’m actually not opposed at all to the idea of looking for transfer. I don’t believe that transfer … transfer means the idea that you learn something in the parent domain, say the arts … and that makes you better in some other area … say, math.

So, so far we didn’t find any evidence for it, but I think one of the reasons is because nobody’s stopped to think, “What are kids actually learning in the art form and then, what kind of plausible transfer might there be?”

And if you stop to think about it like that, you’re not going to say, “oh, it must be verbal and math test scores”, because that’s the kinds of things that the arts teach.

But after spending these two years studying these liberal arts classes, we came up with a set of “habits of mind” that we saw teachers trying to instill and we’re now looking at one of those closely, to see whether it’s learned and whether it transfers.

The “habits of mind” that we saw being taught were learning to see (visual acuity) students are taught to look and see things they haven’t seen before.

Learning to envision … you might think of that as spatial reasoning. Learning to generate metal images and manipulate them, in your mind. Because student … teachers will come around all the time and say “Why are you putting this white part over here? How would it look if you moved it over here?”

And so the student has to imagine it and mentally manipulate the white part … move it.

Or, what is the underlying geometry of this picture? Can you see how it’s a triangle?

So, those are the kinds of questions that we saw, that we saw teachers asking all the time that we thought were promoting spatial reasoning.

HEFFNER: Well, let me be a devil’s advocate here.


HEFFNER: Habits of mind … habits of mind are, indeed, transferred, aren’t they? They’re “habits of mind”.

WINNER: Well, we don’t know if they’re transferred. So, we …

HEFFNER: Excuse me, let me not just say … I, I misspoke, I shouldn’t say “transferred”, but if there is developed a habit of mind, it is a habit of mind.

WINNER: I … a “habit” sounds like it’s generalized.


WINNER: We call these studio habits of mind …


WINNER: … that are being taught in the, in the art studios. So we did put the word “studio” in …


WINNER: We haven’t even demonstrated that they’re learned. Now … that’s what we’re trying to do now. All we have demonstrated … we’ve looked at the teacher discourse and we’ve said, this is the kind … these are the things that teachers are trying very hard to teach and here’s how they’re doing it.

Now we’re going into a new study. We actually have three grants from the National Science Foundation to study transfer from the arts.

One is in visual arts. One is in music and one is in theater. In our visual arts study we are looking at the extent to which students learn to envision, to generate mental images and to manipulate them.

Let’s just call it spatial reasoning. We’re looking at the extent to which students learn spatial reasoning from strong visual arts involvement. And that’s just learning … learning. That doesn’t say anything about transfer.

We’re also looking at whether that transfers outside of the arts to geometric reasoning.

HEFFNER: When do we get away even from this general concept of transfer? You call the piece “Art for OUR Sake” …used to say “Art for art’s sake”.

WINNER: Right.

HEFFNER: When do we get back to that?

WINNER: Well …

HEFFNER: Isn’t that the same as …

WINNER: … it … that’s what I meant when I said I’m not opposed to transfer. I think if you look … I’m not opposed to the idea … I don’t think it’s bad to look for transfer. I just don’t think we should justify the arts in terms of what they do for other subjects.

HEFFNER: But you see, I’m not even talking about transfer. I’m talking about art for the sake of art.

WINNER: Okay. Well I actually believe that the purpose of education is go get students to appreciate the most important human inventions and those are the sciences, the humanities and the arts. And I also think … and so an education without the arts is leaving out something critical to what humans have done.

And I also believe that what the arts … an education the arts can do that no … education in no other area can do is to educate students in having aesthetic emotions, aesthetic reactions … feelings of awe. And think that the arts are important in their own right for those … perhaps for those two reasons. But I would go on to say that we can also show that the arts require thinking. And they, they stimulate important ways of thinking that are clearly used in other areas as well, like learning to see and spatial reasoning.

Whether learning these habits of mind in the arts studio will then allow you to carry that habit of mind outside of the arts studios to another kind of study is an open question that we’re investigating now.

HEFFNER: Habit of mind aside, how do the arts fare now in our schools?

WINNER: They’re still minimal …

HEFFNER: Wait a minute … when you say “still” …

WINNER: (Chuckle)

HEFFNER: … I remember as a student in public schools here in New York City having to take art …

WINNER: Right.

HEFFNER: … having to take music. No knowing that at some point in the future all those wonderful things would not be available.

WINNER: Right. When I say “still”, I mean they haven’t miraculously gotten better in the last five years.

HEFFNER: They haven’t.

WINNER: Yes, arts education has lost … has lost ground over several generations.

HEFFNER: And this is why you came under attack with your article.

WINNER: Yes. It’s also why people are claiming that the arts raise test scores. The more the arts are under attack, the more advocates claim that the arts are crucially important for doing what everybody agrees is important … quote/unquote … which is raising test (AUDIO NOISE … SEE IF SOMETHING CAN BE DONE HERE) … so …

HEFFNER: They’re not people who are talking about the art for the sake for the sake of art?

WINNER: No. And people said to me … “you’re … you know if you … if you say the arts don’t raise test scores, you’re throwing us back to arts for art’s sake. And that argument doesn’t work.” And I said, “don’t give up so easily.” We need to change the conversation … don’t sell out to the testing mentality. Even Obama talked about the … the … how the arts raised test scores and he talked about some Chicago public school studies which actually were not experimental studies and you couldn’t conclude that the arts raised test scores. But even he fell into that.

HEFFNER: Have you let him know better?

WINNER: Well, actually I got interviewed for an article in the New York Times Magazine before he was elected about these claims and I, I had to say that there wasn’t a lot of experimental evidence.

HEFFNER: How about our new Secretary of Education? Do we think he would buy this argument?

WINNER: I hope so. But I actually … I, I, I haven’t read anything he’s written about the arts and I don’t’ know what he would say.

HEFFNER: It seems to me that there’s so much (AUDIO BOBBLE HERE ALSO … SEE IF ANYTHING CAN BE DONE) to what you have written and to what you are saying and to what you are studying in your research that the new Administration is an administration that would welcome … no … maybe “welcome” is a wrong word, but would understand the critique …

WINNER: I think so.

HEFFNER: … that you’re offering.

WINNER: I think so. They’re open to new ideas, they’re open to new ways of thinking and I don’t think they’re hung up on the testing mentality.

HEFFNER: And yet that’s part of the whole pragmatic approach … the practical approach that led to an awful lot of people getting very upset by what you have written.

WINNER: I think it’s … it’s American instrumentalism and its American philistinism. I was at a conference in London about a year ago and I mentioned this and people at the conference were very surprised. They said, “really, we don’t justify the arts this way.”

But then I started getting emails from them and they said, “you know, we’ve started looking into this and we found that the same kind of reasoning is creeping into our schools.”



HEFFNER: Money? Dollars?

WINNER: I think it’s money, I think it’s money. Right.

HEFFNER: And that’s not going to be changed very quickly.

WINNER: No. And you know because it’s an easy outcome to test … test scores. It’s actually a lot harder to look … to come up with good tests that look at leaning … looking at whether you can see better. Whether you can envision better.

We also found that in our, in the art classes that we studied, students were being trained to reflect. They were being trained to be very meta-cognitive. Because, during these three hour classes, students would be working on a project and the teacher would circle around and would say, “what are you doing here? Why are you doing it? Is this working? Isn’t it working?” And then there would be a critique session at the end where they would ask all those same questions and you don’t see that kind of focus on reflection outside of the arts studio. So I actually argue that the way that arts classes are taught, when they’re taught well could be a model for non-arts classes.

HEFFNER: What about the … let me call them … the best schools? Mentioned Andover as a …


HEFFNER: … as a private institution. What about the public schools? The best arts teaching …


HEFFNER: … in the public schools? Do you find them concerned about art for the sake of art?

WINNER: Yes. I think arts teachers are not concerned about raising test scores. Arts teachers do not like these claims. Artists do not like these claims. The only people who like these claims are educational psychologists who have already made their name in saying that the arts raise test scores and arts advocates who are trying … who have made their reputation and their funding base in saying that the arts raise test scores.

Arts teachers absolutely don’t think about what they’re doing in terms of raising SAT scores. And there are some wonderful arts teachers. There’s some terrible arts teaching going on and there’s some wonderful arts teaching.

One of the schools that we studied was the Boston Arts Academy, which is a public pilot school in Boston for Boston Public High School kids who want to focus on the arts.

And they choose an art form to major in. We studied those majoring in visual arts. We also looked at a … the Walnut Hill School for the Arts, which is a private residential school. But there was wonderful arts teaching going on in the Boston Arts Academy. And that’s a very special school. I’m sure you would also find wonderful arts teaching in many other private … public schools where, where students don’t go to specialize in the arts.

HEFFNER: We don’t have much time left, but I do want to pursue this. About the rest of the country … it sounds as though there is something parochial about these studies. You haven’t limited yourself to New England, have you?

WINNER: Well, actually the Alameda County Schools in California have taken up our studio habits of mind framework and they are using … many, many teachers now are adopting our framework and trying to change the way the arts are taught in the classroom.

So, and Lois Hetland is the person on our team who’s been working out there in California. So we just chose two schools in New England because we, we needed local schools.

HEFFNER: Does this mean that you are really primarily interested in curriculum development?

WINNER: No. I am primarily interested in research. I was interested in this from a scientific question. I was interested in the relationship between thinking in the arts and thinking outside of the arts.

I mentioned that I have these two other studies going on. We have three longitudinal studies and I’m interested in them, really, for science, but they have policy implications.

One is looking at the effect of music training on the brain. One is looking at the effect of theater training on, on respective taking theory of mind and empathy.

And the third the looking at (AUDIO BOBBLE AGAIN) the visual arts training and its effect on geometric reasoning.

HEFFNER: None of them relate to the SATs.

WINNER: None of them relate to the SATs, though geometric reasoning might be the closest. Although there’s much more focus on algebra than on geometry in the SAT.

HEFFNER: This whole notion of carry-over, of transfer … my saying to my students … though I didn’t go to law school, my younger son did … go to law school, good training …


HEFFNER: But I’m obviously thinking about transfer movement of disciplined thinking from one area to another. Is this what your research will be doing?

WINNER: That’s not an area that I’ve looked and I probably won’t be looking at it. But I think that … I certainly heard that the claim that training in philosophy and training if law trains the mind and it will carry over. What will it carry over to? Probably to other areas that are similar … verbal reasoning, logically …the ability to logically analyze and argument. So it’s near transfer, not far transfer.

HEFFNER: Great concept, isn’t it … transfer? A very, very human one. Ellen Winner thank you so much for joining me today on The Open Mind.

WINNER: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.