Neuroscience travels from the lab to the classroom

by Aalok Mehta

May 5, 2009

Across the country, the economic crisis has ravaged state budgets, putting school arts curricula under even greater pressure than before. But educators at Johns Hopkins University hope that a meeting of prominent scientists and teachers can reaffirm the importance of the subjects—and lead to innovative new programs and teaching methods not just for the arts but for other subjects as well.

The Learning, Arts and the Brain Summit, May 6 at Baltimore's American Visionary Art Museum, will bring together experts from a variety of disciplines—from child psychology to neuroscience—to explore “how the arts enhance learning outcomes and contribute to cognitive and social development in children.”

 “We strongly believe arts matter and arts education matters,” says Susan Magsamen, co-director of Johns Hopkins’ Neuro-Education Initiative and one of the organizers of the symposium. “Through this summit, we hope to craft something at the end of the day that offers a really wonderful immersion into the connection between arts and the brain, how it is being applied now and what is the next level of research we need to be talking about.”

The summit, also sponsored in part by the Dana Foundation, builds directly upon Dana’s Learning, Arts and the Brain report, published in March 2008. That report summarizes a three-year series of scientific studies that found strong connections between arts education and general educational success. So it’s no coincidence that speakers at the summit will include William Safire, the Dana Foundation’s chairman; Hopkins neurology and neuroscience professor Guy McKhann, a scientific consultant for the Dana Foundation and scientific advisor for its Brain in the News site and publication; and other members of the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives.

But “it’s very thin, the number of studies with educators as consumers. There is still a large gap between what researchers are finding and what educators are applying,” says summit co-organizer Mariale Hardiman, an assistant dean in Johns Hopkins’ department of education. “Our interest certainly is in not just what these studies say but in moving it along to practitioners.”

Registration for the summit is now closed—270 people have said they are coming, far in excess of the originally anticipated 200, Hardiman says—but the museum will host a free and public author panel May 5 that will briefly cover many of the same topics. Titled “Arts, Creativity and Other Outrageous Education Ideas,” the event will feature Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan, John Tarnoff of Dreamworks Animation and other education experts. (RSVP to if you would like to attend.)

According to the organizers, the panel and summit are the first step in what they hope will be a continuing process of translating the latest scientific research into new classroom strategies. It’s hard to say exactly what this will look like, Magsaman says: “When you bring a lot of people together who are creative, anything can happen.”