The annual Kennedy Center retreat for teaching artists is one of my favorite times of the year. I get to hang out with amazing, intelligent, engaged, and committed teaching artists who are doing great work all over the United States. We receive a variety of workshops on subjects that are current in education, and we sing, talk, dance, and eat together.
This year Dr. Luke Rinne spoke about an article he’d written called Why Arts Integration Improves Long-Term Retention of Content. The presentation was interesting both for what he said and what he didn’t say. On the one hand, his study shows that the kinds of activities that students engage in in the arts have been shown to promote long-term memory of content. There are eight memory effects that he cited, including rehearsal (repeating content,) enactment, (adding movement,) elaboration (adding to content,) and generation (creating based on content.) The full article is available here.
On the one hand, his study clearly shows that for many students arts-integrated activities make a difference in remembering,which is an important part of learning. Here was a real scientist giving us data to bolster our argument that arts are important for kids, and make a difference in their learning and achievement.
However, Dr. Rinne was careful to frame his comments in cautious scientific terms. In particular, he urged us not to make claims beyond what is actually demonstrated. Often we hear people claim that “research shows” followed by some assertion of why what they offer is worth buying. I’m sure I’ve done it myself. His very targeted study would say that, for example, singing songs with kids is likely to help them remember content versus traditional instruction of a teaching talking and kids listening, or kids simply reading information. It wouldn’t say that singing is better than other possible approaches, or that it works for all kids.
As an artist, I want to back up what I intuitively know with the gold imprimatur of science. His words of caution were helpful to me. When I say “research shows” I better be able to say which research, and to understand exactly what it does and doesn’t imply. Nine out of ten doctors recommend sounds good on a television commercial, but credibility demands a little more than that.