While many neuroscientists hope that eventually what they have learned about learning will trickle down to how teachers teach, at the recent Learning, Arts, and the Brain summit at Johns Hopkins University, researcher Brian Wandell reminded us that communication goes both ways.
“Is there anything I can do that is useful to you?” he asked the audience of more than 300 teaching artists, educators and arts advocates early in the conference, held May 6 in Baltimore.
At the conference, Wandell spoke of his research on how music training may affect phonological awareness (the sound-system aspect of words) as measured by the strength of linkages that make up the white matter of the brain. “It’s been hard to get data on the white matter,” he said, because it is so fragile, but technologies in the past decade such as diffusion tensor imaging, which measures how much water is in a given tissue, have made such studies possible.
He and others have found that the properties of certain fibers are correlated with specific cognitive abilities. For example, “certain fibers passing through the corpus callosum are correlated with phonological decoding,” he said. The corpus callosum connects the two hemispheres of the brain. These fibers “are essential for learning the skills of phonological awareness,” one of the skills that lead to reading fluency, Wandell said. He and his colleagues reported their early findings in 2008 as part of the Dana Foundations’s Arts & Cognition consortium.
They have discovered a correlation between music training and scores on phonological tests. The training “explains 16 percent of the variance in children’s scores,” he said [see also “White Matter Pathways in Reading,” PDF]. “We also have discovered a modest correlation between visual arts and math,” in ongoing, not-yet-published research led by Jessica Tsang and Mihal Ben-Shachar in Wandell’s lab [listing of their publications]. Wandell and colleagues now are taking images of children’s brains before and after a certain period of arts instruction to see if this direct intervention can cause the effects they have seen in the earlier studies.
The research on math skills came about after Tsang spoke with a public school teacher who wondered if teaching general counting and estimating worked better than teaching exact counting at a certain grade level. Wandell encouraged the audience in Baltimore to ask their own questions; maybe a neuroscientist at the table with them would take up their gantlet. “We’re looking for teachers to ask questions for us to research,” he said.
In the small-group discussions later that afternoon, including the table where I sat, some people took him up on his suggestion. The conference host and co-sponsor, the Johns Hopkins University School of Education, assigned seating to ensure that scientists, educators and policy makers mingled, developing potential education plans as well as sharpening questions the scientists could take back to the labs. Our questions: How does arts training affect mood? Do different artistic disciplines promote different “styles” of focus and attention?
In a few years or so, perhaps we’ll see some answers.