Judy Willis

Art for Joyful Learning

The brain, in animals and humans, evolved to better protect the well-being of its owner and species. Expending energy without the expectation of imminent satisfaction is not part of the survival programming of the brain. Effort and attention are limited commodities that the brain parses out to the actions it predicts will be successful in protection or pleasure. To predict the likelihood that effort will result in successful outcomes, the brain uses the outcome of previous experiences.

Getting students to engage in activities not imminently linked to the probability of successful outcomes of protection or pleasure is a matter of convincing their brains to act counter to their survival instincts. Trying to teach children through drills or isolated skill practice is contrary to the brain's instinct to preserve its energy, because the brain does not have the expectation of pleasure. And without the opportunity to use the information in personally valued ways, the brain is programmed to limit effort given to the task.

When students know the information will be used to create solutions to problems that interest them or to create products that they want to create (e.g., artwork, instrumental music skill, dance moves, skits), that is when the brain predicts pleasure and applies effort to achieve the desirable goal. When art is incorporated in learning and assessment, there is increased opportunity to produce the ideal situation for active, attentive learning because students value the information that will promote their success in the desired action (creative problem solving or creative production). Now they will apply the effort, collaborate successfully, ask questions, revise work, and review foundational knowledge because they want to know what you have to teach.

In addition, with a creative activity as a goal, the brain has a positive expectation as a template to which it can link acquired facts, skills, or procedures because these are valued as resources to achieve the desired goal. The expectation of creative expression promotes information input through the brain's second intake filter, the emotionally responsive amygdala, so that it can reach the higher functioning prefrontal cortex. This passage into the part of the brain that consolidates learning into relational patterns means the information will not become just an isolated neural network, pruned away after test prep is over. The expectation of creative action and pleasure through the arts literally opens doors to the strongest memory neural links of long-term memory networks.

Information acquired with positive expectation and then mentally manipulated through the symbolic representations of art will link into the expanded neural networks of constructed concepts. Learning throughout the curriculum that incorporates creative and symbolic representation will promote long-term preservation of the memory and store the knowledge available for creative transfer when it is used to solve new problems or investigate new ideas.

This is the second in a four-part series on creativity and the critical importance of the arts in providing students with a well-rounded education that meets the needs of the whole child. Read the first post in the series, The Brain Learns Creatively When Arts Are in the Picture.

Judy Willis is an ASCD author and expert on learning-centered brain research and classroom strategies derived from this research. Connect with Willis on ASCD EDge and on her website, RADTeach.com, and follow her on Twitter.

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