An Inside Perspective from CAP’s President & CEO

Your Brain on Arts

March 5, 2018
Kimberly L. Hyatt, President & CEO

Americans of a certain age spend an estimated $1.3 billion annually on brain training games such as Lumosity as we grasp for anything that might slow the changes that occur as our brains get older. We invest time and money even though there is no real research to support the notion these exercises work.[i] What research does show time and time again, however, is that arts education accelerates positive brain development when started at a young age.

Anyone who thinks the arts are extraneous need only look at images of brain scans to find the strongest of evidence to the contrary. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans literally show one’s brain light up when participating in a visual or performing art form.

While a human brain changes throughout life, its development is front-loaded and will take on a different structure if engaged in arts learning from a young age. Our brains quadruple in size during the preschool years and reach 90% of adult volume by the age of 6. However, structural changes continue well through childhood and adolescence, largely in response to either enrichment or deprivation of inputs.

Music is typically the first thought that enters our minds when thinking of arts learning and brain development. And there’s good reason. Scientists believe music stimulates more areas of the brain than any other function and spurs different parts of the brain to communicate with one another.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

In the same way that weight lifting changes the shape of our muscles, musical training does the same to our brains – it changes its very structure. Neurological studies using fMRI have found a host of differences between the brains of those with musical training compared to those without, including the growth of the cerebellum, the size of certain areas of the brain, plasticity and the density of both white and gray matter. Whereas playing video games results in a loss of gray matter, playing musical instruments increases it.

In addition to these structural changes, music education influences networks in the brain associated with motor skills, cognitive processing and the so-called executive functions – the ability to concentrate, see a task through to completion, self-regulate and think ahead.[ii][iii][iv] A plethora of studies show a correlation between musical training and verbal and nonverbal reasoning, language learning and mathematics proficiency.

But it’s not just music. The brain looks and acts differently when engaged in any art form. Additionally, multiple studies show these changes that occur after arts training during childhood will stay with a person into adulthood.

An ounce of prevention is surely worth a pound of cure, but children can’t be responsible for ensuring their own access to quality arts education. That’s up to us, the adults. We owe it to today’s children whether they ask for it or not.

Even children who are no more interested in playing an instrument or drawing than they are in cleaning their rooms need these opportunities throughout their childhood. Their developing brains need the arts. They may not know it, but we do.

While we are right to worry about the impact of sports trauma on young brains, we should be equally worried about the deprivation of arts learning on those same brains. And we should do something about it while there is time. Because we can.


[i] No Effect of Commercial Cognitive Training on Brain Activity, Choice Behavior, or Cognitive Performance, Journal of Neuroscience, Joseph W. Kable, M. Kathleen Caulfield, Mary Falcone, Mairead McConnell, Leah Bernardo, Trishala Parthasarathi, Nicole Cooper, Rebecca Ashare, Janet Audrain-McGovern, Robert Hornik, Paul Diefenbach, Frank J. Lee and Caryn Lerman, 2 August 2017, Vol. 37, Issue 31.

[ii] Coyle, D. (2009). The talent code: Greatness isn’t born. It’s grown. Here’s how. New York, NY: Bantam.

[iii] Hutchinson, S., Lee, L., gaab, N., & Schlaug, G. (2003). Cerebelllar volume of musicians. Cerebral Cortex, 13(9), 9437-949.

[iv] Wan., C., & Schlaug, G. (2013). Brain plasticity induced by musical training. In D. Deutsch (Ed.), The psychology of music (pp. 565-581). Waltham, MA: Elsevier.

Arts Education and Civil Rights: Can the Arts Improve Race Relations?

January 8, 2018
Kimberly L. Hyatt, President & CEO

No one is born a racist, but it doesn’t take long to develop racial and ethnic biases. By the time children are 3 years old, they can recognize differences in skin color and other physical traits. By the time they are 5, children can already develop negative biases toward others based on these differences. By the time children are in middle school, these biases have likely been reinforced by those around them and/or what they see or read online such that bias becomes the default lens through which they see others. 

There is room to debate how the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned his dream to be realized so that children would, in fact, be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. There is room to debate how much progress we in the United States have made toward this vision. But there is no room to debate that racial tension is more pronounced now than at any time since the Civil Rights Movement. American children of color are experiencing more harassment and anxiety than they have in generations.

One factor contributing to this animosity is the increasing segregation of K-12 schools. According to the Government Accountability Office, from 2000 to 2014, the number of K-12 public schools that were high-poverty and comprised of mostly African American or Hispanic students almost doubled from 9 percent to 16 percent. The number of students attending these quasi-segregated schools more than doubled. And the increasingly popular charter schools are the most segregated of all.  

It’s hard not to attribute the resurgence of racism among young white students at least in part to the increasing segregation in K-12 education. If children do not grow up and learn alongside peers who represent diversity of culture, race and ethnicity, how can they possibly determine the content of their character? All they have to go by are default stereotypes and biases formed, in many cases, before kindergarten.  

But the good news is that even though children develop negative biases quickly, once they are exposed to diversity, those prejudices can be unlearned. Arts education is an incredibly viable way to combat prejudice, especially when works of artists from diverse backgrounds are given equal billing in the curriculum on an ongoing basis throughout the school year. 

Nothing more aptly defines what it means to be human than our creative potential. So how better to encounter and learn about others’ character than studying the output of their creative thinking? Because in life as in the arts, there is always more than meets the eye.  

In the visual arts, students learn to look beyond surface impressions and examine formal elements and technique, as well as concepts and possible meanings – its character. Similarly, an individual trained as a musician hears more during a symphony performance than someone who hears only the top-line melody. They hear the character of the composition. It stands to follow that studying the work of diverse artists is at least a start toward developing a deeper understanding of diverse others.  

Through works of art that reflect the creative thinking of diverse peoples, children come to see their story from different perspectives. They also learn the stories of others from diverse backgrounds. The arts help children look more closely at both our differences and that which we have in common.  

As we remember Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday this month, let us consider how race relations would improve if a critical mass of students engaged in ongoing study of the works of artists, musicians, dancers and playwrights of color. At the very least, they could use the arts as a stepping stone to walk toward those they may not walk toward on the playground. 

A Champion for the Arts: Jacksonville’s Superintendent Search

December 4, 2017
Kimberly L. Hyatt, President & CEO

Policies at the district, state and federal levels all speak to the critical importance of quality arts education if we have any hope of preparing students to succeed in school and in life. What the children who attend Duval County Public Schools (DCPS) need now is a superintendent who will bring those aspirations to life and make arts learning central – not only in theory, but also in the reality of students’ daily lives.

The selection of a new superintendent for DCPS will have profound impact for years, possibly generations, to come. I am so encouraged by the School Board’s draft of a new strategic plan, which starts off right out of the gate with a goal to “promote student engagement through safe, nurturing and enriching learning environments.”

This is important because what stands out when one analyzes education systems in countries where students routinely out-perform American students and where there is less of an achievement gap among children of different socioeconomic backgrounds is that all these other countries make arts learning central to the school day every day. They utilize the arts to effectively promote student engagement.

As Yeats so beautifully put it, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” That’s what arts education does. Learning in the arts lights a fire and engages children in their studies, teaching them how to think, analyze and problem-solve.

The district’s new superintendent will set the tone when it comes to what is prioritized in a school day not only by what is messaged as important, but also by what is shown to be important by the allotment of resources – teachers, supplies, space and time for arts learning in every student’s schedule every day.

Our community’s children deserve a superintendent who understands what research shows time and time again – that #TheArtsAddUp to increased graduation rates, a stronger economy and more creative individuals equipped to solve the challenges of tomorrow both in the workplace and our civic life together.

Our children deserve a superintendent who understands why they desperately need an arts-rich education that includes not only visual arts and music, but also dance, theatre and media arts. Our children deserve dynamic learning environments that engage them and draw from all their intelligences.

The School Board’s draft strategic plan also calls for the district to “expand and improve well-rounded opportunities for the development of the whole child.” Federal education law embodied in the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act presents a tremendous opportunity to follow the lead of other countries who are surpassing us by systemically including arts learning in every child’s day. The concept of a well-rounded education, which surely includes the arts, is referenced more than 20 times and included in most of the specific Titles in the Act.

What our children need now is a superintendent who will leverage the possibilities provided by this law and other policies; who will stand up against the “STEM above all else” mentality; and who will advocate, budget, schedule and provide for increased and quality arts learning.

Please join me in helping our School Board bring such a leader to Duval County. Click here to provide feedback and help define the leadership profile of the next superintendent.

Photo credit: Susan Edelman

New Superintendent Needs Support to Invest in Arts Education

May 23, 2018
Kimberly L. Hyatt, President & CEO

Stating the long-term goal should be for every school to have art and music, Dr. Diana Greene made the strongest statement of the three finalists for our next DCPS superintendent in support of arts education as essential in educating the whole child.

Acknowledging short-term adjustments may have to be made considering the $62 million shortfall, she nevertheless put an early stake in the ground for her priorities. She bragged that as soon as Manatee County had a fund balance over 3 percent, she began investing in the arts.

Dr. Greene will be walking into a community eager for investment in the arts. She will be walking into a community rich in educators and community partners eager to serve.

That said, no superintendent is a miracle worker. Dr. Greene needs more than her and our community’s good intentions; our children deserve more.

Dr. Greene and our children need elected leaders, especially at the state level, to adequately invest in public schools and give them similar flexibility given to charter schools.

Dr. Greene and our children need everyone at all levels of our district to consider that lower-income students who regularly participate in the arts have a 96% graduation rate, compared to only 76% among their peers, when making resource allocation decisions.

Dr. Greene and our children need business leaders to take to heart the fact that arts education creates tomorrow’s leaders – empowering them to analyze, problem-solve and innovate. If we really want to equip students for the jobs of tomorrow – many of which haven’t even been imagined yet – we’ve got to do more to cultivate creative thinking and truly engage students in learning.

Responding to a question about the growing school choice movement, Dr. Greene shared how she brought students back to public schools in Manatee by working with principals on curriculum to make their schools the most attractive school they could and engaging students once they enrolled so they would want to stay there.

If Dr. Greene wants to do the same in Duval County, there is simply no better way to attract and engage students than through the arts.

The False Dichotomy

August 6, 2018
Kimberly L. Hyatt, President & CEO

Every now and then, we get an idea in our head and no matter the evidence to the contrary, we won’t change our mind. We’re like those who refused to look through Galileo’s telescope because they didn’t want to see something that conflicted with their worldview.

Too many operate from the perspective that while the arts are important, they are not quite as important as math, science and other subjects. Some even distinguish the arts from academics, as though the arts are but a structured form of recess.

The prevailing perception is that the arts are “less than” other subjects, but in reality, what ends up being “less than” are our children, our schools, our workplaces and our society when we don’t treat the arts as the most important part of a well-rounded education.

Today, narrow career and technical skills are taught at exactly the time we need broad subjects like the arts. These narrow subjects will be obsolete in a decade, if not before. But broad subjects like the arts develop the kind of thinking skills that will be valuable to a student, an employee, a citizen — forever.

This false dichotomy between academics and the arts places unnecessary limitations on our children’s curriculum and consequently, on their futures. Narrow subjects are preparing kids for narrow lives. Is that what we really want for our children?

We need to teach kids big ideas if we want them to lead big lives. That’s why I am so grateful for Duval County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Diana Greene and our school board for recommending funding for the arts be maintained at last year’s level, even in the face of a challenging budget. They understand it makes no sense to cut the most important part of the curriculum. In a world of infinite information, we need to cultivate the ability to generate infinite ideas.

Until we give the arts their rightful place and the esteem due them, we are compromising our kids’ futures. The arts cannot be treated as extracurricular time at the elementary level or as electives at the middle and high school levels. High school graduation and college admission requirements need to require as much from the arts as they do from the sciences. Life sure does.