The Brainstormers' Response

What are some ways in which participation in the arts can improve attention?

The brain changes in response to what we do. The arts provide new challenges and connect learning experiences to the everyday world. As students create works of art, they see how parts are related to each other. They use visualization (think about approaching a blank canvas) to recognize and pursue goals that they had not conceptualized in the beginning. When integrated with content, the arts can provide an invaluable vehicle for organizing the learning process and enhancing problem-solving abilities – all-important mechanisms for supporting the attention.

Based on the article "How Arts Training Improves Attention and Cognition", by Michael I. Posner, Ph.D. and Brenda Patoine, research is showing that focused training in any of the arts—such as music, dance or theater—strengthens the brain’s attention system, which results in improved cognition and attention. The research is showing that if we practice frequently, these attention networks will improve general measures of intelligence. That being said, if each of us can find an art that “works” for us and we stick with it, the research is also saying that we will be more attentive and engaged resulting in higher intelligence. This then supports the idea that the arts truly need to be integrated into every lesson plan/ unit that a teacher creates.

By emphasizing early literacy and numeracy and with the pressure of high-stakes testing, have we unknowingly undermined the development of attentional networks?

Executive attention plays a critical role in the regulation of emotion and cognition. Consequently, executive attention has been found to strongly correlate with academic success. Because the normal development of the executive attention network occurs prior to age 7, “early training of executive attention might have a favorable influence on a wide variety of congitive and emotional behavior” (Postner & Rothbart, 2007, p. 110).

Therefore, the current emphasis on early literacy and numeracy along with the pressure of high-stakes testing is likely impairing the development of attentional networks. Historically, activities that enhance the development of attention networks have been included in the social settings of pre-schools and early elementary classrooms. Group games that trained students in attention, listening, and memory skills were routinely included in the instruction during these years. However, with the current emphasis on accountability, many of those activities have been replaced by activites designed to teach reading and math skills. Inadvertently, educators may be undermining their students’ ability to focus and self-regulate. These executive attention skills, the ability to focus and self-regulate, are essential if higher order concepts are to be mastered.

What teaching practices might parallel some of the methods described in this chapter and the training exercises the authors used for their research?

Posner and Rothbart discuss practice as a mean to enhance a person´s attention. Through repetition of a certain task (training), the person, even as young as a preschool child, is able to obtain the desired result. This method is utilized in BT-4: Teaching for Mastery of Skills and Content. Through repetition of a certain concept in different modalities (arts, movement, etc), students are able to acquire knowledge. Repetition is key for students to master material. However, repetition does not have to mean drill and kill.
Creative examples of repetition strategies include the Snake Game, a game in which students move from desk to desk answering a question on each desk, or the Seek N’ Solve activity in which students participate in a scavenger hunt looking for answers to specific questions. A learning unit on Greek Mythology could be introduced using art integration and repetition in the following manner. Students could act out a play about the gods, make drawings of the gods, and write a paper explaining what they would do if they were a particular Greek god.
Arts integration does not always have to be elaborate decorations or designs. For instance, students could draw out the situation of a math problem and present the posters to the class. Having students design their own cornel notes page is also a means of utilizing arts integration.

Guided practice until mastery is a key piece in training students for success. By introducing concepts repeatedly through different modalities and through integration with the arts, students master content and skills.