May/June 2016

Arts education: The evolution of human intellect and the creative mind

By Chris Sykora
Chris Sykora is the advocacy task force chair for the Illinois Art Education Association and a teacher of art at Deerfield High School.

Approximately 100,000 years ago, in a tiny South African cave, the human imagination was actualized through the art-making process. This was early humankind’s attempt at externalizing the mind and symbolically representing identity and surroundings. This action has been essential to developing the modern human intellect: actions of seeing and feeling, of connecting the hand with the heart, and performing cognitive transformation. Neuroscience explains how our engagements with art build crucial neural networks, making metaphysical connections that transform our potential intelligence into actual intelligence.

Why, then, shouldn’t art be required in all schools of learning?

Neural scientist Semir Zeki would respond, “The answer to that question … immediately reveals a parallel between the functions of art and the functions of the brain, and indeed ineluctably drives us to another conclusion – that the overall function of art is an extension of the function of the brain.”

Modern studies on how learning impacts brain development suggest that all students should have time for arts experiences every day. Educational systems that embrace this fact present a pattern of achievement that is connected to arts programming. Economic realities illustrate a global economy dependent on creative industries, hungry for an innovative and cultured workforce. Leading scientists, such as Jim Sullivan, vice president of discovery research at pharmaceutical manufacturer Abbvie, pressure schools to realize what they have known for a long time, “Investigation of the many great scientific minds over the last 100 years reveals the important influence of the arts in their development and success.”

Support for arts education should not come as a revelation. We absorb, feel, interpret, express, communicate, and cultivate the fine arts every moment of every day in our lives through music, theater, dance, film, sculpture, paintings, and more. Art is at the core of who we are as human beings and nurtures our development in profound ways.

Data referenced throughout this article highlight how students in the arts achieve more in school, graduate from college at a higher rate, and find employment more often. However, the vast research and data for the arts have been unsuccessful in producing adequate state government support for the fine arts as a vital component of today’s educational system. Rather, arts programs are being cut in Illinois schools where funding arguments take priority over the development of our children. According to the State of the States: Arts Education State Policy Summary, Illinois has recognized the arts as a core subject, but is one of the 24 states yet to adopt graduation and mandatory minute requirements. Policy makers must understand that the finer arts are not just a “nicety,” but rather an economic priority, a civil rights issue, and matter of equitable and superior educational development.  

This is not to suggest art is superior to all other subjects. Students possess multiple intelligences and should have access to developing their vast, unique strengths. I encourage interdisciplinary approaches to learning, such as STEAM education, which adds the “A” for art to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). It provides the framework for connecting the growing network of educational disciplines, businesses, and communities to create adaptable, globally-responsible, innovative, and project-based learning. I am witnessing the successes of such programing firsthand as our school, Deerfield High School, integrates this philosophy. The arts are not superior, but integral in the process. Research by author and educator Anne Jolly shows that “engaging students’ strengths in art activities increases the success of STEM subjects, bridging the gap between content intersections.”

Arts in evidence

Educators have already seen that the arts make students more creative learners. Neuroscience adds a level of confirmation. The Department of Interdisciplinary Studies in Education, Neuro-Education Initiative at Johns Hopkins University has advice on the matter. After studying curricular experiences’ impact on brain development, researchers concluded the human brain does not fully develop without frequent engagement in the arts. The report included a number of recommendations, including the following:

“Children who received intensive arts training showed significantly higher performance on achievement tasks … we recommend one hour of arts education per day.”

“It is clear that art education and experience is an essential aspect to the full functioning of the human brain.”

T his and other research supposes that the human brain’s development is rooted in the ability to see, hear, and interact with the world. It suggests that creating with our hands, molding pots out of clay, drawing animals on cave walls, and engaging in artistic practices is integral for human brain evolution. Humankind’s distinct neural networks were formed as a result of these ancestral artistic practices.

“Years of research show that [art] is closely linked to almost everything that we as a nation say we want for our children and demand from our schools: academic achievement, social and emotional development, civic engagement, and equitable opportunity,” said Fran Smith, in a 2009 piece that collected arts in education research.

Our extraordinary capacity to understand and create is unique to the human mind. This is why when we enhance creative practices in our educational systems, student achievement levels rise. For instance, research by Dorothy MacGillivray and Patricia Palmer found that art education time equates to as much as a 20 percent increase in test scores, and even higher in at-risk schools. They also found that children who were able to draw inferences about fine art were able to transfer their reasoning to images in science. Additionally, D.A. Sousa wrote, “Although the arts are often thought of as separate subjects, like chemistry or algebra, they really are a collection of skills and thought processes that transcend all areas of human engagement,”

Among my many professional roles is co-creator of the Illinois High School Art Exhibition, which showcases artwork from over 700 students from across Illinois. In just its second year, the program connected students to over $20 million in tuition scholarships and $100,000 in early college programs from over 40 colleges and universities. The real life connection is that the visual arts are a legitimate path to college, and one that is under-utilized. The IHSAE’s goal is to empower the voices of high school art students by advocating and exposing their ingenuity and technical mastery in the arts. By connecting the diversity of urban and suburban student artists, we aim to unify through a common goal and experience: to provide a public platform for the range and beauty of student artwork; to promote an artistic community of peers and professionals; to celebrate the importance of art in education; and to reinforce the power of art in our students’ lives.

According to Americans for the Arts, the economic reality is that 4.7 million jobs are directly supported by the arts and culture sector for the economy, with a total compensation of $334.9 billion alone, which contributed $698.7 billion to the U.S. GDP in 2012. Not only are our models for industry outdated and lacking in creative problem solvers, but our economy is well supported by arts-based careers. Put simply, arts education is integral to our economic strength.

Looking backward, moving forward

How did we arrive at this point, with marginalized, amputated fine arts programs across our nation’s schools? How do we adequately prepare students for a reality that involves an exponentially changing world and cultivate a love for transformative behaviors and curricula? What went wrong?

Quite simply, we ignored the development of creativity, imagination, and process.

“A serious decline of the fine arts started in 1957 with the Soviet Union’s launching of its first satellite, Sputnik. The United States’ response was a massive $1 billion federal mobilization of education to meet pressing demands of national security and to maintain its competitive edge in math and science,” wrote Charles Fowler in Strong Arts, Strong Schools: The Promising Potential and Shortsighted Disregard of the Arts in American Schooling.

This “reform” focused on promoting math and science in the classroom above all else, with some of the first and most major cuts to the fine arts. In 1983, the federal report “A Nation at Risk” again tied education directly to the United States’ ability to compete in world markets and to regain its “once unchallenged prominence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation.” Again, this was at the expense of the arts.

During the past 30 years, the time allotted to the arts in schools has decreased by an average of 30 percent. However, the Conference Board, an international non-profit business research organization, recently released a study that states, “U.S. employers rate creativity and innovation among the top five skills that will increase in importance over the next five years, and rank it as the top challenge facing CEOs.”

The real world connection is that business recruiters want creative thinkers with strong visual literacy skills. They need minds to expand the already limited horizons, to see beyond the boundaries of a confined and absolute system. Our school systems should be addressing this need rather than increasing the shortage.

Education leaders must create a vision for learning that will provide the right autonomy, tools, and supports for all students to thrive. Educational communities should promote learning that is sensitive to all, but also empowers stakeholders to embrace openness, creative problem solving, and transformation. The learning process should be rigorous, but also value student socio-emotional health and balance. I envision a school environment that encourages exploration, failure, process, and invention. The arts are not exclusive to these philosophies, but are an essential element.

Some constructive dialogue is starting among government leaders and business media in recognizing these truths. In some cases, action is taking place. For example, Massachusetts, citing the need to boost the commonwealth’s financial health via the creative economy, has passed legislation requiring public schools to be ranked on how well the curricula is designed to foster creativity in students. Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick called for formation of a “creativity index” for ranking public schools statewide. I previously mentioned our school’s efforts to integrate STEAM programming, which is being adopted by more schools across the nation each day.

I am currently involved in bringing together prominent Illinois education and policy leaders in an effort to determine how we can leverage our unique strengths and positions to accomplish more access to arts programming. What can be more rewarding than improving education, the single most important role of any successful society? What can be more exciting? It is without question that the pathway to increased educational achievement involves establishing the fine arts as a fundamental, respected, and required subject matter.

There has been some rustle of change from the federal government. Late last year, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) replaced No Child Left Behind in the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). ESSA includes 13 arts-friendly provisions, including retaining the arts as a core academic subject, which is a key legislative priority.

To truly embody these educational ideologies, schools must use the arts as they are, a system for transmitting knowledge, passion, critical thinking, communication, collaboration, creativity, and innovation. Art is the vehicle for tapping into the origins of the human intellect and creative mind. The importance of visual literacy — knowing how to see, perceive, and actively construct perception — in our visual culture makes it even more imperative that education not only includes, but embraces the learning of creating meaning from multi-faceted visual information and experiences between two-dimensional and three-dimensional surfaces.

Evidence supports that we honor our ancestral modalities of evolution as illustrated by humankind’s first known attempts at making art 100,000 years ago. Art has been a crucial mechanism for learning since the dawn of human civilization. What is the cost for our future when we do not honor that history appropriately?

“Once upon a time our forebears spoke of “the Arts and Sciences” in a single breath.”

— Harry Hillman Chartrand

Resources: Learn more about the Illinois High School Art Exhibition at and the Illinois Arts Educators Association at Links and resources for this piece are available at