Brain-Based Learning

Executive Function, Arts Integration and Joyful Learning

The neuroscience of academic creativity

March 14, 2012

This post is part of a series on executive function. Here I will cover the arts and the neuroscience of joyful learning.

Promising Starts

Children's brains need to acquire memory associations that link pleasure with learning. The creative arts can provide this link through associations with the pleasures of creative experiences enjoyed during early childhood.

When students know they will have opportunities to use artistic, kinesthetic or manipulative experiences in the course of learning and as part of their learning assessments, their optimism is renewed. Knowing from the start that they will create representations of their learning through visual, musical or movement expressions (ideally with a medium of their choice) is an inoculation against boredom and low effort.

When the brain has reasons to expect that something previously pleasurable will soon happen, such as when a creative activity will be part of new learning, that expectation results in increased release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which increases pleasure and reduces stress. When students have the expectation of pleasure prior to the introduction of new material, the release of this anticipatory dopamine can release students from the hold of self-predicted failure.

Fixed Mindset to Growth Mindset

Arts, writing and other creative representations embedded throughout the curriculum can reignite the childhood joy students came to associate with learning, discovering, and creating. These opportunities increase interest, motivation, active participation and effort for all learners as they are disabused of the message that one's intelligence and potentials are defined by standardized math and language arts test scores.

Through the work of Carol Dweck and others, we've associated a fixed mindset of beliefs that students often acquire after their efforts toward success repeatedly fail. Students with fixed mindset may lose motivation and reduce effort because they believe their intelligence and skills are predetermined, limited and unchangeable, and therefore effort is fruitless.

Embedding the arts in instruction and assessment can change these students from the beliefs of a fixed mindset to those of a growth mindset. Indeed, with effort, practice and newly recognized skillsets, they can transform their capacity for learning and increase their academic success.

Learning that incorporates the arts, movement or physical enactment offers students opportunities to engage their academic subjects through talents and abilities which they have not previously recognized as being relevant to their scholastic and cognitive potentials. The representation of learning through creative arts also reduces mistake anxiety by removing expectations for a single correct response or product. When students have choices in ways to practice, use and demonstrate understanding of learning through drawing, computer art, skits, script writing, raps and songs, the brain can be released from the mindset of low expectations of success. When confidence grows through the arts, it may be the first time some students will experience success in certain academic subjects.

The arts can be used to re-motivate frustrated students or enrich the conceptual learning for bored students who have already mastered the information. In these cases, however, artistic activities should be authentic and meaningful; they should not be perceived by students as "add-on fluff" to academic subjects. Indeed, the authenticity of the incorporation must be evident to them if they are to participate to their highest potentials and grow in confidence and competence from their achievements.

Immediate Gratification or Effort Toward Goals

One of the most critical executive functions developing in students' prefrontal cortexes is the ability to delay immediate gratification and to apply effort toward goals that are not immediate. This is a habit of mind that sustains successful adults through challenging times and gives them the perseverance to effect positive change even when initial responses are less than enthusiastic.

These executive functions cannot spring up de novo after students leave school. While their judgment, prioritization and goal pursuit neural networks are undergoing their greatest rate of maturation between ages 5 and 25, students need experiences that correlate effort toward progress. They need positive learning, assessment and feedback experiences to build the understanding that, even when pleasure or success is not immediate, their planning, prioritizing and sustained effort can bring long-term and powerful satisfaction.

Through authentic embedding of the arts, you can guide students to recognize the links between their efforts and successful goal outcomes over time. As these positive learning and assessment experiences continue and students begin to build confidence, they will apply effort even when the pleasure is not instantaneous. This begins building their habit of mind such that they recognize value in the practice, review and application of learning even the most challenging or "boring" fundamentals in terms of goals they envision beyond the classroom.

You may recognize the impact of your efforts as you see students apply more effort, collaborate successfully, ask questions, revise work and review foundational knowledge as they recognize how these can help them reach what they now perceive as achievable and desirable goals.

The Arts and the Neuroscience of Joyful Learning

The arts also promote symbolic/conceptual thinking and innovative skillsets. Arts integration correlates with students' increased sustained attention not only while participating in art-related activities, but also with increased attention span in general and improved critical thinking (Posner and Patoine, 2009; Uptis and Smithrim, 2003).

With the arts in the picture, classrooms can be the safe havens where emotional comfort and pleasure are companions to knowledge acquisition. Students will gain emotional resilience as they learn more efficiently and at higher levels of cognition.

It will take more time and study to make greater direct correlations between the research and teaching interventions. However, the good news is that the preliminary neuroscience research correlates experience in symbolic representation of academic learning with the neural activity seen when the brain processes information using the highest forms of cognition, creative problem solving, critical analysis and innovation.


Posner, M. & Patoine, B. (2009). How arts training improves attention and cognition. The Dana Foundation.

Talmi, D., Anderson, AK., Riggs, L., Caplan, JB., Moscovitch, M. (2008). "Immediate memory consequences of the effect of emotion on attention to pictures," Learn. Mem. 15, 172-182.

Uptis, R. & Smithrim, K. (2003). Learning through the Arts National Assessment.

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