George Lucas Educational Foundation
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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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Comments (10) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Ken Gilbert's picture
Ken Gilbert
Theater Artist and Somatic Education in Movement and Creative Integration

I am excited to hear of your discussion linking Joy, the child (beginner's) mind and the arts. I teach movement through Nia (Somatic Education for EveryBody) which stimulates the limbic and sympathic nervous system responses through movement. Thank you for your citing of JOY and Pleasure as important aspects of sensing the emotional components of learning.

Ken Gilbert's picture
Ken Gilbert
Theater Artist and Somatic Education in Movement and Creative Integration

I am excited to hear of your discussion linking Joy, the child (beginner's) mind and the arts. I teach movement through Nia (Somatic Education for EveryBody) which stimulates the limbic and sympathic nervous system responses through movement. Thank you for your citing of JOY and Pleasure as important aspects of sensing the emotional components of learning.

Diva Taunia's picture
Diva Taunia
Voice Teacher & Educational Rap Enthusiast

I REALLY enjoyed reading this article and was particularly happy that you mentioned rap as one of the artistic resources from which students can thrive and excel. I work for Rhythm, Rhyme, Results ( and we've long known that academic music, particularly educational rap, is a culturally relevant, accessible and affordable educational tool which can be used in a variety of ways to help students learn.

Off to tweet this on our page. Bravo! Excellent article.

William Zimmerman's picture
William Zimmerman
Literacy, ESL Teacher and Creator of

Hope, in your efforts to use educational resources that provide a joyous as well as a learning experience to youngsters, that you'll experiment with, a free comic strip generator. The site offers 128 characters with different emotions to choose from, blank talk and thought balloons to fill in with text, story prompts and more than 250 graphic writing prompt printables to encourage students to write and express their thoughts and feelings. Creating comic strips online can be a wonderful way to improve writing, reading, language skills and stir creativity, and the completed comic strips can be emailed or printed to place in a portfolio.
Bill Zimmerman
Creator, and

Annette Loubriel's picture
Annette Loubriel

I am not a person formally knowleageable in education or neuroscience. I am just a person who reads a lot, and has read a lot. My formal education is in chemistry. When I made a short stint as a chemistry teacher in a private school I was told by a PhD in Education that "motivation was intrinsic". And this was supposed to be the end of my conversation about motivating students... :<. Well, maybe it is true that it is intrinsic, but how can you affect this "inherence" of the child's mind? Is it possible to excite those neurons? I guess it would work just like what the physical therapist does to acheive healing of a muscle.
Thank you so much for this superb article. I hope every teacher reads it.

Angel's picture
Elementary Art Teacher from Woodhaven, MI

I really liked the message of positiveness and happiness that can help students achieve and learn through art. I also like the idea of students having "emotional comfort and a safe haven" through the arts as well. I think this in turn leads to increased student learning, and as you stated, more pleasurable learning as well.

Ruth Fingerhut's picture

My students with learning disabilities/cognitive disabilities are very excited about arts integration techniques. When I introduce a topic and let them know what they are going to get t o do or what materials they will be able to use, they are very motivated. Through the arts component, several students, who pour themselves into the expression, often show an alternative understanding, added knowledge, or new angle on the topic. By sharing these creations, explaining them, presenting them to other classes, the students' true intellect shines and they get respect for their very real conceptual understandings. Students learn that there isn't one "best" or most "accurate" depiction of a topic.

Annie Beasley's picture
Annie Beasley
High School Teacher from St. Paul, MN

The title of your blog really caught my attention and I continued to be impressed as I read. This last year, my school had a large focus on Carol Dweck and her research on the fixed v. growth mindset. We are diligently working to help move our students to the growth mindset. I am very interested to try in my own classroom how integrating the arts can have an impact in this area.

Dani Powell's picture

Thank you for your blog! I have been doing a great deal of research of how the emotional state of a child effects the amount of learning that is received and retained. I teach Kindergarten, and the amount of learning that happens with my five and six year-olds is not because their little brains are "like sponges." It is because it is acceptable to learn through play. Kindergarten is full of joyful learning. Unfortunately, the fun in learning seems to fizzle out as students progress into intermediate, middle and high school classes. The arts and collaborative learning should be involved in every classroom, along with the knowledge of neuroscience. I enjoy reading Dr. Willis' posts. I learn very much from each one!

Luiz's picture

I enjoyed reading your post and see many applications for using this idea in any classroom where there are diverse learners, which is all classrooms. Thank you

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