Does studying the arts engender creative thinking? Evidence for near but not far transfer

Moga, E., Burger, K., Hetland, L., & Winner, E. (2000). Does studying the arts engender creative thinking? Evidence for near but not far transfer. Journal of Aesthetic Education, 34(3/4), 91-104.

Abstract:

This research examined whether studying the arts leads to creative thinking skills. The authors conducted a comprehensive search of empirical studies that assess the study of visual art (alone or in combination with other arts) and performance on some measure of creative, critical or higher order-thinking. Authors then conducted a meta-analysis of the findings, which suggest some evidence for an association between the arts and creative thinking. However, the authors conclude that transfer is greater, the “narrower the bridge,” meaning it is more likely to occur when the link is from the arts to a visual rather than a verbal form of creativity test.

Key Findings:

The analysis based on correlational studies demonstrated a modest association between studying the arts and performance on creativity measures. A possible explanation for this finding is that highly creative students self-selected to study the arts. The analysis of experimental studies measuring figural creativity showed modest evidence for a causal relationship between arts study and creativity. The findings based on experimental studies measuring verbal/conceptual creativity showed no evidence for a causal relationship.

Significance of the Findings:

The present study investigated whether there is empirical support for the view that studying the arts makes people more creative and imaginative. The authors concluded there is evidence for transfer when “the bridge is narrow” but not when the “bridge is wide”—evidence for transfer was found in studies where students have experience in the arts and were measured on drawing performance tasks, but not when students with arts experience were measured on tasks requiring them to generate ideas, concepts, or words.

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills identifies creativity and innovation as key learning skills to prepare students for the 21st century workforce. This study provides some support that the arts foster creative thinking skills in domains beyond arts learning.

Methodology:

The present meta-analyses began with a comprehensive search of seven electronic databases for studies conducted from the inception of the database to 1999. The study also included manual searches of additional journals and unpublished manuscripts. The researchers culled the results of empirical studies assessing the relationship between studying the arts and performance on some measure of creative, critical, or higher-order thinking. Additionally, included studies assessed the impact of the visual arts alone or in combination with other forms of arts. Finally, studies had to have a control group that did not receive exposure to arts study. Only eight studies met these inclusion criteria.

The researchers performed meta-analyses of the correlational studies they identified, which assessed students that had already taken arts courses and therefore did not involve pretest measures, and experimental studies measuring either figural or verbal creativity. These studies assessed students’ creativity level before and after studying the arts.

Limitations of the Research:

The findings are limited by the small number of experimental studies and uncertainty whether the creativity measures used in the studies accurately detected the kind of creativity fostered by the arts. The studies were largely limited to visual arts alone or “in combination with other arts disciplines.” The research is also limited by lack of specific knowledge about the arts programs in the original studies (e.g. their duration, intensity, quality, and focus).

Questions to Guide New Research:

The authors recommend that future research investigating the transfer of creativity from arts participation to other non-arts domains should (a) use experimental methods, (b) be conducted over at least one year, (c) assess the impact of explicit teaching for transfer in arts classes, and (d) make use of a variety of creativity measures.