You Should Teach Poetry: Science Demonstrates It

By Albert Cheng, Guest Author

Albert Cheng is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Education Reform in the College of Education and Health Professions at the University of Arkansas, where he teaches courses in education policy and philosophy. He is the director of the Classical Education Research Lab, where he conducts research on the effects of classical education on character formation. He is a Senior Fellow at Cardus and an affiliated research fellow at the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University. Dr. Cheng serves on the governing board of Anthem Classical Academy and on the editorial board of the International Journal of Christianity and Education. He taught high school math at James Logan High School in Union City, California after completing his undergraduate studies in pure mathematics from the University of California, Berkeley in 2006. He later returned to school, receiving a master’s degree in education from Biola University in 2012 and his PhD in education policy from the University of Arkansas in 2016. (Bio from https://edre.uark.edu/)

As Theseus from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream observed, poets “apprehend / more than cool reason ever comprehends.” To see why this is plausible, simply compare Wikipedia’s prosaic description of daffodils to William Wordsworth’s poetic description in “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” Then ask yourself which of the two conveys the essence of daffodils with more fidelity.

Poetry, by virtue of its use of evocative language, meter, rhythm, rhyme, and metaphor, conveys truths and fosters connections that prose cannot. In doing so, poetry molds us into a particular kind of people. Consider how this plays out in natural philosophy and science. Poetry is the language of the natural philosopher who sees an enchanted world, a gift given by the Creator to steward in love—much like Tolkien’s jolly Tom Bombadil who so often broke into song as he tended the Old Forest. In contrast, prose, specifically the formal, technical language used in science to classify and disassemble creation, forms us into characters who wish to possess, dominate, and twist nature according into the image of our wills, as figures like C.S. Lewis and Simone Weil observed in many of their writings.

But is there empirical support for the claim that poetry shapes us in ways that prose does not? I set out to bring social scientific evidence to bear on this question by conducting a study in partnership with Sager Classical Academy in Siloam Springs, Arkansas. For a two-week science unit during fall 2021, we divided students in kindergarten through second grade into two groups. One group of 30 students received their usual science instruction. The other 36 students received the same instruction but additionally engaged with poetry about the scientific topic under study. For instance, some first graders learned about birds according to the curriculum adopted by the school, while other first graders additionally engaged with poems such as Emily Dickinson’s “A bird came down the walk,” Alfred Tennyson’s “The Eagle,” or Edward Lear’s “There was an Old Man with a Beard.”

For our study, we focused on three outcomes: curiosity, affinity, and attentiveness. Curiosity is a measure of students’ interest in learning more about the topic of their science unit. For example, did first graders want to learn more about the lives of birds or the names of different kinds of birds? Affinity is a measure of how much students are drawn in love towards the subject of their study. Did first graders find birds beautiful? Did they enjoy their singing? Did they enjoy talking about birds? Finally, attentiveness is the degree to which students noticed in their everyday lives what they were studying in school. How often did first graders notice birds flying in the air or hopping on the ground? How often did they hear them singing or notice their colors when they see them?

We surveyed all the students before and after the intervention to assess their growth in curiosity, affinity, and attentiveness. What did we find? Did students who engaged in poetry differ on these three measures compared to students to students who did not? See for yourself in the figure below.

Notes: **p<0.01; *p<0.05

Each panel in the figure shows average scores of the three outcomes for the two groups of students before and after the intervention. For instance, students who did not receive additional instruction in poetry averaged 2.75 points on the affinity measure before the intervention and 3.35 points after it. Meanwhile, students who received additional instruction in poetry grew from 2.94 to 3.65 points. Although there appears to be greater growth in affinity among students who received additional poetry instruction, the difference is not large enough to be conclusive according to statistical standards of social science. The same can be said for curiosity. We cannot conclusively say that poetry made a difference on these two measures.

However, poetry appears to have a large effect on attentiveness. While students who did not receive additional instruction in poetry experienced little change in attentiveness, their peers who did experienced noticeable growth, from 2.97 to 3.36 scale points over the study period. This difference proves substantively and statistically significant.

If you’re interested in learning more about this study, check out my conversation with Soren Schwab on the Classical Learning Test’s Anchored podcast.

There you have it. If you teach in a classical school, you can feel much less embarrassed and defensive about making the case for the pedagogical value of poetry to naysayers. Many of the philosophical and theoretical arguments you may have been making about poetry now have some social scientific support. Besides, as shown in the bottom right of the figure, we found that kids love poetry, so why not teach it for that reason alone?

Of course, some empirical replication of this study in other schools, curricular areas, and students of different grade levels would provide additional confidence in the claims about poetry. Moreover, many other relevant outcomes pertaining to students’ formation were not included in this study but could be included in subsequent research. Please reach out to me at the Classical Education Research Lab if you wish to explore some research partnerships.

Until then, engage your students in poetry across the curriculum. By heeding Dickinson’s advice to “Tell all the truth but tell it slant—” your students might just experience “Truth’s superb surprise.”

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