Why Is Arts Integration Important?

What Is Arts Integration?

There has been a growing interest lately in arts integration as an approach to teaching, in which the arts leverage learning in other subject areas, such as science, language arts, mathematics, and social studies.

The different ways that the arts are offered in the classroom can be divided into three main categories:

1. Arts as curriculum

In art as curriculum students develop knowledge and skills in a particular art form, often referred to as arts learning or art for art’s sake. The programs are guided by national, state or local standards for each of the art forms. For example, in music students learn to read music and how to play an instrument. They learn how music has developed and changed throughout history, and engage in improvising melodies or rhythms.

2. Arts enhanced curriculum

Arts enhanced curriculum is when the arts are used to support other curriculum areas, but no skills in the art form are explicitly taught. Examples include memorizing the preamble with the song from a musical play or coloring a map in social studies.

3. Arts integrated curriculum

In arts integration connections are made between a specific art form and a specific curriculum area. Explicit skills and knowledge are taught in both areas and both subjects are assessed. Arts integration is an approach to teaching in which students construct and demonstrate understanding through an art form. Students engage in a creative process, which connects an art form in another subject area and meets evolving objectives in both.

Arts integration is an approach to teaching. This refers to how something is taught, rather than what is taught. It relies heavily on student-centered instruction. This approach is experiential and collaborative with a positive classroom environment, where students are encouraged to take risks.

The arts integration approach provides multiple ways for students to make sense of what they learn. In today’s classroom, teachers are encouraged to plan instruction that engages students in visual, aural, and kinesthetic learning modalities. Arts integration provides ways for students to make their learning visible. The learning is evident in the products they create. It challenges students to go beyond recall, to take the information they’ve learned and do something with it, to build deeper understanding.

Increasing Student Engagement

You will discover that the heart of arts integration is engagement in the creative process. Students must create something that is original and has value. When students engage in a creative process, that creative process can be messy. It is difficult to predict what will happen or be discovered. While learners engage in authentic inquiry and experimentation, connections are made between a specific art form and a specific curriculum area. For example, an art project using clay can be connected to the study of geographical forms, or a drama tableau lesson can be connected to a moment from history. Integration works best when connections between subjects are mutually reinforcing. The two subjects should offer deeper understanding when studied together.

This final part of the definition underscores two ideas: first, arts integration requires teachers to set objectives in both the art form and the other subject area. The dual objectives are balanced. Students are accountable for significant learning in both the art form and the other subject. It is important to allow for progress over time. A student does not learn to express ideas through dance in just one lesson; it takes time to develop skills in the arts, just as in any other subject.

Arts integration is curriculum integration. It’s no different than science integration or math integration or language arts integration. Our problem has been that we’ve always seen the arts as special, as something outside of the curriculum. If we begin to see the arts as basic to education, then we have to look at the arts in a whole new way.

arts integration

Arts Education vs Arts Integration

Arts education is where students learn the skills and practices of artists and musicians. They learn how to play an instrument, they learn techniques for painting, vocabulary that defines their movement or strategies to take a beautiful photo. With arts education students gain a knowledge base in an art form as well as the historical aspect, and an appreciation of the arts. Students are then given opportunities to explore and refine and use these skills in various art projects as they move through the artistic process. When we have an education in arts, we are also learning skills beyond the ones that can be readily assessed. Students learn collaboration and independence, work ethic and perseverance, communication and self-reflection. A quality education in the arts helps us to define ourselves and understand our culture. It is an essential piece to the whole picture of becoming a lifelong learner.

Arts integration is an approach to teaching where students are able to work with an art form while also working with other content. Students learn about the art and the content simultaneously and their learning is so much deeper. When arts integration strategies are used, students learning is so much more meaningful. And that’s how their learning is going to stick. Students remember the hands-on arts integrated project they complete, because those types of projects and lessons engage the mind and the brain in many ways all at once.

Arts education does not compete with arts integration. These two concepts work together. With arts education students are able to develop their art and explore more deeply the techniques and skills of a particular art form. And when they are asked to integrate that art into other content areas, their experience is enriched as they layer their knowledge of the art form with the knowledge of another content area. Arts education and arts integration naturally complement each other and provide for the most effective and long-standing education that we can give our students. We need both arts education and arts integration for a fulfilling whole child’s education.

Why We Need Arts Integration

Our students learn that their worth is tied to a test score, their ability is measured by whether they excel in one of the tested areas, and their opportunities are limited to what adults have decided leads to a successful career. Arts integration can act as access point for students to explore all of the complex skills and processes we’re trying to teach.

We’ve been making art longer than we’ve known how to feed ourselves on a regular basis. The arts aren’t nice to have, they aren’t a special or an extra or a way to build in prep time; they’re essential to human life, they are the way that we make sense of the world around us.

Research shows that when we use arts integration with integrity, students succeed. They learn information more deeply, they enjoy the process, and may become comfortable with the messiness and the risk of innovation.

Teachers are happier too, because teaching through the arts integrated process allows them to step into their true role as an educator. They can guide the learning process instead of feeling like they have to be on a certain page in their curriculum by a certain date.

In schools where arts integration flourishes, test scores are merely a secondary benefit; the true emphasis is on the learning process. And once students learn how to think which is what, arts integration really helps them. They’re prepared to work through any problem.

The Key Components Of Arts Integration

Arts integration is an approach to teaching and learning through which content standards are taught through the arts. Here are a few key components:

  1. This is an approach, it’s not a curriculum. This is not a prescription for teaching. So, as an approach you use arts integration when it’s the best fit. You don’t use it all the time. You use arts integration as an application of learning.
  2. This is a standards-based approach. In order for something to be an arts integrated lesson, you need to connect a content standard like math, science, social studies, with an art standard that makes the natural fit. Both of those chosen standards are taught equitably throughout the lesson, and both standards are assessed. It’s not enough to just use another content or arts area; you have to have a lesson connected back to the standards.
  3. This approach is about teaching and assessing both the content and the art standards equitably not equally. Both are addressed based on requirements of the standards selected. It’s about connecting these standards and assessing them intentionally, not as an afterthought.

While these three components seem simple, this process takes a lot of practice. Many times, we’ll see something and think that’s a fun lesson, but it’s not really arts integration, because there’s a lack of standard connection or a lack of intention. The arts are being used in service of something else rather than being taught and assessed as an equal partner in the lesson. Arts integration generally happens over time, as people truly understand what the process looks like. 

It could be that the content and arts teacher teach the lesson together in the same room. This is when the lesson is co-planned by the two teachers, and is grounded in equitably teaching and assessing standards. In both of those areas, the planning occurs between the content and arts teachers around the lesson, and the lesson can either be co-taught or individually taught within a single classroom. This happens after each standard being addressed has already been explicitly taught on its own. An arts integration project is being used as a way to apply student learning in an expanded context, to provide a meaningful learning experience.

Arts Integration: Deepening Understanding of Core Content

Arts Integration Strategies

Here are some of the top strategies for effectively integrating the arts into your classroom.

  1. Start with a question. Ask your students open-ended questions and allow students to explain their artistic choices instead of guessing or suggesting. For example, you’ll get a very different response if you say ‘tell me about your work’ or ‘why did you choose to use that color’ versus ‘is that a bus?’ or ‘aren’t they usually green?’.
  2. Build confidence. As students are working or presenting, find things about your student to compliment, for example try saying ‘you have a great sense of proportion’ instead of ‘your proportions are really well done’. This makes your compliment about the student’s ability instead of about a single instance of their work. For students who feel like art isn’t their thing, this slight change can make a huge difference in their willingness and desire to keep trying and develop their skills.
  3. Clarify. Plan out your goals and objectives in advance and make those clear to your students. Sometimes, it’s okay to paint your firetruck blue, because it’s a geometry lesson and you’re working on shapes, and sometimes you’re using art to illustrate a piece of literature and the color is really important. Being open and consistent with your goals is so important for setting your students up for success. And once you’ve clarified what those are, it’s easier to stick to being particular about those things and leave a little more room for your students’ artistic license.
  4. Destigmatize failure. Art can be a really vulnerable experience for your students and for you. Create an environment that encourages trying and removes the shame from failing. You can model this by being open about your own shortcomings and persistence. For example, it’s okay to say ‘I learned this trick when I struggled with this part too’. For your students, you’re one of their models of success, so if you can fail and keep trying, it tells them that they can do the same.
  5. Embrace your method. Every teacher is different, as is every student and every classroom. You know your teaching style and you know your class, so find a way to make these tips work for you. The arts teach a number of lessons beyond technical skills, like how problems could have more than one answer and how there are many ways to see and interpret the world. As long as you’re using the arts with a purpose and staying true to who you are as a teacher, the rest will fall into place.

The Different Teacher Roles

Sometimes teachers question what their individual roles are in the arts integration approach. It’s important to be clear on who does what and why before jumping in. This way, everyone has a clear picture of where they fit in to this approach.

The role of the arts teachers is to teach their arts content first. We need to teach the skills and processes of the art form first. Arts integration requires more dedicated arts instruction, not less. Many arts teachers worry that they’ll be replaced by classroom teachers teaching arts content; that’s not how this works. Arts teachers are the only ones who have the experience and training to provide the best possible skills and processes in their respective art forms. So, they need to focus on teaching those things during dedicated arts times.

They’re also collaborators in the approach and should be partners in the planning efforts. They can also model arts techniques for teachers and students. Finally, there are art’s advocates. They are the ones who design and put on gallery shows, arts nights, and can share art strategies and techniques. These teachers are able to help document and share the arts with all stakeholders in the community.

The role of the classroom teacher is to teach their content directly first and then work in collaboration with the arts teacher to create and implement an arts integrated lesson that helps students apply their learning.

Classroom teachers also need to teach the skills and processes of the content areas first, which is why arts integration is an approach. It’s meant as a way to provide relevance and context and creation into the learning process.

Classroom teachers are also collaborators. They can also co-teach lessons, work in collaborative planning with arts teachers, and can model content strategies and skills. Finally, they can support in arts advocacy by participating in gallery shows, coming to arts nights, maybe even offering to help coordinate them, and in sharing arts integration strategies and lessons.

Each teacher is a valuable partner in this approach, and each teacher has something extraordinary to offer the other. It is a true collaborative effort.

An Approach For All Learners

One thing to always remember about arts integration is that it’s backed by over 30 years of research. Arts integration research consistently supports that integrating the arts is a high leverage strategy in improving student understanding, application, and presentation of knowledge, as well as increasing attendance and removing behavior barriers.

There are so many reasons for using arts integration. Arts integration provides an access point for all learners. It’s not our job to get all students to score well on a specific test; our job is to find the access points our students connect to and use that as an avenue to explore ideas, share perceptions, and make sense of the world. Arts integration is an approach that not only embraces our humanity, but allows us to experience humanity together.

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Anita Lindquist is the Head of Curriculum in a Secondary School in Stockholm. She is an advocate for excellence in public education and passionate about learning and teaching methodologies.


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