The great education thinker John Dewey claimed that art is not the possession of a recognized few but the authentic expression of individuality for all. Among those who care about education, few would deny that the arts now struggle to survive in our nation’s schools. The visual and performing arts frequently are marginalized as fringe subjects, taking a back seat in school curricula when funds are tight or teaching time is usurped by subjects that count toward school accountability measures.
Yet a growing number of researchers and educators are in agreement that participation in the arts should become a central component of schooling, as research suggests that the arts can be a significant factor in improving academic outcomes. This premise may cause some arts advocates to bristle, believing that arts experiences are important for the sheer joy of human expression and that educators should not have to justify access to the arts as a way to increase learning.
That may be true, but it is hard to ignore the growing body of research that correlates arts experiences with multiple domains of learning, including academic achievement, motivation, and thinking skills. Moreover, using art forms as a pedagogical tool in teaching other subjects—known as arts integration—is showing promise for enabling students to learn and retain academic content, according to a thorough literature review by Gail Burnaford and other researchers published for the Arts Education Partnership. Students in schools that offer arts-integrated learning are more likely to show better academic outcomes, transfer knowledge from arts to nonarts domains, and demonstrate greater motivation and engagement in learning.
Despite those findings, some educators resist using the arts as a way to teach and reinforce content. In my experience leading schools, offering professional development, and teaching graduate and doctoral-level courses, I have encountered reluctance for incorporating the arts into instructional practices. Three common scenarios stand out for classroom teachers:
Arts provide another vehicle for students with limited language or lower academic skills to demonstrate mastery of academic content."
• The teacher would like to use more arts-based activities, noting that students remember more content and seem to enjoy the subject matter better when the arts are incorporated into lessons compared with using only traditional methods. The teacher worries, however, that using arts activities will reduce the time needed to cover all the required curriculum.
• The teacher believes that she is not very artistic and finds it hard to imagine the kind of arts activities that would enhance learning math; it is easier to follow traditional teaching strategies.
• The teacher worries that low-performing students need more time in remediation and would not learn as much without highly structured curricula that offer repetition of essential content and skills.
Noting the concerns of educators and the dearth of research that explores the causal effects of arts integration on memory for academic content, our research team at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Education conducted randomized control trials to test the efficacy of arts-integrated science units (the treatment condition) compared with conventional science units (the control condition). We designed treatment and control units using the same science content and designed arts activities that would require the same amount of teaching time as in conventional lessons.
We also matched the mode of delivery (visual, auditory, kinesthetic) to assure active learning experiences in both conditions. In the course of the studies, we provided professional development for teachers to show that robust arts-based teaching can be easily incorporated into lessons. For example, using songs, movement, and visual vocabulary does not require extensive arts training or elaborate materials.
In our studies, each randomized group of students received a science unit in either the treatment or control condition and a second science unit in the opposite condition. According to the results of delayed post-tests, arts-integrated teaching showed an advantage for long-term retention of science content. That increase in retention in the arts-integrated units was especially strong for students at the lowest levels of reading achievement. We believe, therefore, that the arts provide another vehicle for students with limited language or lower academic skills to demonstrate mastery of academic content.
Our studies provide some preliminary causal connections between arts-integrated learning and memory for content. The findings also raise some interesting questions about whether learning through the arts transfers residual benefits. We observed that students who experienced the arts-integrated units first performed significantly better in subsequent conventional units compared with students who had not yet experienced the arts-integrated units. That made us wonder if students who were taught using arts-integrated instruction may have later applied arts-based strategies, even when not taught through the arts.
These observations open interesting possibilities that warrant further investigation. Do the arts aid in thinking dispositions and problem-solving skills, as some researchers have suggested? Perhaps the current focus on 21st-century skills of creative problem-solving will lead us back to the arts as a fruitful alternative to conventional teaching—as Dewey suggested at the start of the 20th century.