What is Arts Integration?

For my purpose here, I’m defining curriculum integration as the combination of two or more subjects with each subject addressed equally.  When all objectives are addressed from each subject, this results in more natural connections which improve the learning of each other.

Often subjects, specifically the arts, are used to merely enhance another subject. This is typically mistaken for curriculum integration. When an arts activity is used, such as reading a play about an historical event, drawing a student writingpicture of the life cycle of a plant, singing songs about the American Revolution – and there is no arts instruction, teachers mistakenly call this arts integration. In math, if students are merely reading a story problem to practice computation and mathematical processing skills, we do not say the lesson has been integrated with reading instruction and learning. Math time does not replace reading instructional time. 

Likewise with the arts, there must be instruction in and with art form concepts, vocabulary, and skills - based on standards - within a unit or lesson for that instruction and learning to be considered integrated. This is something we take for granted in other academic areas. 

When the arts are used as a vehicle to deliver another subject I call this “hitching.” Think of a boat hitched behind and being pulled by an automobile. This is how we have treated the arts – as something hitched or attached to other academics to make learning more appealing. Taking that idea one step further, think how we are also able to unhitch the boat and leave it home in the garage when we no longer have time to include the arts in the instructional day. We might think of the arts as nice when we have time to include them, but because they are hitched, we can leave them behind by the demands of more “rigorous” academic areas.

When the arts are integrated, the impact they have on learning in all academic areas is so powerful, educators would not consider leaving them behind. When natural, authentic connections are made the impact on learning is significant.  

This is not to say that hitching the arts is ever wrong. On the contrary, it is perfectly acceptable to hitch the arts. Time and again we have seen the evidence on academic scores when students have been presented with the opportunity to experience the arts hitched to other academics. Learning improves. Students enjoy school. There is pleasure in the acquiring of knowledge. 

However, when the arts are truly integrated and natural connections found, that is when we see long term retention of information, deeper understanding of content in all areas being integrated, instructional time being saved, and even greater impact on achievement. Students develop improved habits of mind in a rich diversified classroom environment that meets many learning styles. There are connections made from the specific content being studied to the world at large, personal experience, and other learning areas not included in the immediate integrated unit or lesson being delivered. 

Through arts integration, students are involved in real issues and in hands on experiential learning - understanding transcends the boundaries of individual disciplines, creating paths to higher order thinking skills. It is impossible to be involved in the arts without evaluating, analyzing, problem solving, and synthesizing knowledge and skills from different disciplines.

In curriculum integration, all subjects sit equal and no one subject is used merely in support of another. To integrate subjects, teachers must understand the curriculum and instructional strategies in each subject being integrated. Teachers must be able to analyze each subject for its connections to other areas and be adept at combining these subjects in an authentic manner.  Hitching is often confused with true arts integration when a staff has had little exposure to training in the arts and in true integration practices. 

Integration takes time and effort to plan. Hitching is an easier path. The endeavor of curriculum integration, however, is well worth the rewards in student achievement and instructional time gained by engaging in the process.

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With excerpts from ”Integration with the Arts in Mind” by Karen L. Erickson, 1998