Arts integration: Turning teaching on its head

Associate Professor Ralph Buck and Dr Barbara Snook, University of Auckland

Imagine students becoming more engaged with their learning, having fun, and wanting to stay inside the classroom after the bell has rung, to finish off what they are doing. It does happen, and teachers will have special memories of those particular lessons. What was it about those lessons that engaged the students? Were the students engaged in ‘doing’ or ‘making?’ Was it an arts lesson? Our research is examining how the arts can be integrated across the curriculum in ways that benefit both learning outcomes and learning processes.

A small school in Northland has given a three-year commitment to trial the implementation of an arts integrated curriculum as a school-wide approach. Oturu School is a decile 1A school east of Kaitaia where 95% of the 106 students on the roll are Māori. The school has recently adopted arts integration as a school-wide approach, and has already reported a number of benefits. For example:

  • Students have become more accepting of each other and are working together more cooperatively
  • Boys who were once reluctant in oral language are becoming engaged and showing exceptional ability in arts subjects
  • Students who were shy and withdrawn have developed confidence
  • One previously shy student has gone on to become a leader in dance/movement based lessons, and another now contributes ideas in class.

We are in the early stages of the research, but the results so far support current research on the benefits of the arts in nurturing student learning.

What we mean by arts integration

Arts integration can be a difficult concept to grasp. There are several different models currently being applied across the few global classrooms experimenting with arts integration. Sometimes the arts are used alongside a lesson being taught – for example, students might turn their writing into a performance and ‘act it out’ or perhaps draw a picture of what they have learned. We consider that in these instances, arts are simply being used alongside other subject areas, and while we like this idea, it is not what we mean by arts integration.  In our view, arts integration is a method of teaching, a pedagogical approach that focuses on the [non-arts] subject being taught, and not necessarily on the art form.

This week, for example, year one students at Oturu School have used drumming as a method of learning doubles, e.g. 4 + 4; other students have examined the mathematical concepts of cones by making a ball of of cones and inserting factual information inside them for others to find. They followed this by working in small groups to create cone shapes, moving from one shape to another while finding creative methods to verbally impart their knowledge of cones to others. These examples illustrate what we mean by arts integration – it’s a completely different approach to teaching and an active approach for using arts pedagogies, media and principles for learning in other, non-arts subject areas.

Most of the research literature on arts integration comes from America where experts or artists work in classrooms to integrate arts into other subject areas (e.g. this report). While our philosophy of arts integration aligns to some degree with American artists and experts engaged in this field, the following key areas are at the forefront of our NZ-based research:

  1. Generalist classroom teachers must be empowered to teach using arts integration or it will not become a sustainable pedagogy.
  2. The focus of the teaching is on the subject concept, not on the development of arts skills. While arts skills will develop naturally over time, it is not about becoming an expert in any particular arts field, but rather is about engaging in an art form to learn about something else.
  3. There is no focus on performance or product, despite this being an occasional outcome. The process is what it is all about.

Challenges to overcome

In New Zealand, arts education has not been a focus in teacher education institutions for several decades. As a result, there are many teachers in schools who are not confident to teach in or through the arts.  A great deal of support is, therefore, required to empower NZ teachers to teach the arts curriculum effectively (as a stand-alone learning area) and also to teach across the curriculum through arts integration.

Oturu School has one arts teacher who is teaching one 40-minute lesson per week in every classroom to provide the teachers with strategies and ideas that they themselves may implement. As researchers, we are supporting the arts teacher so that she might understand the difference between teaching an art form and using arts integration to teach in other subject areas. When using arts integration, it is important that lessons are not driven from an arts perspective as the non-arts curriculum content can end up being superficial. So far, we have run several professional development days with teachers and these have been extremely valuable in developing teacher understanding and enthusiasm.

Our work at Oturu School has been embraced by all six teachers, but we suggest that this is because of the Principal’s support and the fact that it is possible to gain support of a small number of teachers. We suspect that might be a different matter in a larger school where the school dynamics and politics are intensified.

Teacher turnover can be problematic when a school is engaged in arts integration. Fortunately, at Oturu School two of the new teachers this year have had some arts education in their teacher training. This background has made a huge difference in assisting them to pick up this new concept, and they are willing to learn.

Ongoing research

Although our primary focus is researching student outcomes at Oturu School, we recognize that without support to introduce and sustain a new teaching pedagogy, our research may falter. This is the stage we are currently working at. As the project progresses, we will conduct interviews with teachers, and observe arts integrated classrooms. Our colleague Dr. Brittany Martin from the University of Calgary will analyse data from psychometric testing of students that will indicate their levels of engagement, leadership, cooperation and social empowerment. We will examine these results alongside testing instruments in literacy and numeracy. Our research will continue until December 2020, when we will publish a report on the findings.

Conclusion – for now …

At this stage, however, we can tell you that the children at Oturu School in Northland are having fun learning through arts integration. Indications are that teachers are embracing this new pedagogy and, wherever possible, are including arts integration in their daily lessons. Anecdotal evidence is positive and we appreciate the enthusiasm of the teaching staff. We hope to regularly inform you with updates as this research unfolds.

Ralph.jpgAssociate Professor Ralph Buck is an award-winning teacher and academic leader in the areas of dance education and community dance. He has collaborated with UNESCO in raising the profile of arts education around the world including through UNESCO’s World Conferences on Arts Education and their International Arts Education Week. Ralph is on the Council for the World Alliance for Arts Education as well as the international editorial boards of Research in Dance Education and the Journal of Dance Education.

Barbara.jpgDr. Barbara Snook is a professional teaching fellow and professional research fellow in dance studies at the University of Auckland. She was the Caroline Plummer Fellow in Community Dance at the University of Otago in 2008 and the recipient of an Australian Osmotherly Award for services toward the development of dance education in 2007. Barbara’s early career was as a high school teacher of drama and dance.



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