Buzzword: integration.
Etymology: from the Latin, meaning “making whole.”
American history: the Civil Rights movement.
Arts education: bringing arts into classroom learning.
Arts-integration overview: Great potential and great caution.

The largest area of experimentation in arts education across the country these days is “arts integration.” Schools and school districts, arts organizations and individual artists, enthusiastic teachers and model schools—by the thousands—are exploring the benefits of bringing more arts experiences into classrooms in direct relation to other curricula. Music and math. Visual arts and social studies. Drama and language arts.

On the surface, the idea is enormously appealing. Classroom learning can be revitalized with the excitement, fun, and fuller attention the arts often elicit. (Wouldn’t you have welcomed an exploration of “description” in music as a part of your composition lesson in ninth-grade English class?) Arts integration also means that the arts get taken more seriously; they are given a central place, right in the classroom, with an opportunity to engage great numbers of young people. Sounds like a win–win situation, especially when (in so many schools) testing-mania deadens classroom learning and tight school budgets push the arts ever lower on the schools’ list of priorities. That’s why arts integration idea has become a darling of grant officers and the focus of so much experimentation and research. So why be cautious?

A little background. The arts came into the public school curriculum in the U.S. around the year 1900. Two motivations drove this change: art for art’s sake and art for the sake of the workplace. An indefinite but strong belief prevailed that arts experiences were important to the development of the whole person, the good citizen. (Surveys show that sentiment remains widespread today, and its persistence is probably why the arts don’t disappear from schools entirely when the great budget ax falls on arts programs.) Music and visual arts were also thought to improve manual dexterity, making for better factory workers. Schools hired music and art specialists, and most school children learned to play instruments at a basic skill level at least. From the 1930s to the 1950s, the “progressive education” movment emphasized the importance of the arts in awakening a youngster’s natural creativity. Music, though rarely a central part of the curriculum, became a part of every student’s life, and significant numbers of students joined the school chorus, orchestra, or band.

As for integrating arts with the rest of the school curriculum, there has always been some of that—after all, how did you learn the alphabet? (To this day, I have to sing the planet song to remember whether Jupiter or Saturn is nearer Earth.) It was a certification requirement of elementary school teacher-trainees right into the 1960s that they be able to play the piano and lead basic music activities. And many good teachers have always taken an interdisciplinary approach—my French teacher showed us paintings of French locales and had us follow recipes in French to make French foods.

Starting in the 1960s, the number of jobs for music and art teachers began regular pendulum swings in response to economic recessions and national back-to-basics outcries. Since then, the basic pattern has remained the same: elementary school students get some arts experiences; middle and high school students with a personal interest can follow some musical track, work in the arts studio, or be in a school play or dance. But integrated projects arising within a school’s faculty are rare, left largely to the unsupported efforts of inspired individuals. Most such efforts are made almost impossible by teachers’ schedules, which are diabolically arranged so that the music and arts teachers cannot meet to plan or talk with other teachers—one set is working while the others are on their break.

When the roster of school music and arts specialists was slashed during the recession of the early 1980s, many organizations jumped in to fill the vacuum. Cultural institutions (an orchestra’s education department, a performing arts center’s outreach effort, or an ensemble with a school program) and arts education organizations (independent groups like Young Audiences) increased their presence in classrooms. “Teaching artists” (TAs) began to appear regularly in an increasing number of schools, and they brought a set of learning priorities that differed from those held by the departed full-time music and art specialists.

Initially, there was some tension between the remaining specialists and the TAs. Teachers felt their jobs were threatened; after all, the TAs cost the schools comparatively little, and their brief stays were dynamic. The specialists claimed, rightly, that the TAs did not do the foundation work of building skills over time. (“They breeze in, do all the fun stuff, get the kids all charged up and unfocused, and then they disappear, leaving me in a worse position.”) The charming clarinet player who visited the class three times didn’t teach anyone how to play an instrument or how to read standard musical notation. But she did get them interested in music and prepared for the performance they would see. So despite the occasional grumbling, most administrators and teachers who worked with the TAs saw their benefit.

For their part, the TAs expressed frustration with teachers’ reluctance to engage creatively. As visitors to schools, TAs often felt disconnected. Yes, they provided a quick firecracker of experience to enliven a dull school day, but they knew they had no real artistic or educational impact.

Over the years, these anxieties and frustrations diminished, as each side came to realize that the other was not only not an enemy but a potentially valuable partner. In the early 1990s, I began to notice that arts specialists were finding time to meet with visiting artists and that, in many places, the two groups were beginning to coordinate their work. Classroom teachers even began to vie to have artists join them, and they looked for ways to make the artist’s focus relate to something else students were studying.

By mid-decade, the integration experiment was underway around the country. Large, well-funded programs, as well as small experiments and conferences, began to address the key challenge: ensuring that art experiences in the classroom accomplish both artistic and scholastic goals. Many of the planning conversations of this time were awkward; teachers and teaching artists, basically unfamiliar with the other’s methods and expertise, struggled to find common ground. Some experiments sought balance but erred on one side or the other. I personally witnessed the Dance of the Fractions, in which movement was used to teach math. As cute as this was, it bent the arts too far toward the curriculum. The students did indeed learn fractions better, tested better on that information, they used their bodies (a practice that often boosts learning)—but they didn’t learn anything about the art of dance. The most troubling aspect of the project was that the school claimed it now had a successful dance program and an arts integration plan that worked!

Conversely, I have seen classroom efforts that purport to connect art to the curriculum but that are really just pasted-on excuses for doing an art project. The Rainforest Rag was a project in a fifth grade classroom in Georgia; the TA and the culminating class composition did refer to sounds you would find in a rainforest, but the project was really was all about music exploration. It IGNORED the classroom teacher’s environmental science goals.

The Polyrhythm Project, in New York City, successfully integrated music and history. The visiting musician taught his eighth-grade students various polyrhythms, of the kind that came across the ocean from Africa with the slaves. They then explored how these musical ideas influenced popular music in pre-Civil War America. What were the tunes of the first half of the nineteenth century? What social and political purposes did they serve? And how were these rather simple tunes transformed by the cool and complex polyrhythmic ideas (that students could now perform and improvise around)? Exploring the evolution of those 1840s tunes, the students were intellectually engaged in a historical period that—if approached purely by the book—might have struck them as deadly dull. Their knowledge of American history was forever transformed from a list of testable facts into a gut-appreciation of the cultural impact made by the art of a still-enslaved people. And when they turn on the radio today, some 160 years later, they can recognize and appreciate the persistent influence of those same polyrhythms.

To achieve such successes, American educators are now beginning to delve into the rich challenge of real integration of differing priorities. Teaching artists seek to excite and engage students in musical or artistic thinking and creating, often in an improvisatory “fly by the seat of the pants” style; classroom teachers have explicit, specific goals they must achieve, and they rely on sequential rigor to get there. Teaching artists emphasize engagement; teachers focus on achievement. The work of teaching artists is rarely, if ever, formally assessed; teachers are driven by test results—their jobs depend on them.

The arts integration experiment is by now far enough along that the field is beginning to learn from the findings. The discoveries are important for all ensemble musicians to know about—not just those who spend time in schools and are asked to connect their program with school curriculum. The key discoveries relate to all musicians’ larger mission to discover more effective ways to draw all people into music. Here are some conclusions and observations I can report:

  •  Arts integration can work, powerfully, but the field had an important ice-water bath four years back. An important study (from Harvard’s Project Zero) called the REAP report, looked over all research from 1950-1999 that examined the claims linking arts in the classroom to testable academic improvement. While the REAP authors were observing only academic outcomes, not arts learning (and they admitted that much is learned in the arts and academics that does not appear on academic tests), they basically said that many casual claims about the success of arts integration were baseless. REAP sparked new research and a focus on refining arts-integration practices. Later research is showing that arts integration thoughtfully done can (but doesn’t always) produce many benefits—from improved scores on tests to better socialization skills to a better attitude toward school. (To check out the latest music-related research, go to the Arts Education Partnership website and look up the organization’s report Critical Links: at
  • It takes time. I have noticed that several years of partnering are needed for a teacher and an artist to begin to understand each other. The difference is partly semantic (is what we mean by rhythm really the same in music and poetry?) and partly stylistic; but even more subtly, it takes time to fully grasp your partner’s goals in enough detail to realize how your work can transform to integrate with theirs.
  • We are creating a hybrid. Arts integration is a new way of teaching. Not just a polite accommodation, it is a synthesis in which each partner adopts new, shared goals and coordinates teaching practices.
  • Arts integration is often attempted in three ways: by content, by theme, or by process. Content connections (when both sides emphasize similar subject matter) look good on paper but are often information-based and not particularly engaging for learners. Thematic connection (in which both partners emphasize a theme that is central to their teaching goals, such as theme and variation or patterns or American style) can excite new learning if the partners are passionate, clever, and well-coordinated. Process connections (wherein both partners emphasize skills and practices such as making compositional choices or decoding hidden information) are less common but often the most catalytic of student involvement.
  • Planning time is crucial. When a new arts-integration plan is submitted to me for review, I no longer first look to see how bright the ideas are, nor do I skim for the names of the people involved to see how smart the team is. Instead, I flip to the back to see how much paid planning time they have allocated. If they wrote in an embarrassment of hours, it will be just enough and the program will succeed. There are plenty of smart ideas and people, but if there is not enough time to rethink, to go through the sloppy process of changing practice and deep partnering, the program will not do much for student learning.
  • Engagement is the sine qua non. My own experience has convinced me the catalytic fuse producing learning in both art and other subject matter is lit only when the students are caught up in the art part of the project. This is more than just getting their hands on arts media: we much spark their personal investment. When students “make stuff they care about,” then the energy springs into the connected curricular material. Otherwise, the arts and the curriculum may be compatible—but not integrated.

We, as artist-educators (and I think we are all artist educators) must focus on that core challenge—how do we engage students (and adults and colleagues and family and friends) artistically, musically, so that we can spark their curiosity to learn more? Many ensembles with outreach programs feel they are successful if they are charming, personable, and lively enough to hold the attention of squirmy youngsters in a cafetorium. That is certainly a good skill to have. But more is now possible. The opportunity to actually move music and art into the center of the learning in schools has been offered. Let’s learn to respond effectively and creatively.

An arts educator, Eric Booth is editor of Teaching Artist Journal and heads the mentor program at Juilliard School. He is the author of several books, including the award-winning The Everyday Work of Art (iUniverse), and works with orchestras and arts organizations across the country.

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top