In just a few years, art education has gone from the easiest thing to cut in a school budget to an increasingly utilized teaching technique to increase student engagement and deepen understanding. Arts organizations with an education mission are teaming up with classroom teachers to develop lessons that use drama, music, visual art and dance to help students understand concepts that can be abstract and complex.

In a Washington Post article, Moriah Balingit details one such program in Fairfax County, VA. Grade level teachers said they learned a lot from the trained arts-integration specialists and have tried to incorporate some of the strategies on their own as well.  Balingit writes than an external evaluation of the program found it to be success at improving achievement as well:

“Researcher Mengli Song said the students in the program did not necessarily learn additional math content but they did demonstrate a better grasp of the material. And the effect was comparable to other early-childhood interventions. ‘It’s not a huge effect, but it’s a non-trivial, notable effect,’ Song said.”

Teachers are using theater and dance to teach math – and it’s working

The children puffed out their chests and mimicked drama teacher Melissa Richardson, rehearsing their big, booming “rhino voices.” “Giant steps, giant steps, big and bold!” the kindergartners yelled in unison in a classroom at Westlawn Elementary in Fairfax County.

  • Julie

    My children love learning science and civics through performance art. Using Jeff and Paige music as a springboard into different topics, we’ve been exploring everything from biology, ecology, chemistry, and civics.

  • Amanda

    By all means, I agree that the arts can be utilized to make learning complex, abstract topics more enjoyable for students. However, I would be hesitant to claim the arts can help students obtain a better grasp of material in other subject areas. Though the blog is careful to say that the arts do not, for example, enable children to learn additional math content, it is still dangerous to say it improves the understanding of math content. Teachers should keep in mind three main ideas when contemplating the incorporation of singing, dancing, or instruments into the instruction of more traditional curriculum. Utilizing the specific example of the “Solids, Liquids, and Gas Dance” included in the blog’s video, I will demonstrate how those three main ideas discredit this blog’s message about the overall benefits of arts integration in elementary school teaching.

    The “Solids, Liquids, and Gas Dance” demonstrated in the video shows elementary school students using their bodies to represent the spatial relations and speeds of atoms during different physical states. To represent a solid state, students gather together and gently bonce up and down in one tightly knit pack. To represent a liquid state, the students spread out a little further- moving their arms a little faster. When it comes to symbolizing atoms in a gaseous state, the children then transition from a slow dancing motion to fast-paced, wild spin. This “dance” is exciting, gets the children active, and creates an energy in the classroom that all teachers wish to experience. However, when all is said and done, the dance may be more detrimental than beneficial to students trying to learn about this topic in science.

    The first main idea I would like to bring up is that humans have a natural tendency to encode surface details over the deeper, more important relations involved in an event. This poses a problem to the dance because students may end up remembering its more superficial qualities, rather than the (supposedly helpful) analogy it drew to the physical transitions of atoms. They may focus so hard on the movements of the dance and getting them right that they wont realize just how scientifically symbolic each movement is. In addition, the act of completing the dance is distracting. It gives students the perfect opportunity to become rambunctious with their friends, act silly, or mentally drift off somewhere else. Therefore, while this dance grants them enough freedom to make learning fun, there may be little actual learning going on. The dance can easily become about everything but its academic connection.

    The second main idea I would like to mention is that when an object or situation begins to take on two meanings, there is likely to be cognitive overload. Working memory does not always have the capacity to understand that one thing may represent another, and as a result, is not able to successfully make the analogy. When a dance is used to represent a scientific concept, the student must mentally juggle understanding the art as art vs. the art as symbolic of science. This will lead to overall confusion and could further complicate the abstract concept intended to be simplified through the initial integration of art. Rather than giving the student two ideas to think about simultaneously, it may be wisest to exclude art all together and teach the scientific topic through solely scientific means.

    My third main idea is in reference to the writer’s comment about cutbacks in school funding of the arts. Many proponents of art education may be integrating art into their lesson plans as a way of continuing to expose students to its benefits. However, if this is the case, it would truly be smartest to keep the arts separate from the current core subjects of education. This, for one, will allow art to be appreciated individually without muddling its beauty in the somewhat unnatural context of science, math and history. Second, keeping the arts separate from the core subjects will allow a clearer understanding of those subjects. Though representing abstract concepts through exciting, more concrete art forms is attractive to many educators, it is integral to remember that such integration may inhibit the desired understanding. Teaching can be a difficult task, and arts integration could very well only add to the struggle.

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