Understanding the top 5 reasons for arts-integrated learning from a seasoned educator

Here we are, at the start of the new school year. Schools are back in person after the Covid-driven isolation and disruption of the past two years, which created or exacerbated serious learning gaps. It wreaked havoc on our children’s social and emotional equilibrium. Now, more than ever before, our students deserve to be in schools that harness the power and utility of arts education, so students have what they need to take their rightful place in the world. It is time to bring out all the tools in the toolkit to not only allow our students to regain their lost ground but to achieve by leaps and bounds from where they left off.

Today, just as I stated in Education Week back in 2014, there is a lot of discussion about the role of the arts in schools. Are the arts just frills that add spice and beauty to the otherwise “real work” of school? While the aesthetic benefit of the arts is vital and necessary on its own, the role of arts in schools far exceeds even that worthy outcome. We need the arts and arts integration because they are uniquely capable of offering many ways to connect learning across content so that schools reflect real life and help prepare all schools, all communities, and all children for their next successful steps.

Having spent more than 30 years in the trenches of school reform with success in helping schools bring learning to life across all the grade levels, in all kinds of communities, and in places across the country, I know it is possible to help students achieve, engage, and enjoy learning more when the arts are a fundamental piece of the school experience.

I propose these top 5 reasons to fully embrace arts education for all students:

We know that students with high levels of arts learning do better across the board than those without arts learning.

Whether we consult definitive studies from scholars like Dr. James Catterall or simply ask at our local schools for examples, it is clear that students with arts backgrounds outperform non-arts students and go on to become fully participating members of society. In fact, Oklahoma A+ Schools Institute (OKA+) of which I was part for many years has volumes of research that verify those claims. When I started in OKA+ as a principal of an inaugural school in a historically underserved multi-cultural community, I was part of a cadre of schools who were permitted to participate in the OKA+ network because we were expected to show gains. So, did we? Yes. A five-year study showed the A+ schools not only had higher achievement than the district, but also fewer discipline issues, better attendance of students and teachers, more parent involvement, and a better climate we called the “joy” factor. And that is just one of thousands of examples across the country of what can happen in schools when the arts are part of the daily fabric of learning and expression.

The arts foster 21st century (not industrial age) learning.

We know that chief executives and managers across the country have repeatedly shared the attributes they must have in employees to be competitive and productive. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills lists things like the ability to collaborate, the ability to predict potential problems before they become problems, perseverance, being self-starting and motivated, and the ability to think not only critically but creatively. Arts learning fosters these skills and attributes as a natural part of the learning process. Whether a student is preparing to be part of a musical team, a theatre troupe, a dance ensemble, or a visual arts exhibition, the habits of mind that help a student create in an art form also help prepare that student for life in a functional society.

The arts have been present since the beginning of time, are the oldest forms of human expression, and must remain on the table for use in schools.

Just watch a baby when a snappy tune comes over the speaker. The innate connection that human beings have for music has followed us through the ages. Movement is part of who we are as a species and how we communicate, gesturing, clapping, hugging our way through our lives. Visual images bring to life those things that we might never be able to adequately describe otherwise. So why is it difficult for some to understand how valuable these tools are in schools? Not only do the arts provide vehicles for self-expression and awareness, but they facilitate learning across content. Singing the ABCs is a simplistic example, but the power of the arts goes far beyond a frill or a treat and have helped humanity move ahead beyond current understanding and into the imagination. In fact, it is Albert Einstein who stated, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” You must be able to imagine a better world in order to create it.

The arts are present in all the best schools in the nation.

There is an equity issue that the pandemic has done nothing but exacerbate and expose. Students are coming back to schools fundamentally changed by the Covid experience. Evidence documents that marginalized communities suffered disproportionately in access to pretty much everything. Those students in homes rich with resources – books, music, internet, social bubbles, and so on – had avenues not only for continued learning but for expression. Now it is time for the arts to play its essential role in providing avenues for healing as well as learning. Look at the best independent private schools everywhere. They are rich with arts learning and opportunities in the arts. By denying the same access to the arts and what they can do especially for the most marginalized students, we risk deliberately discriminating and inhibiting learning in ways that can penalize students for generations. In short, we know the value of the arts for our own children, and it is important to be advocates for those experiences for everyone’s children.

Now is the time to lay the groundwork for what we want our world to be in the future.

I have never claimed that the arts are a silver bullet. But the research is clear that when the arts are part of learning, students tend to stay in school, do better in school, and become well-rounded, productive citizens. If we expect to have communities where our children, and our children’s children, can work, play, and live in the future, we must ensure the inclusion of arts education and arts strategies in teaching so we have the kinds of thinkers, creators, and producers that will enable those communities to thrive. The pandemic has given us the chance for a fresh start. Arts education can lead the way to a better future. Let’s embrace that!

Jean Hendrickson, Educational Consultant
Director Emeritus for Oklahoma A+ Schools