Arts-based Teaching in Elementary Schools
By Kathleen J. Tate, Ph.D.
Professor and Program Director of Teaching, School of Education, American Public University
The role of visual art, music, dance, and theatre in K-12 education continues to evolve. With efforts like Rhode Island School of Design’s championing of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math, the arts remain at the forefront of dialogue about best practices in elementary education).
The STEAM effort outlines why the arts are necessary:
- Arts education is a key to creativity
- Creativity is an essential component of, and spurs innovation
- Innovation is necessary to create new industries in the future
- New industries, with their jobs, are the basis of our future economic well-being
Einstein is quoted as saying, “I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” In order to better ensure economic success for our nation, innovation is needed across various fields and industries.
Former U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, writes that arts in education is more important than ever and that “in the global economy, creativity is essential” (PCAH, 2011, p. 1). The arts provide a way to advance creativity, thought, and innovation and thus should be integrated across subject areas in our schools.
Arts-based Teaching Models in Elementary Schools
Goldberg (2011) advocates teaching about, with, and through the arts. Many elementary school systems have programs that include some rotations of music, visual art, and PE classes. This kind of model lightly exposes children to the arts and attends to learning about the arts.
There are community programs around the country, as the Community Arts Training (CAT) Institute of the St. Louis Regional Arts Commission, which focuses on at risk youth and attends more to learning about the arts. Some partnerships, such as Big Thought and ArtsPartners in Dallas, focus on connecting all elementary schools in the city with city organizations and artists, while also providing lesson databases for teachers and professional development. Such programs get more at learning about, with, and through the arts.
The ultimate goal is for elementary teachers to enter and continue in the profession with the ability to effectively teach integrated lessons that incorporate multiple subject areas and the arts, including STEM aspects. Models can be school-wide or classroom-based. Rooney (2004) explains there are whole-school arts-based models where arts instruction is increased or interdisciplinary approaches are used school-wide and involve community partners and artists; and classroom-level models tend to include an artist in residence who works with a teacher to “plan and implement art or arts-based lessons” (p. 4). The President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities (PCAH) (2011) recommends that various stakeholders advance arts education through collaborating, developing the field of arts integration, expanding opportunities for in-school teaching artists, using federal policies to reinforce the place of the arts in K-12 education, and expanding the focus of evidence gathering about arts in education.
Why Arts-based Teaching?
Rooney (2004) reports that arts-based teaching and learning at the community level improves relationships leading to better “cooperation and more creative problem solving” (p. 6). Whole-school models increase parent involvement and classroom-level models improve classroom and school climate through “increased attendance, student participation, communication…and test scores” (p. 6). In general, arts-based instruction leads to positive cognitive and affective benefits. Rooney explains that the literature shows arts-based teaching promotes affective development by increasing learners’ “interest, motivation, and enthusiasm for learning” (p. 6); and, cognitively, arts-based teaching positively impacts “creativity, self-direction, and complex thinking” (p. 8).
Many STEM skills overlap and are reinforced with skills in the arts, such as the following abilities identified by Sousa and Pilecki (2013):
- Draw on curiosity
- Observe accurately
- Perceive objects in different forms;
- Construct meaning and express one’s observation accurately
- Work effectively with others
- Think spatially
- Perceive kinesthetically
Sousa and Pilecki report that research shows “a positive connection between music instruction and academic progress” (p. 23) and that the arts improve long-term and short-term memory, promote creativity, advance social growth, and reduce stress. These benefits help the whole child and can assist with success across subject areas. Children deserve time and opportunity to develop in more comprehensive ways.
Arne Duncan states:
I believe that all students should have the opportunity to experience the arts in deep and meaningful ways. The opportunity to learn about the arts and to perform as artists is an essential part of a well-rounded curriculum and complete education. The study of drama, dance, music, and the visual arts helps students explore realities, relationships, and ideas that cannot be conveyed simply in words or numbers. The ability to perform and create in the fine arts engenders innovative problem-solving skills that students can apply to other academic disciplines and provides experiences working as a team. Equally important, arts instruction supports success in other subjects. Visual arts instruction improves reading readiness, and learning to play a musical instrument or to master musical notation helps students to succeed in math. Reading, math, and writing require students to understand and use symbols –– and so does assembling shapes and colors in a portrait or using musical notes to learn fractions. Experiences in the arts are valuable on their own, but theyalso enliven learning of other subjects, making them indispensable for a complete education in the 21st Century. (PCAH, 2011, p. 2)
It is time for schools, districts, communities, state agencies, artists, universities, and other stakeholders to come together more assertively and purposefully to ensure teachers attend to instruction that focuses on learning about, with, and through the arts.
Goldberg, M. (2011). Arts integration: Teaching subject matter through the arts in multicultural settings. (4th ed.). Boston: Pearson Education, Inc.
President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. (PCAH) (2011). Reinvesting in arts education: Winning America’s future through creative schools. Retrieved from: http://pcah.gov/sites/default/files/PCAH_Reinvesting_4web.pdf
Rooney, R. (2004). Arts-based teaching: A review of the literature. Retrieved from: http://www.kennedy-center.org/education/vsa/resources/VSAarts_Lit_Rev5-28.pdf.
Sousa, D. A., and Pilecki, T. (2013). From STEM to STEAM: Using brain-compatible strategies to integrate the arts. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
About the Author
Dr. Kathleen Tate has over 19 years of experience as a special education teacher, researcher, and professor. She is a professor and the Program Director of Teaching in the School of Education at American Public University. She received both a B.A. in Soviet & East European Studies with a minor in Economics and M.Ed. in Special Education from the University of Texas. She received a Ph.D. in Elementary Education from Florida State University. Dr. Tate has lifetime Texas teaching certificates in Elementary 1st-8th, PreK-12th Special Education, and 1st-8th Theatre Arts; and completed graduate coursework for Visual Impairment Certification PreK-12th. Dr. Tate taught children with varying disabilities in 4th and 5th grades in both resource and inclusive classrooms and 3rd and 5th grades in summer school. She has been a tenure track professor at Auburn University and University of West Georgia and has consulted for numerous online universities over the years. Dr. Tate has designed several creative arts and creative drama university courses, including the new EDUC549: Elementary School Arts across the Curriculum graduate course for the APU Master of Education: Teaching Concentration in Elementary Education degree/licensure program.
Dr. Tate has served as a reviewer and lead co-editor for varied scholarly, peer reviewed journals. She also has authored 10 articles, which have been published in Youth Theatre Journal, Science and Children, Social Studies Research and Practice, and Teacher Education and Practice to name a few. Dr. Tate’s research interests include humane education, mixed methods research, underserved/underrepresented populations, arts-based and multimodal teaching and learning, and integrated/thematic instruction.