Starting in 2012, a group of 114 high school freshmen in New York City participated in a study designed to measure how effectively they could use the arts to learn about seemingly unrelated subjects, such as math.
Their public school was intentionally selected for its diversity. Ninety percent of the students there were classified as non-white. Another 22 percent had a disability, and 61 percent received free or reduced lunches.
The 114 students were part of a larger group of 231 freshmen included in the study, and they represented the treatment group. They would take all of their subject classes, including math, using an arts-integrated learning approach. The other students comprised the control group.
Arts-integrated learning swaps lecture for activities like dance, music or painting as vehicles for delivering lessons. It is the primary focus of researcher Helene Robinson, an instructor II on the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus and the arts integration coordinator for the USF College of Education.
Robinson’s study, “Voices from Diverse Freshman Students: How Arts Integration Impacted
Their Learning,” was published in 2017 in the UC Irvine Journal for Learning Through
As part of their role, small teams of students within the arts integration treatment group produced videos to explain algebra concepts and skills. Teachers encouraged them to be inventive and take chances. One team made a rap music video. Another opted for a poetry slam video.
Results showed that teachers in the treatment group increased levels of instructional support and differentiated learning formats in their classroom when compared with teachers in the control group.
Students in the treatment group outperformed control group students in each of the
three subject areas in which arts-integrated teaching occurred – algebra, social studies
and English. A post-study survey found that 82 percent of students were emotionally
engaged with the projects.
“I learned by the video that math is all about remembering,” one student said. “Also, in social studies, I learned that writing a song about history is actually beneficial. Even the play (in) English brought out my teamwork skills. … I learned that I can be very creative when I put my all into something. Also, I learned that even a boring topic can become very interesting to me.”
Arts-integrated teaching has proven to be particularly effective among culturally
diverse learners, who are more likely to represent underserved populations and vulnerable
to low levels of self-efficacy, resilience and engagement.
Robinson’s research supports the Kennedy Center Turnaround Arts public/private initiative, which was founded in 2011 by the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. This program works in 70 high-poverty schools across the country. In these “failing” schools, the majority of students would be classified as diverse learners due to socio-economic status, race, disability or English language learner status.
Her work has led to the development of the Arts Integration Engagement Model, which explains how arts-integrated learning has even greater outcomes on diverse learners, and SMART I AM, an approach for implementing arts integration in inclusive classrooms that enables students of varying abilities to learn together. SMART I AM uses tools that increase skills such as self-instruction, self-monitoring and self-evaluation.
“These skills are often difficult for diverse students who have different learning needs,” Robinson said. “The method of arts integration that our teacher candidates are trained in allows them to effectively include children with a wide range of abilities in the same lesson.”
The resulting experience emphasizes curiosity, risk-taking and collaboration. It helps remove the stigma of failure for at-risk students who might typically struggle in a more traditional setting.
In a chapter appearing in a 2019 book, “Artistic Thinking in the Schools,” Robinson cites research indicating that 85 percent of adults could point to a school-related incident from childhood that was “so shaming … it changed the way they thought of themselves as learners.” She adds that in half of such cases, students were made to feel as though they were inadequate writers, artists, musicians or dancers or otherwise lacked creativity.
Arts-integrated learning disrupts negative experiences like those, Robinson says, by “cultivating environments where the emphasis is on the process and not the perfection of the product.” Students are encouraged to share their art and overcome feelings of vulnerability in explaining their choices to their peers.
Robinson’s research also shows that students who experienced failure as part of the creative learning process were able to reframe their perceptions of failure into a growth mindset that encourages creative growth and exploration. “As they take more risks,” Robinson writes, “students develop resiliency.”
She adds in the chapter’s conclusion, “It’s time to rethink the past school reform efforts and envision new possibilities where art education and arts integration are deemed vital to reframing school failure and the success of culturally diverse students.”