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How to Infuse the Arts Into Core Curriculum (and Why It Matters)

School 21

Grades pre-K to 13 | London, U.K.

Ahmet Ahmet

Leader of Drama at School 21
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photo of students at a table with bowls on top of it

Editor's note: You'll notice British standard spelling throughout this post. It was authored by a U.K.-based educator as part of our Schools That Work coverage of School 21.

This is the heart of what I do: think less like an educator and more like an artist, or in my case as a drama teacher, as a producer and director. When I worked with project-based learning (PBL), I realised that placing art at the centre of any curriculum gave me a pedagogical power far greater than any other approach in education.

At School 21, each secondary-level PBL unit is co-taught by a content teacher and an arts teacher. I usually pair up with a history teacher. When I first encounter content from a humanities curriculum, I don't think about the list of names or dates that the students need to learn. With my background in professional theatre, I instinctively think about the stories that exist within the content. Approaching the content like an artist, I think about how I would bring this idea alive in the real world with an ensemble. How will I make it matter to my students? Using theatre in this way not only gives the students stories to which they can emotionally attach knowledge, but by turning these stories into theatre productions, we provide students with a world in which their knowledge lives on after the life of their play.

To learn content is one thing, but to fuse it with a challenging form of art compels students to research it, know it, and be it enough to reinterpret and communicate it. This practice brings an enjoyable, engaging process with high outcomes. In a time when schools are tossing aside the arts, I think we must realise that if we place art at the centre of our curriculum, the learning environment transforms classrooms into stages and galleries, facts into stories, and memories into legacies.

If you want to bring art into your classroom, I offer these suggestions as a starting point.

3 Tips to Integrate the Arts

1. Approach Your Curriculum Like an Artist

In the first step to creating your curriculum, think less about tick boxes -- a list of things you want students to learn -- and more about realising the content. Just like a composer, director, or painter, focus on a way to make it come alive -- literally. Whether it's exploring Medieval Britain through tapestry, fusing the idea of black holes and spacetime with contemporary dance and movement, or expressing memoirs of World War II through cabaret and jive, the links are endless.

The only thing that would I advise against is being too general. Great artists don't just put on a play or mould a sculpture; I'd like to think that they're inspired. If you make the art form concise and specific, you'll make your students hungry for creating outstanding products. Look at what's already out there in the arts and recreate it -- or better yet, inspire your own art form.

2. A Rich Process Means a Rich Product

Rather than seeing the making of art as a series of lesson plans, see it as a project with a schedule. Start with a brief, then give your students transparent deadlines for the overall process, and the milestones that they'll need to reach to keep on track.

Immerse your students in the art that they're making. Empower them with tools and skills, such as giving them project timelines to plan their own time, allowing specific management roles within their groups, or setting up specific Harkness debates (where every student can see the teacher and all members of the class as they speak) on targeted knowledge that they'll need to work as independent artists; then use critique and authentic audiences to help them redraft their work. These are all ways of making sure that the process is as rich as any profession in their field, because it's important to ensure that the students are engaged throughout the process, and that they actually care about learning the content in order to make their challenging piece of art.

3. Cultivate Artist-Researchers and Combine Content and Art

It's important that you don't split the knowledge-based learning from the creative devising. I believe that all rehearsals, workshops, lectures, and research should take place in one world. Only then will the students see their learning as a living thing rather than a series of words or numbers on a page.

Through making a piece of art, your students will probably discover that they don't know enough to carry on, or that their knowledge isn't accurate. When questions arise during the creative process, it shouldn't mean making up the answers or waiting until they're in their knowledge-based lesson to find out. Like all expert actors, artists, or writers, the practitioner needs to become an artist-researcher in his or her field. Whether it's independent research or teacher-led interventions, what the students don't know points toward what they need to know.

Art Brings Learning to Life

Sadly, the arts are being rejected and cast out of education. The fusion of arts with core content is important because, rather than seeing humanities or science as knowledge on a page, something to be recited in an exam, students see far greater benefits when art reflects life and makes knowledge, stories, and facts come alive. Art brings color, life, and interpretation to those things. You get engagement from students. You get students caring about what they're learning. Indeed, I believe that when art is involved, people care about what they're doing. The arts add an emotional, creative response to core content. Transforming learning into creating art not only engages students, it allows the content to live through them and provides a purpose to communicating knowledge to the world.

This post is part of our Schools That Work series, which features key practices from School 21.

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