Education Trends

Pivot Point: At the Crossroads of STEM, STEAM and Arts Integration

December 18, 2013
Image credit: Veer

As debate rages on about Common Core and its implementation across the nation, students are sitting in classrooms waiting for things to change. Many are still locked into traditional courses with teachers who are overwhelmed, nervous and frustrated. Teachers everywhere are facing challenges in finding time to unpack these new standards, discover best practices for their implementation, and still provide innovative instruction for their students. Meanwhile, as we read more reports stating that other countries are outpacing the United States in education, fear mounts that our students will no longer be able to compete in a global economy. We are all, for better or worse, riding on a shift.

In the past several years, there has been an understanding that integrated learning is a powerful means of facilitating this shift. In particular, STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education has been the most widely advocated means of providing integrated learning. The theory is that by engaging students in STEM studies, they are better prepared to thrive in a global economy based upon the skills found within these subjects. In addition, there has been a movement over the last few years to change STEM to STEAM -- adding the arts to the mix -- as a way of further integrating creativity and artistic skills and processes across content areas. But there is also the arts integration approach to education, which teaches the selected content in and through the arts. With so many choices for integrated learning, it can paralyze us with fear of taking the next step.

Integration: A Natural Pivot Point

Integration can take many different forms depending upon its interpretation. At its core, however, integration is an avenue for facilitating meaning. When we authentically integrate across content areas, we are connecting, teaching and assessing two or more standards with intention and equity. This means that if we select a Common Core Math Standard and a Science Standard for integration, those standards must both be assessed equitably and be intentionally taught throughout the lesson.

This kind of integration has tremendous potential for those students who are sitting in your classroom waiting for something different -- because, suddenly, their learning is no longer located in silos. Instead, students can use their vast array of knowledge to choose a pivot point for moving within and across content areas. Think of this like a basketball court. There are many different areas to connect the ball of knowledge with another type of content. Integration allows the player to plant a foot and connect with whatever strategy works best to get the ball of knowledge across the court.

Player 1: STEM

STEM education has long been lauded for the deep connections it brings to teaching and learning. But STEM is more than just robotics and coding classes. STEM is the intentional connection between two or more of these selected content areas to drive instruction through observation, inquiry and problem solving. STEM education provides a teaching and learning environment that not only teaches the skills in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, but also the means to connect these skills through the core processes of interpretation, communication, analysis and synthesis.

While these four content areas are certainly the foundation of current economic drivers, there are some limitations. True STEM-focused education centers around just those four areas. For instance, it can be difficult to bring STEM into the language arts classroom with integrity. After all, just including and embedding technology does not make something "STEMified." Instead, it's how you're using that technology as a way of facilitating the process for creating meaning within your stated outcomes. Additionally, STEM alone does not take into account the incredible creativity and elements found within the arts, which provide students with tools for developing original ideas and solutions.

Player 2: Arts Integration

Arts integration is another approach which provides students with the opportunity to explore multiple content areas simultaneously. Arts integration engages students in learning any content area in and through the arts. This means that any subject could be taught through the intentional connection to a naturally-aligned arts standard. So students could be reading a Norman Rockwell painting using Common Core ELA Standards and visual arts standards. Additionally, students could explore the scientific method through the elements of music. As with STEM, this approach is not simply an "add-on," but the authentic connection of standards which are taught together and assessed equitably. Students are able to access skills, talents and processes learned in the arts classroom to explore other topics and develop a personal understanding of both content areas.

Arts integration also has some limitations in its approach -- it is easily misinterpreted and can be difficult to move from enhancement to true integration. Too often, the arts are used as enhancement in the lesson (think "shadow boxes") rather than as a true means of connecting and communicating understanding. Additionally, it must be noted that arts specialists can feel threatened by arts integration as though the arts are being taught exclusively in the classroom and only for the purposes of accomplishing the other standards. Arts integration can happen only if there is a strong arts program and dedicated art classes, since students need these skills and processes prior to engaging in an integrated lesson. Yet without professional development, teachers can often miss this key element.

Player 3: STEAM

STEAM is an approach which uses STEM and the arts to foster learning that is both skill- and process-based. STEAM brings together the critical components of how and what, and laces them together with why. Think of STEAM as teaching through integrated network hubs where information is curated, shared, explored and molded into new ways of seeing and being through collaborative risk taking and creativity. This means that students are using the skills and processes learned in science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics to think deeply, ask non-Googleable questions and solve problems.

STEAM also has cautionary elements. Because this approach includes the blending of skills and processes through creative means, authentic assessment can be difficult. Ensuring that all standards being addressed are taught and assessed with integrity means that assessments must be clear and specific, often with the use of rubrics. Additionally, STEAM lessons can become unwieldy and confusing for students if not developed with a lens of focused purpose.

Whichever path you choose for your classroom, one thing remains certain. Integration is a verb. It is not enough to view learning through one access point -- you must actually use the point to pivot yourself and connect your students to their next level of learning. Only then can they change the ball game.

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