The Arts as Core Content for 21st Century Learning

3 Min Read  •  21st Century Skills

In preparation for Music in Our Schools Month, we are reposting this article on the importance of advocating for the arts as core content areas in our schools. 

Let me put on my advocacy hat for a moment.  This stems from a recent conversation I had where the arts were referred to as “non-core.” While I understood the intent of the definition, in this instance, was to differentiate between arts content and math/ELA/science content. It raised a question: are the arts core or not?  Other variations of this “non-core” distinction are “non-essential” or “non-academic.”  Is this really the case? Are our students spending valuable instructional minutes engaged in work that is not academic?  Where do the arts fit in, especially when beginning to build connections to other content areas?

It’s not hard to find support for defining the arts as core content.  No Child Left Behind defined the arts as core content, and although the focus on standardized testing in reading and math left the arts in the shadows, the verbiage is there.  In 2009, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan issued a letter to school leaders reinforcing the importance of arts education as a core academic subject.  The Partnership for 21st Century Learning and Skills ( includes the arts in their list of core content areas.  A recent report by the Arts Education Partnership (AEP) finds that 27 states now define the arts as core, or academic, content.

So should the arts be treated as “core” content and why?

I read advocacy materials touting that participation in the arts contributes to academic success by boosting test scores.  I have great appreciation for these studies and statistics, and I realize their value in advocacy efforts.  However, we should also be able to articulate why students should study the arts for the sake of the arts themselves, for the sake of the valuable skills students can master with and through the arts.

P21, in defining their Framework for 21st Century Learning, states that “within the context of core knowledge instruction, students must also learn the essential skills for success in today’s world, such as critical thinking, problem solving, communication, and collaboration.”  That’s where the focus is in our schools.  We keep hearing the phrase “college and career ready.”  We are preparing students for a future we cannot predict, for jobs that don’t exist yet, and with that in mind, it is essential that we are preparing students for lifelong learning in all content areas and for all kinds of careers, including those in the arts.

Let’s take a look at some of these 21st Century learning skills in an average centers rotation in my general music classroom:

  • Students compose their own music using music concepts learned in the unit. Creativity- check.
  • In the listening center, students write responses based on their observations and opinions of a piece of music.  In the instrument center, students are given a xylophone, a starting pitch, and the solfege to a particular melody, and they have to determine how to play it. Critical thinking- check.
  • Students play games that encourage teamwork and reinforce musical concepts. Collaboration- check.
  • Throughout the entire centers experience, students work collaboratively in small groups to accomplish the task at hand. Communication and collaboration– check and check.

So What?

In making connections between the arts and other content areas, we need to treat the arts as core, academic content, capable of strengthening those 21st Century learning skills, or we run the risk of the arts being placed in a subservient position to other content areas.  True arts integration occurs when content areas are being taught with fidelity, when standards are naturally aligning, with equal importance placed on both contents and both sets of standards. For many of us, this means being able to advocate for the arts as core content, to benefit our students and to provide a solid foundation for arts integration!

*To access my LiveBinder with a compilation of advocacy resources, click here.