Deirdre Moore | September 2017

Why a New District Initiative Doesn’t Mean You Have To Abandon Arts Integration

Another year, another new school initiative.  Doesn’t it seem that school districts are frequently embracing yet another idea that promises to improve education for our students?  If you let it, it could make your head spin!

I was just visiting with a friend of mine in Vermont and his district is embracing PBL, or Proficiency-Based Learning.  I did a little research and it seems to be synonymous or closely related to other ideas of teaching and learning like competency-based, mastery-based, outcome-based, performance-based and standards-based.  I started to wonder if my school district decided to implement that initiative, how would that work with arts integration?  While I don’t pretend to be an expert on Proficiency-Based Learning and while there seem to be lots of different ideas and definitions of PBL out there, there were several things I read about PBL that seem to be well-aligned with and be supported by arts education and an arts integrated approach to teaching.

In PBL, the idea is that students must achieve mastery of a skill or of knowledge before moving on to the next lesson, level, grade or earning a diploma.  Anyone who has studied an art form knows that you cannot move on until you have a certain level of mastery over a skill.

You cannot get into pointe shoes in ballet until your legs and ankles are strong enough and you have strong enough technique to be safe dancing in pointe shoes. When studying an instrument like piano, you have to learn the scales and the fingering before you can play a piece of any real difficulty and you cannot play any piece of music until you have the prerequisite skills.

Some people may move faster and achieve technique and strength more quickly than others, but everyone needs to achieve mastery before they can successfully move on.  No dance or music teacher worth their salt would put a student ahead of where they can perform successfully, yet our school system is set up so that some students may be advanced to another grade or even earn a diploma simply because they put in the time and attended school, not because they actually mastered the content and skills expected or needed to be successful.  PBL seems to suggest there is something to be learned from arts instruction.

Chris Sturgis of Competency Works explains that in proficiency-based learning “the guiding principles that students should be self-directed, lifelong learners and creative, practical, problem-solvers are considered equal in importance to the eight academic domains including the arts, career development, and world languages.”  What is beautiful about those guiding principles is that with arts integrated projects students have more opportunities to be self-directed learners and practice creative, practical problem solving.

These are not artificial problems that are teacher or text-book created but problems that arise from trying to create something.  That means students are invested in solving the problem and are more likely to stick with the process and actually find a solution to the problem learning a great deal through trial and error with guidance from the teacher and/or peers.

Another component of PBL that is supported by AI is the area of assessment.  From what I read, PBL is very process-oriented emphasizing formative assessment.  While many people think of a product when they think of the arts (a painting or a piece of music), arts integration focuses more on the process of creating than the final product.  Just as not every piece of writing needs to be revised and edited to final draft form, neither do artistic responses.  Additionally, in PBL teachers are encouraged to assess in various contexts and in multiple ways.  The easiest way I can think to do that is teaching and allowing students to use the arts to demonstrate their understanding and mastery of skills.

The more I thought about various initiatives and developments in public education I have encountered over the years, the more I realized that whatever the initiative, arts integration seems to work well in conjunction with them because Arts Integration is just good teaching.  So if you find your school or district embracing a new initiative this year, do not lose heart.  It does not mean that you need to abandon your AI practice.  In fact, chances are good that using AI will strengthen and support that work too.

(Check out this music video that Vermont teachers and students co-created to talk about PBL in their state and the making of that video which gives some background on the process!)

About the Author

Deirdre is a teaching artist and AI coach in the San Diego public schools dedicated to helping classroom teachers make arts an integral part of their teaching. Deirdre has an MEd in Arts Integration and over twenty years of classroom and performing arts teaching experience. Email Deirdre.