How arts-based lessons improve science performance

Integrating the arts into science lessons helps the lowest-performing students retain more content, and doesn't require much funding to do.

Integrating the arts into science lessons helps the lowest-performing students retain more content, according to a recent study published in the journal Trends in Neuroscience and Education.

In a randomized control trial across 16 schools, fifth-grade classes were assigned to either an arts-integrated or a control condition. During a chemistry lesson, for example, students in the control group read about different states of matter and completed a worksheet. Students in arts-integrated instruction were split into groups to use their bodies to depict how solids, liquids and gases move. For science vocabulary lessons, the control students wrote out definitions while the arts-integrated learners drew them.

When tested 15 days after instruction, there were no differences between groups. However, 10 weeks later, the lowest-performing students in the integrated classes remembered significantly more content than their peers in the control classes.

“Rather than being a victim of school reform, we suggest that the arts can be a driver,” says Mariale Hardiman, study author and director of the Neuro-Education Initiative at the Johns Hopkins School of Education in Maryland. “If we can begin to close the gap for children who are at the lower levels of achievement because they are learning through the arts, that’s something leaders and policymakers need to know.”

Arts from the start

Hardiman first began testing arts integration in the early 2000s as principal of Roland Park Elementary/Middle School, part of Baltimore City Public Schools. Today, the school has 1,400 preschool through grade 8 students, about 30% of whom are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

“There was a groundswell of enthusiasm from a few teachers to make the arts more visible, and we began to coordinate with the traditional content teachers,” says Clare Grizzard, arts integration specialist at the school.

Grizzard trains teachers and writes lessons using Hardiman’s Brain-Targeted Teaching model, which involves adding arts to curriculum planning for all subjects from the start. While teachers at Roland Park have been trained to use the model, it was never required before. Teachers adopted it on their own over time, with ongoing support from the school, Grizzard says.

The school now integrates the subject in three ways:

– Education: All students take courses in visual arts, theater and music.

– Experiences: The school partners with local cultural institutions for assemblies, performances, field trips and guest speakers.

– Integrated curriculum: Arts-infused lessons align to traditional content standards.

See related: STEM education myths in early grades

Train or fail

Blending the arts into other academic subjects does not require much funding, Hardiman says. However, teachers must be trained in the arts-integration technique, and be given the freedom to use their own content and materials, Hardiman says.

Arts-infused lessons must also achieve learning objectives in language arts, STEM and other core subjects, she adds.

“You could waste a lot of time doing crafty activities where kids have fun, but don’t learn content,” Hardiman says.

Administrators must offer scheduling that allows for teacher collaboration, and should ideally provide a specialist for training.

“It’s a real paradigm shift in the approach of teaching,” Grizzard says. “It reaches the goals administrators want to reach, getting there in a richer, more long-lasting way.”      


National Endowment for the Arts

Arts Education Partnership

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