Rena Upitis Ed.D.
Rena Upitis Ed.D.
Professor of Arts Education
Queen's University

Is Arts Integration Fair to the Arts?

An Interview with Rena Upitis, Ed.D.

Arts integration involves the use of the arts, whether painting, dancing, sculpting, or performing, to cultivate knowledge and skills in other content areas, such as math, science, language arts, and history. It differs from more traditional methods of art instruction, which teach various art forms without the added objective of building knowledge and skills in other subjects.

Rena Upitis, a professor of arts education at Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada, not to mention a musician, visual artist, and timber-frame carpenter, has done some of the research that shows how and why arts integration works. Yet just as important, she says, is teaching the arts for their own sake. In the interview below, she explains why both arts integration and arts instruction are necessary in children’s education, and why the answer isn’t one over the other.

Q: Should all kids study the arts as a part of their basic education? If so, why?

A: Yes! Art isn’t dessert. It’s the main course. I think the arts, more than anything else, define humanity. We need the arts to celebrate what’s important in life. We don’t bring our calculators to weddings—we bring music. Same for funerals. We ritualize these experiences.

We learn things through the arts that we don’t learn in other ways.

Ellen Dissanayake, for instance, has done interesting work on how the arts contributed to our development as a species. What does she say we learn through the arts? Repetition, rhythm, ritual, and rule. These are fundamental to thinking and problem solving and how we make our way through the world.

From an evolutionary perspective, the arts are exceedingly important—as important as language. We privilege things like reading, and that’s important, too, but we should also privilege music, drama, dance, visual art.

Elliot W. Eisner says the arts teach us that nuance matters and teach us how to make decisions in the absence of clear rules. We don’t have clear steps to interpreting a Beethoven sonata. We make judgments. Arts teach us to make complex decisions in the absence of clear paths. They teach us to celebrate ambiguity and uncertainty.

We teach the arts because they offer something unique that other disciplines don’t, just as other disciplines offer something unique. The arts offer a unique way to walk through the world. They’re highly physical, intellectual, emotional, and social. We tend to ignore the importance of the physical. Your body has to do things in art, not just your mind. Arts actually marry your mind and body in a way that’s inseparable. The body remembers. That’s very different from analyzing text.

You never forget how to play a sonata. The physical knowledge is so deep that it even transcends what your head is telling you.

Take this analogy: You’re a guest at someone’s house, and you’re the first to wake up, so you make the coffee. But it’s as though you have two thumbs. Here, the intellect isn’t the problem. It’s the body. We aren’t aware enough of how much the body tells the mind. The arts teach that.

Q: Is arts integration fair to the arts? Should the arts be taught as standalone subjects?

A: When I talk about why we need to teach the arts, I’m talking about two things: learning the arts themselves—how to play the violin, for instance—and learning through the arts to supplement and teach other subjects.

What happens in arts education is that we tend to think a particular approach is better—arts integration, for instance—than another way or another—studio-based practice. I don’t say one is better. Both are necessary.

Sure, violin might make someone better at math. But if you want to get better at math, there are some great direct math programs to help. A high school student should play the cello to play the cello, not to get better at trigonometry. Same for a second grader playing the violin.

In this millennium, the kinds of approaches we need to solve problems on a global scale are embodied in the arts. We need to have people who can think and feel, people who lead us to solutions we might not think of. There are so many big problems—climate change, the global economic crisis, water crises—and the arts can only help.

Over the years, arts education, and education in general, change direction frequently. The subject-specialized kick, when we started learning subjects by themselves, happened after Sputnik. Then came the more interdisciplinary approach, and studying a single subject was seen as no longer valuable. Looks to me like we’re coming back from that a bit.

The reality is that we benefit by doing both all the time.

Learn More

Arts Integration: The Kennedy Center’s Perspective, ArtsEdge

Nobori, Mariko. “How the Arts Unlock the Door to Learning,” Edutopia

Ellen Dissanayake, “In the Beginning: Pleistocene and Infant Aesthetics and Twenty-First Century Education in the Arts,” International Handbook of Research in Arts Education

Elliot W. Eisner, “What can Education Learn from the Arts About the Practice of Education?” International Journal of Education and the Arts

Rena Upitis, “Developing Ecological Habits of Mind Through the Arts,” International Journal of Education and the Arts

Rena Upitis, “Engaging Students Through the Arts,” The Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat