The Northland school teaching with art

There is a place for the arts in the teaching of all subjects across the curriculum. Teaching becomes lively and fun; children are ‘doing’ rather than sitting, and the classroom becomes an environment where students love to learn. This is a simple definition of ‘arts integration’ which is being researched by educators globally: A small school in Northland has taken the ideas on board and the results are proving remarkable.

Oturu School is east of Kaitaia and 95 percent of the 140 children on the roll are Māori. The school adopted arts integration earlier this year and, in less than six months, has reported benefits such as students becoming more accepting of each other and working together more happily; boys, once reluctant in oral language, becoming engaged and showing exceptional ability in arts subjects; a couple of students who were detached and shy developing confidence to, in one case, lead dance lessons and, in the other, to work with others and contribute ideas in class.

So successful has arts integration been at this decile 1A school that the principal Fraser Smith and arts teacher Josie Thomson are presenting their experiences at the 7th World Alliance for Arts Education in Auckland later this month.

It can be difficult to grasp the concept of the arts as a process where children learn concepts in all curriculum areas through arts-based activities. The point is, when using the arts to teach other subjects, the emphasis is on the doing and not about a product or performance. For example, dance is often viewed as a performance skill for specialist people of a certain size. But dance as a process in ‘arts integration’ is for everyone and, as with all other arts areas; the emphasis is on doing it, and not on being particularly skilled. Arts integration could be considered as having fun, and research supports the fact that if children enjoy learning, they are more likely to retain that knowledge.

Learning by ‘doing’ is something that carries forward into adulthood.

Our research supports international arts advocate Ken Robinson, who promotes an education system based on the arts that nurtures, rather than undermines, creativity. Intelligence is diverse and dynamic and the arts cultivate our creative capacities. We understand that there are different ways that children learn, yet kinesthetic learning is a style of learning that is largely overlooked. Learning by ‘doing’ is something that carries forward into adulthood. If children are given opportunities to find their own ways of knowing, it is likely they will become independent thinkers and adaptive problem solvers.

Currently, we train children to sit still behind desks and keep quiet. This can be quite difficult for some children, who may end up being labelled as under-achievers or trouble-makers. I am passionate about the effective benefits to children who are given opportunities to work through an arts integrated curriculum. The social and emotional development of children seems to me most important when measuring success. An arts integrated curriculum assists in the development of well-rounded citizens and, according to research, improves academic results.

The story of how arts integration became part of everyday life at Oturu School began in May when I met the school’s arts teacher Josie Thomson at an arts integration workshop I was giving to primary teachers interested in creative ideas for their classrooms. Josie was passionate about the benefits arts integration would bring to the students at her school. I was working with the university’s head of dance studies, Associate Professor Ralph Buck, on developing arts integration at the School of the Arts in Singapore and we were hoping to find a school in New Zealand keen to come on board too.

Using dance to learn about insects in the bush with teacher Josie Thomson. Photo: Supplied

Josie’s clear passion for making school a place where students love to learn, shared by Principal Fraser Smith and Deputy Principal Heather Greaves, made Oturu School the perfect choice.

This year has been devoted to setting up the programme and working with teaching staff. For some, ‘arts integration’ was initially a difficult concept to grasp but as we worked through the technique during a professional development workshop, they became more confident. Following on from the training, the teachers and teacher aides put the activities into action and students thoroughly enjoyed the new approach to learning.

Currently, we train children to sit still behind desks and keep quiet. This can be quite difficult for some children, who may end up being labelled as under-achievers or trouble-makers.

There are those who believe that ‘arts integration’ works particularly well in low decile schools or where children are disadvantaged. Research suggests, however, that all children benefit. High achieving students are often kinesthetic learners but, because of their natural ability, they adapt to more conventional teaching and learning styles. I believe the ‘arts integration’ successes at Oturu School go hand in hand with a principal who really understands his students. He cares about giving them opportunities to learn and be successful in a way that suits them. He was willing to take a risk and has the support of all of his teachers. Without this support, arts integration and the successes we have seen already would not have been achievable.

Our hope is that the teachers at Oturu will lead the change and take their successes forward to other schools with our support. Ralph Buck and I are working with Dr Brittany Harker Martin from the University of Calgary to measure students’ psychometric outcomes. Our qualitative research will combine with her quantitative studies to provide evidence of the benefits of arts integration in primary classrooms.

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