By Dr. Jay P. Greene
Arts advocates are earnest in their support of arts integration through science, technology, engineering, art, and math instruction. But as a strategy for promoting arts education, STEAM is almost certainly counterproductive as well as pedagogically unsound.
Instead, the best way to ensure that students are exposed to the arts is to set aside regular times in the school day for arts education to be taught by designated arts teachers in separate arts classrooms. If arts instruction is integrated into science, math, and other subjects, schools will be tempted to curtail separate arts classes and staff. School leaders could claim that the arts are being covered at other times, in other places, and by other staff, so there is less need to set aside specific time for the arts. By trying to put the arts almost everywhere, integration is likely to result in arts education almost nowhere.
Pursuing arts integration would be like most new-age religions: initially attractive but quickly forgotten without the regular reinforcement provided by ritual and sacred spaces. Most religious movements have learned that the best way to encourage people to contemplate the divine is to designate special places and times for worship. We might say that people should integrate religion into all aspects of their lives at all times, but the reality is that most people have a hard time doing so without reserving a time, place, and leadership for religious practice.
If you find the religious analogy unpersuasive, consider this thought experiment: Imagine that educators suggested teaching math by integrating it into the rest of the curricula. Do you think math education advocates would believe humanities teachers could cover the topic just fine? It is telling that math educators are generally not seeking to have their subject taught in arts classes.
Of course, some educators seem to think that all subjects should be integrated into all others. Why stop at STEAM? Why not add history to make it SHTEAM or add physical education to make it PHSTEAM?
The problem with this approach is that academic disciplines help organize and convey knowledge more effectively. It is pedagogically unsound to integrate all disciplines, especially when teaching young children, because it demands that students combine knowledge they do not yet possess. Students cannot gain new insights from the connections between geometry and the arts until they first have some mastery of those subjects. We cannot expect students to run before they can walk.
This type of interdisciplinary instruction also places too many demands on teachers, who would need expert knowledge in multiple fields as well as command of effective techniques for integrating them. There are exceptional teachers who can pull off true interdisciplinary instruction, but those cases are rare.
Most arts advocates are trying to turn STEM into STEAM not because they find interdisciplinary instruction so attractive, but because they recognize that the arts are being squeezed out of the curriculum and hope to protect them by joining other, more “popular” subjects. Like the plot of a teen movie, the bullied kid hopes to find protection by joining the cool group. That story is unlikely to turn out any better for the arts than it does in those films. The only way for the arts to ensure their place in the curricula is for advocates of the arts to stand up for themselves and argue for why the arts are important on their own.
Arts advocates have made this mistake before, trying to demonstrate arts education’s value by claiming that it increases performance in math and reading. Unfortunately, as researchers Ellen Winner, Thalia R. Goldstein, and Stéphan Vincent-Lancrin documented in a 2013 report for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, there is little evidence that arts instruction improves outcomes in math or reading. Some arts advocates saw priority being given to math and reading, so they hoped they could borrow some of that protection by claiming that the arts contributed to those subjects. By failing to emphasize the demonstrable benefits of arts education for those subjects, the strategy undermined the arts’ case for integration.
Arts advocates need to make the positive case for what arts education teaches, not hide behind the skirts of math and science. The arts teach particular ways of thinking about and viewing the world. The arts teach some vocationally useful skills. And most importantly, the arts connect us to our cultural heritage and teach us how to be civilized human beings. Education is not entirely about the pragmatic, but should also convey the beautiful and profound—something the arts do well. That is why arts education should be preserved in its own right.