Arts Integration Connections

Arts Integration and Differentiated Instruction

Examine how arts integration offers “multiple and varied avenues to learning” consistent with the principles of differentiated instruction


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Differentiated Instruction
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“In arts integrated schools, students constantly move back and forth between different methods of inquiry and observation, symbolic languages, expressive modes, formal curriculum, and their own lives.”1 –Nick Rabkin and Robin Redmond

Through differentiated instruction “…students have multiple options for taking in information, making sense of ideas, and expressing what they learn.”2 – Carol Ann Tomlinson

“We have tried to be very clear about arts integration – that it is differentiated instruction.”3 -- a participant in the Community/Schools Partnership for Arts, Sarasota, Florida


Classrooms are full of individuals that learn in different ways. For example, some students learn aurally, visually, or kinesthetically. Some learn quickly, others struggle, and still others fall somewhere between. Acknowledging this diversity, many educators are recognizing that it is no longer appropriate to approach teaching as a singular, one-size-fits-all endeavor. Recognizing the wide variance that exists within any group of learners, educators are recommending that teachers offer “multiple and varied avenues to learning.”4

According to Carol Ann Tomlinson5, differentiated instruction is: “a way of thinking about teaching and learning that values the individual…”6

“Differentiation doesn’t suggest that a teacher can be all things to all individuals all the time. It does, however, mandate that a teacher create a reasonable range of approaches to learning much of the time, so that most students find learning a fit much of the time.”7

Arts integration offers a “range of approaches to learning” aligned with the principles of differentiated instruction. Specifically, arts integration helps students access content, process their learning, create products, and work in a productive and supportive learning environment in ways that take into account individual readiness, interest, and learning profile.

This article provides an overview of the core elements of differentiated instruction 1) beliefs about learning; 2) content, process, and products; 3) learning environment; and examines the alignment with arts integration.

  1. Beliefs about Learning

    Differentiated instruction draws support from research about how people learn and constructivist beliefs about learning. Tomlinson states:

    “…classrooms in which students are active learners, decision makers, and problem solvers are more natural and effective than those in which students are passive recipients of information.”8 Differentiated instruction “operates on the premise that learning experiences are most effective when they are engaging, relevant, and interesting.”9

    Arts integration involves students in active learning, decision making, and problem solving through the creative process in which students construct and demonstrate their understandings.

    Arts integration is also recognized for providing learning experiences that are engaging, relevant, and interesting, and as a result, meaningful and highly motivating. Creating in an art form is naturally engaging. When students bring their personal voice, vision, and interests to bear on their learning, it results in increased motivation, sense of ownership and pride in their work, and the development of valued habits of mind.10

    In Critical Evidence, Sandra Ruppert points to the link between the arts, motivation, and other outcomes valued for learning:

    “The arts nurture a motivation to learn by emphasizing active engagement, disciplined and sustained attention, persistence and risk-taking, among other competencies."11  

    Rabkin and Redmond add further support to Ruppert’s statement:

    “Students in arts integrated classrooms: 1) are intrinsically motivated to master art skills needed to explore issues that have real social and personal importance, and to express their own ideas about them; 2) have a sense of ownership, responsibility, and pride for the work they produce….”12

    Further, Tomlinson suggests that differentiated instruction is strongest when teachers use “concept-based teaching” in which they focus on essential and meaningful key concepts and principles rather than trying to cover many facts. Working with concepts, the “building blocks of meaning,” helps students to:

    “(1) understand rather than memorize, (2) retain ideas and facts longer because they are more meaningful, (3) make connections between subjects and facets of a single subject, (4) relate ideas to their own lives, (5) build networks of meaning for effectively dealing with future knowledge”13

    Arts integration is an example of concept-based teaching. Big ideas are the focus of connections between an art form and another area of study. For example, conflict is examined through theater and history, pattern is examined through music and math, and transformation is examined through dance and science. Students learn and apply facts that support the big ideas. Teachers report that arts integration helps students build understanding, retain those understandings, and make meaningful connections to their own lives:

    “I have seen that children who participate in arts integration showed longer retention of concepts and found deeper meaning in the curriculum presented. Children can synthesize basic information and infer deeper meaning as to why things happen, not just spew back rote information.”14

  2. Content, Process, and Products

    According to Tomlinson, the primary intent of differentiated instruction is to “maximize student capacity.”15 To accomplish this, teachers can differentiate their instruction related to three classroom elements: content, process, and products.

    • Content—what is taught (information, ideas, skills) or access to what they should learn.16
    • Process—short-term activities that students engage to make sense of or process the content.17
    • Products—culminating projects that represent a student’s understandings and the application of those understandings gained across a longer learning segment (i.e., a unit, semester).18

    Each of the three elements can be further differentiated by a student’s readiness, interests, and learning profile.19


    Arts integration offers a range of languages and symbol systems that provide alternative ways to encode and access information. For example, teachers and students use the language and symbols of line, shape, color, texture, and form in the visual arts; the language of physical and vocal expression in drama/theater; the language of movement in dance; and the language of rhythm, melody, and pattern in music. The arts with their alternative languages and symbol systems engage all students, particularly struggling learners that are typically not reached through traditional teaching methods.20

    The arts also draw on a range of learning modalities (visual, aural, kinesthetic) and intelligences (e.g., bodily/kinesthetic, spatial, visual, musical). For example, drama communicates visually, aurally, and kinesthetically and draws on interpersonal, intrapersonal, and linguistic intelligences. Dance communicates visually, kinesthetically, and aurally (if music is used) and draws on bodily/kinesthetic, spatial, and musical intelligences.

    The President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities points to several reasons for the growing interest in arts integration, including:

    “the compatibility of arts integration methods with newer research findings about learning including personalization, repetition and reinforcement through multiple modalities, fluency with symbol systems, and the continuum of stages from concrete to representational to abstract.”21

    Process and Products

    Through arts integration, students use alternative ways (e.g., dancing, acting, writing, speaking, drawing, singing) to make sense of content they are learning and to demonstrate their understandings.

    Arts integration offers in-process sense-making activities as well as culminating summative products. For example, during a unit, students may create short movement improvisations to make sense of the concepts of a planet’s axis and rotation in the solar system. If these improvisations are created at the beginning of the unit, they offer a way for the teacher to assess a student’s readiness/prior knowledge. When students create the improvisations within the unit, they demonstrate what they know, understand, and can do. These in-process improvisations are valuable formative assessments that teachers use to guide decisions about the additional level of support students need as well as the next instructional steps. For students, these in-process improvisations help them reflect on and clarify their understandings and to assess and revise their work so that it better demonstrates their understandings (in both science and dance). At the end of an arts integration unit, students create products that demonstrate their understandings of the concepts, knowledge, and skills learned across an entire unit. As such, these products provide summative assessments.

    In all cases, students are engaged in the creative process. The creative process, by its very nature, is naturally differentiated. It allows varied degrees of sophistication in how students make sense of information. It is flexible; students can enter the creative process at different places and move within it at different rates. It can be adapted for different levels of readiness, interests, and types of participation. But, wherever a student is on a continuum of learning, and whatever his/her interests and learning style, the student can participate in meaningful ways, be given support, and challenged to move ahead.

    A study about the impact of The Kennedy Center’s Changing Education Through the Arts (CETA) program, an arts integration program serving 16 schools in the Washington DC metropolitan area, indicated:

    “Across all three years of this evaluation, more than 90 percent of the teacher survey respondents used arts integration most frequently to help students demonstrate understanding in different ways and to address a variety of learning styles.”22

    In arts integration, the quality of students’ work in the art form is as critical as the quality of their work in the other subject area. The teacher invests time to help students develop the knowledge and skills in an art form so that they can use it authentically to demonstrate their understandings. For example, before students write a song about a science concept, they learn the basic skills and vocabulary needed to create a quality song (e.g., musical form, rhythm and rhyme patterns). Before students create a dance to demonstrate their understanding of math concepts, they learn some basic dance skills and vocabulary (e.g., body, space, energy, time, choreographic structures). The investment in teaching a baseline of art form knowledge and skills results in more authentic work—higher quality products and communication that is more nuanced.

    In other words, differentiated instruction that aligns with arts integration is not the same as differentiated instruction that aligns with arts-enhanced learning where learning objectives are met in the other subject area, but not in the art form.

    For teachers to use arts integration as a strategy for differentiating instruction requires that teachers gain a baseline of knowledge about an art form. The authors of Third Space: When Learning Matters describe the results of a study of teachers’ attitudes about learning more about the arts:

    “Teachers reported that they are motivated to take on the often challenging task of increasing their competence in an art form as part of their teaching because of the insights the arts give them into the individual differences of their students and the increased satisfaction that it provides them as teachers.”23

  3. Learning Environment

    In addition to focusing on beliefs about learning, and content, process and products, differentiated instruction also highlights the importance of a supportive classroom environment. Overall, in differentiated instruction, the teacher’s goal is to build a sense of community where each student is welcomed, feels safe and respected, and respects others.

    “…the teacher leads his students in developing the sorts of attitudes, beliefs and practices that would characterize a really good neighborhood.”24

    Arts integration classrooms feel like supportive neighborhoods. They strive to be warm, welcoming, and safe places so that students can risk and try new things. Teachers encourage choice and honor the individual’s voice. In these classrooms, instruction focuses on what students can do.

    “Learning in the arts helps students to develop a sense of self-efficacy, a feeling that they can be agents of their own learning and they can make positive change in their own lives and in their surroundings.”25

    Differentiated instruction places a premium on teachers getting to know their students. Arts integration provides a way for teachers to do that:

    “Teachers … described learning about students through their art work as an illuminating and important outcome of the arts integrated units in their classrooms. The works that emerged made visible students’ backgrounds, understandings, and skills that often had been hidden, allowing teachers to see how they could build on what students know and to engage them more actively in learning.”26

    Neither differentiated instruction nor arts integration classrooms is chaotic. The classrooms are lively places full of orchestrated and disciplined energy. Teachers give careful attention to classroom management structures and routines that enable students to be active, engaged, and highly focused.

    In both differentiated instruction and arts integration, the classroom’s physical environment is flexible. In arts integration, furniture is moved to allow for movement, theatrical or dance improvisations, or for various groupings. Students carry out routines for efficiently and quietly setting and re-setting furniture. Teachers organize materials and establish efficient routines for distribution and clean-up. The classroom reflects a student-centered focus with interesting displays documenting students’ creative process and the products they have created.

    In both differentiated instruction and arts integration there is a dynamic interplay of challenge and support. In differentiated instruction, Tomlinson describes a “pervasive expectation of growth”27 and a persistent, gentle push for students to tackle the next level of knowledge and skill, supported with appropriate scaffolds.28 In arts integration, teachers expect students to meet evolving objectives in both the art form and the other subject area. This push to reach the next level of knowledge and skills is pervasive. The teacher often moves among the students, listening to their conversations, assessing their understanding, clarifying ideas, and offering support to push them ahead.


Arts integration is one of a range of approaches for differentiating instruction. Similar beliefs about effective learning—active learning, choice, problem-solving, engagement, and relevance—guide both arts integration and differentiated instruction. Both offer sense-making activities and opportunities to create products that help students construct and demonstrate their understandings. Both honor the range of learners that inhabit our classrooms by offering alternative avenues for learning that take into account students’ readiness, interests, and learning profiles.



Lynne B. Silverstein
Senior Program Consultant
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Editors & Producers

Amy Duma
Director, Teacher and School Programs
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Kenny Neal
Manager, Digital Education Resources

Works Cited

  1. Nick Rabkin and Robin Redmond eds., Putting the Arts in the Picture: Reframing Education in the 21st Century, (Chicago, IL: Columbia College Chicago, 2004), 128.
  2. Carol Ann Tomlinson, How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms, 2nd ed., (Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development/ASCD, 2001), 1.
  3. Arts Education Partnership, Creating Quality Integrated and Interdisciplinary Arts Programs: Report of the Arts Education Partnership National Forum, 2002. (Washington, DC: Arts Education Partnership, 2003), 7.
  4. Tomlinson, How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms, 9.
  5. http://www.caroltomlinson.com
  6. Tomlinson, How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms, 1. Carol Ann Tomlinson, Differentiation of Instruction in the Elementary Grades. ERIC Digest. www.ericdigests.org/2001/elementary.html
  7. Tomlinson, How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms, 17.
  8. Ibid., 27.
  9. Ibid., 5.
  10. Lauren M. Stevenson and Richard J. Deasy, Third Space: When Learning Matters, (Washington, DC: Arts Education Partnership, 2005), 28-36.
  11. Sandra S. Ruppert, Critical Evidence: How the Arts Benefit Student Achievement, (Washington DC: National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, 2006), 14.
  12. Rabkin and Redmond, Putting the Arts in the Picture, 134.
  13. Tomlinson, How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms, 74.
  14. Comment by Laura Roberts, Abingdon Elementary School, Arlington Public Schools (VA), Kennedy Center/CETA Certificate of Study, 2011.
  15. Tomlinson, How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms,11.
  16. Ibid., 72.
  17. Ibid., 79.
  18. Ibid., 85.
  19. Readiness refers to the level of knowledge, skills, and understanding of a particular area of study. Interests refers to a student’s curiosity or passion to learn, and learning profile refers to the student’s preferred way of learning (i.e., how a student learns most effectively and efficiently).
  20. Rabkin and Redmond, Putting the Arts in the Picture, 8.
  21. President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, Reinvesting in Arts Education: Winning America’s Future through Creative Schools, (Washington DC, May 2011), 40.
  22. Joan Isenberg, Jennifer McCreadie with Jennifer Durham and Bernadine Pearson, Changing Education Through the Arts: Final Evaluation Report 2005-2008 (Fairfax, VA: George Mason University, College of Education and Human Development, 2009), 17.
  23. Stevenson and Deasy, Third Space, 75.
  24. Tomlinson, How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms, 21-24.
  25. Stevenson and Deasy, Third Space, 32-33.
  26. Ibid., 70.
  27. Ibid., 22.
  28. Ibid.

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