Arts Alive in the Development of Historical Thinking

Jeanette L. Groth and Maria Albert

The room is dimly lit. Hands clutch quill pens as words of freedom flow along with the ink. In the background, strains of Mozart are heard. This is the scene in an eighth grade classroom in Lexington, Kentucky, where the arts are used to involve children in history. The topic under study, the development of the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights, is being explored not only through the aesthetic experience described above, but in many other multisensory ways.
Maria Albert, an educational psychologist observing in the classroom, became intrigued with how this environment might influence students' historical thinking.1 Jeanette Groth, the social studies teacher for all middle school students in this magnet for the creative and performing arts, was equally intrigued by the possibility of having someone document her classroom-perhaps capturing what a single teacher caught up in the demands of ongoing instruction had no time to record.

This article is a dialogue between teacher and researcher. It is important to point out that our dialogue is cross-cultural. Raised and educated in Venezuela, Maria studied for her doctorate in the United States. Jeanette's teaching experience has been in the United States, although she has conducted study tours for her students to different parts of the world, and serves as a teacher consultant for the Fayette County Students Exchange Program.

Our dialogue began with a distinction between academics and the arts that may seem problematic to some. In Venezuela (as well as some parts of the United States), this is the traditional way of distinguishing between subjects such as math and science (academics) and subjects such as art, music appreciation, or the humanities (the arts). We hope our conversation helps to better ground both theories of multiple intelligence2 and the use of arts based curricula3 in the classroom practice of history.

Maria: You've said that sometimes teachers are afraid to integrate the arts with academics. Has it been easy for you to do this?
Jeanette: I think for me integrating the arts with academics has been easier than for some because I grew up with the arts. My own children are involved in orchestra. My background is strong in music, and I'm an arts consumer. Also, teaching at a specialized school like mine, you begin to think about what captures your students' interests. Part of our job as teachers is hooking students into our subject matter. For me, it has been easy because I know that my students are interested in the arts.
Maria: I really like the word "integration." I'd like to explain what it means to me. The arts are taught integratively with other courses when they are used to convey the learning objectives; however, they are not reduced to mere means for teaching the basics. On the contrary, a central idea is that the arts maintain their integrity as disciplines. This new model for arts education values diversity of curriculum, the performance of multiple capacities, and the development of the full student. I have seen you provide students with a diversified curriculum. What effect do you think using these different forms of representation has on the teaching/learning process in social studies?
Jeanette: I have several theories. First of all, I don't think using a variety of forms is limited to social studies. Whatever the area of teaching, different forms are useful in that they give children who learn in different ways a lot of opportunities. Since none of us has a 'pure' learning style, if I learn in a visual way and then repeat the learning process in an audio way, my learning is strengthened. Second, using different forms of representation is useful for interest's sake; it is more fun for me than to simply lecture. And, last, different forms of representation give students different ways to become involved in their learning. Sometimes when students take notes, they don't really take information into their being. I believe the arts are naturally integrative and interactive. You can't remain an observer very easily.
Maria: Obviously you think that the inclusion of the arts in a history program is well justified.
Jeanette: Oh, yes. I think the inclusion of arts is more than justified. The arts make civilizations unique. In seventh grade, when I teach ancient civilizations, how could I teach about Greece and not teach about drama, architecture, or religious art? History naturally includes the arts-it is not a forced situation where I am looking to superimpose the arts on top of historical content. The whole theme in Kentucky's educational reform is developing life-long learning. If these children are to be life-long learners, they have to see the arts as a critical component in the big picture of education.
Maria: There is something else that attracts my attention. There seems to be a positive connection between education in and through the arts, and students' academic performance in other areas. In other words, students enrolled in arts-based programs have been shown to excel in more traditional academic subjects.4 To me that is very important. Usually, schools separate the arts from academic disciplines, thinking they are not related.
Jeanette: Sometimes we don't give students an opportunity to share with us what they do know because we restrict the vehicle that they use to express it. In other words, if I accept knowledge-what they know about the Bill of Rights, for instance-only in a written form, I've ignored the fact that there may be children who know something but want to share that information in a picture, or a drama, or another alternate mode.
Maria: There is evidence that the brain stores information not only verbally, but also visually through dynamic mental images.5 Richly detailed images appear to provide more potential for associative linking-more cognitive hooks, if you will-connecting different bits of information.6 My research indicates that when we help students make these connections, they are likely to develop greater cognitive integration and a sense of conceptual unity. In other words, both history and the arts are likely to make better sense to them.
Jeanette: I do not think that because students learn best in one mode that we can limit them to that mode, though. I think that an individual may have one area where he or she is stronger, but through different experiences, other areas can be developed as well. For instance, there are children in my classes who have learned to draw very well. They did not come here thinking of this as an area of strength. Maybe, if they had been in a regular school, they would have said, "That's my weak suit. That's not something I do."
Maria: I have noticed that you also pay close attention to feelings. You ask your students to develop historical understanding not only through explaining historical facts and concepts, but also through developing insights into human emotions and motivations. I often heard you ask students to express how they felt about a specific time or culture. You allowed them to select the mode of expression best suited to expressing that emotion-to use the language of the arts as part of their problem solving repertoire. DeBono calls this lateral, as opposed to vertical, thinking.7
Jeanette: I think that comes from a seminar on the use of literature in the social studies that I took at NCSS. The starting statement was something that stayed with me: "Think of the last textbook you read and tell me what you remember. Virtually nothing. But think of the last novel you read and tell me what you remember." The reason I think you remember the novel is because it gives insights into characters' feelings and understandings in an intuitive way. For instance, My Brother Sam Is Dead gives students powerful and poignant feelings about the separation of families between Patriots and Loyalists during the Revolutionary War. As students come to understand losing a family member because of differing ideologies, they also gain an important understanding about life in that time period.
Maria: It is probably important to note at this point that text, novel, and poem are not interchangeable. One cannot substitute for the other; rather, each adds a dimension to historical understanding that might otherwise be lacking-facts without feelings to make them real, or feelings without facts to support them. Too often, in more traditional educational settings, the imagination is kept inactive.
Jeanette: Also, when you combine these elements in assessment, they seem to naturally generate higher level thinking. When you read something and then must express yourself in another way, you have to work what you know through various intellectual channels in order to find an appropriate vehicle to express yourself. You have moved to a higher level of thinking through the process of taking one form and changing it to another.
Maria: Do you think that integrating the arts into the curriculum only favors those who are talented in the arts?
Jeanette: I think it benefits all children and helps improve their learning; I also think it improves my teaching. I think those two are intimately tied together. If arts-infused history provides students with an opportunity to express themselves-to show me what they know in a variety of ways-then it benefits all students, not just a few.
Maria: Would you say the focus of your classroom is on cognitive, or affective, or behavioral modes-or a combination of these forms?
Jeanette: The focus of my classroom activities is, I hope, a combination of all three. I think that one of the things that people argue about is that we are sacrificing content for form. I never want to be guilty of that. A particular form, no matter how well rendered, cannot compensate for a lack of knowledge. In my history class, the arts are vehicles for content. Some people may have trouble seeing that. If kids are doing a dance, they think, "Well, they really haven't learned any content." That is why, in schools that are making the transition to an integrated approach, you have to be sure that the connections are understood educationally. Otherwise people take a look and say, "Oh! They're playing!"
Maria: Part of the problem, of course, is that instruction through the arts takes time and effort. It is sometimes more comfortable to lecture, and to have students read the text, complete worksheets, and take multiple choice tests. It saves time. It also tends to support the formation of homogeneous classrooms. This traditional methodology has certainly been prevalent in the teaching of history for at least the last three decades.8 I think it is easier-but I do not think that it should be the future of education.
Jeanette: Nor do I.
Maria: I have seen your classroom undergo a metamorphosis on at least two occasions. The first was when your seventh graders transformed the classroom into a medieval castle; on another occasion, it became the Alhambra in Spain.
Jeanette: Surrounding students with their own work reminds them of what they have learned, but it also demonstrates that I value what they have done. My experience is that students do more complex and interesting work as a result-even on those days when I am exhausted and long for a bit of inactivity.
Maria: As I have watched you work, it seems to me that you try for an equilibrium between images and words, wholes and parts, in teaching history.
Jeanette: It is interesting to have somebody watch you teaching, because sometimes you are not that aware of what you are doing.
Maria: Well, I am pleasantly aware. Thank you for letting me become aware.

1 Maria Albert, "Impact of an Arts-integrated Social Studies Curriculum on Eighth Graders' Thinking Capacities," unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Kentucky, 1995.
2 Howard Gardner, Frames of Mind: the Theory of Multiple Intelligences (New York: Basic Books, 1983), Multiple Intelligences: the Theory in Practice (New York: Basic Books, 1993).
3 E. Eisner, Cognition and Curriculum Reconsidered, 2nd ed. (New York: Teachers College Press, 1994), T. Epstein, "The Arts of History: An Analysis of Secondary School Students' Interpretations of the Arts in Historical Contexts" in Journal of Curriculum and Supervision 9 (1994), 174-194.
4 J. McLaughlin, B. McMullan and C. Fowler, Understanding How the Arts Contribute to Excellent Education, Study Summary, Virginia: Computer Microfilm International Corp. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 360 248), E. Oddleifson, "What Do We Want Our Schools to Do?" in Phi Delta Kappan 75 (1994), 446-453; S. Perrin, "Education in the Arts is an Education for Life" in Phi Delta Kappan 75 (1994), 452-453; J. Remer, Changing Schools Through the Arts. How to Build on the Power of an Idea (New York: American Council for the Arts, 1990), C. Sautter, "An Arts Education School Reform Strategy" in Phi Delta Kappan 75 (1994), 433-437.
5. R. Arnheim, Visual Thinking (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1969), A. Paivio, Images in Mind: The Evolution of a Theory (New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991), A. Sheikh and S. Sheikh, eds., Imagery in Education: Imagery in the Educational Process (New York: Baywood Publishing Company, 1985).
6. Linda Levstik and Keith Barton, "They Still Use Some of Their Past: Historical Salience in Elementary Children's Chronological Thinking" in Journal of Curriculum Studies (in press).
7. E. DeBono, Lateral Thinking: A Textbook of Creativity (London: Ward Lock Educational, 1970).
8 M. Downey and L. Levstik, "Teaching and Learning in History" in J. Shaver, ed., Handbook of Research on Social Studies Teaching and Learning. A Project of National Council for the Social Studies (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1991), 400-410.

Jeannette Groth teaches at the School for the Creative and Performing Arts at Bluegrass, Lexington, Kentucky; Maria Albert is an educational psychologist who obtained her doctoral degree at the University of Kentucky.