Curriculum with Caution: Extension or Integration?

By |2018-10-04T22:02:15-07:00October 9th, 2012|

How often have you said or heard that a lesson was relevant because it included a piece from another content area?  Such as, relating the history of the Civil Rights era to a study on Music from the 60’s.  Lots of times, people say to me that they “integrate” the arts because they include an art project in a science lesson or they use Reader’s Theater with their students during Language Arts class.  This is tremendously important and I congratulate them on this work.

But it’s not integration.

What I just described is extension, relevant connections or even a curriculum overlay.  It’s providing an activity from another area to reinforce the concept that you’re trying to teach.  And there’s nothing wrong with that!  We need more lessons using this as an engagement tool because it actively involves our students in their learning.  But it doesn’t contain the same powerful effects as integration.  Integration is when there is an intentional use of naturally-aligned objectives from 2 or more contents. The lesson is taught in and through both content areas simultaneously and both areas are assessed equally.

That has a very different function than an extension project.  So if you’re connecting dance to math, students should have a difficult time discerning whether they are in a dance class or a math class.  Both areas are taught together for specific objectives. And at the end, students produce something showing they met the objectives in math and dance.

Integration With Caution

When I see curriculum being produced that says it’s integrated (like the new Pearson Forward curriculum) or districts saying they have written curriculum for their teachers that’s integrated, I go through it with caution.  More often than not, commonalities exist between what we teach, but not truly integrate.  By the way – having an essential question that spans across content areas isn’t integration either.  That’s finding commonalities among all areas and answering it in siloed classrooms.  Instead, you’re looking for a curriculum uisng that essential question in cohesion within 2 or more content areas. All within one singular lesson.

As Richard Kessler so progressively answered, Arts Integration is the way that Common Core will succeed for all students.  In order for us to all meet the requirements and expectations placed on teachers for teaching Common Core Standards (CCSS) across all content areas, integration is the most logical and meaningful choice.  Particularly Arts Integration because it is based on the same foundational processes as the CCSS.  Yet, if all districts and publishers do involves paying lip-service to the idea and treat integration as extensions, our students don’t stand a chance.  We must ensure that the Arts are not the icing on the cake during curriculum development, but rather the eggs that hold the batter together.

Want to check out your own curriculum to see if it’s truly integrated?  Here are some things to look for:

1. There is an Arts and a Content area objective listed at the top of the lesson.

2. The lesson contains activities with the arts that emphasize the PROCESSES of the arts themselves.  So, if you see a lesson where the students are making a shadow box, that’s not an AI lesson – that’s arts and crafts.  If you see a lesson where there are times when students will learn about color theory (primary, secondary and terciary colors) and how that use ratios/fractions in math to create their own “new” color – that’s Arts Integration.

3. Check for an assessment at the end of the lesson that is assessing BOTH the content area and the arts area objectives.  So if I used the color example from above, the teacher could use a rubric to score if students demonstrated using ratios of 2:1 and 3:1 to create a secondary color on the color wheel.  Lots of times, people will miss that last part and just assess for an understanding of the ratios.

4. Make sure that the Arts experiences that the lessons are embedding are age-appropriate.  It’s not okay to have third graders working on quarter notes in music during a math lesson.  That’s a first grade skill.  It might be helpful to print off the national fine arts standards for visual art, music, dance and drama for grades K-5. Then, cross-reference those while looking at the curriculum.

5. The word “embedded” is huge.  When reading through the lessons, they should reflect the idea of the arts not existing as an extra activity, but woven into other content areas. That’s an “extension” or an “overlay”, but it’s not Arts Integration.  We should teach both areas simultaneously throughout the whole lesson.

Let’s continue the dialogue and sifting through our ideas and strategies to create an integrated approach that truly reaches each and every child we teach.  We certainly owe them (and our future) that much.



  1. Jennifer October 11, 2012 at 7:53 pm - Reply

    Susan, Thanks for raising this important point. It is so easy to say that something is an arts integrated lesson simply because there is an art form involved as well as an academic subject. I am glad that you are clarifying this challenging difference. I know that in the past when I’ve seen lesson plans, even some like your story dancing lesson plan on this website, I have wondered if it was truly arts integration or merely, as you have named above, an arts overlay. It involves more sophisticated thought to get to the true arts integration, but as you point out above; it is worth the extra effort to dig deeper in the planning stage. Thanks again for your ongoing support for arts integration, you are making a difference to educators throughout the country.

    • Susan Riley October 12, 2012 at 4:39 am - Reply

      Thanks, Jennifer. It’s always great to get perspective right from people in the field (like yourself) who are doing a tremendous job of implementing arts integration authentically. It IS difficult to create and teach intentional arts integration lessons, but so worth it. And just fyi – that storydancing lesson seed was captured from a technique I participated in at MATI and through several other Arts Integration conferences. However, I think I can see your hesitancy and I can definitely understand being cautious as you look for additional resources for people. The lessons on this site are really meant to be seeds – you can’t capture a full AI lesson on one page – but hopefully it’s a good way for people to start!

      • Jennifer October 12, 2012 at 8:55 am - Reply

        Well as long as people like you keep planing those “SEEDS” we will all be in a better place.
        Thanks again Susan for all you do!

  2. Elizabeth Peterson October 16, 2012 at 1:43 pm - Reply

    Another great post that states the truth about arts integration. It is a hard concept for so many to grasp. As a new group of teachers are coming my way tonight even, I know these conversations will arise as we start to do some mapping and lesson planning together.

    I’m glad you mention that arts as enrichment or overlay is ok. Sometimes an activity calls for that and there is a place for it. However, we do need to make sure we are using the correct terms for what we do. Arts int takes a lot of work, but, man the results are so worth it!

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