Jan 15

Artists pair with early childhood teachers to find success in STEM education

Did you know that the performing arts can improve performance in math? So says the educators at the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts. A professional development program at the foundation’s education arm teams classroom teachers with specially trained performing artists to blend arts education with math lessons. The young children exposed to this hybrid curriculum have tallied much-improved math scores. To find out more about the program, we contacted Akua F. Kouyate-Tate, vice president, education, for Wolf Trap, which is based in Vienna, Virginia:

Q: Why did Wolf Trap redesign its arts-integrated professional development to concentrate on nurturing STEM skills in young children?

A: Wolf Trap’s flagship education program, Wolf Trap Institute for Early Learning Through the Arts, continually advances our work to align with the latest guidelines and recommendations for developmentally appropriate practices in early childhood education.

In 2005, we were studying an arts-integrated program focusing on language and literacy skills across Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia. The children who participated in this program showed positive results in language and literacy skills development.

However, we were pleasantly surprised that they demonstrated higher scores in logic and math — an outcome we did not anticipate. Research confirms that young children can learn STEM concepts, as the brain is very receptive to learning math and logic between the ages of 1 and 4. Other research confirmed that early mathematics learning is the single greatest predictor of later learning in not only math but also other areas, including reading.

We saw the opportunity to learn more about the power of arts-integrated math teaching specifically. This is when we began intentionally developing performing arts content and strategies as an approach to teaching math content and skills.

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Education awarded Wolf Trap a four-year grant to research and disseminate our Early Childhood STEM Learning Through the Arts (Early STEM/Arts) model program. Early STEM/Arts adapted Wolf Trap Institute’s established model for teacher professional development to create and deliver an innovative approach of arts-integrated learning of STEM concepts with a specific focus on math.

The results of the four-year study indicated that when teachers applied active, multi-sensory, arts-integrated strategies in math instructional techniques, children earned significantly higher scores on a standardized mathematics test. In fact, the gains were equivalent to 1.3 additional months, or 26 additional days, of learning for students whose teachers participated in the program.

Q: What is the link between the arts and math?

A: Content and concepts of math learning are also applied in arts learning. Consider the pattern, which is a critical component of math learning for young children. Patterns are also concepts in music and dance. Wolf Trap’s arts-integrated approach combines content and skills from the arts, including singing, dancing, role-playing and storytelling, with math learning content and concepts as well as those of other core subjects such as language, literacy and science.

Additionally, the skills children need to succeed in STEM — problem-solving, creativity and collaboration — are intrinsic to arts-integrated learning.

Q: Explain how artists and early childhood teachers are trained together at your institute.

A: We have customized a professional development model that pairs educators with professional teaching artists — musicians, dancers, actors and puppeteers — to train through classroom residencies.

To prepare teaching artists for classroom residencies, they receive training from Wolf Trap in early childhood (EC) development and developmentally appropriate practice, along with receiving information and resources about EC curriculum approaches and national and local standards.

Our teaching artists then are taught how to apply performing arts skills and techniques to support student learning and how to guide early childhood educators to integrate the arts into their instructional practice.

Q: What do the artist-teacher teams then bring to the classroom, and how do they transmit their lessons to their students?

A: The centerpiece of Wolf Trap’s program is the classroom residency. In a residency, a teaching artist partners with an educator to plan and implement lessons in the classroom. Each lesson is designed and customized to meet the goals the teacher has for her students as well as the professional development goals identified for the teacher.

The teacher is able to see the application of arts integration in her own classroom and practice using the strategies with the support of the teaching artist. Over the course of the residency, teachers learn to integrate the arts into daily instruction independently and long after they’ve completed the residency with us.

Q:  Has this program been evaluated? What results have been found?

A: Independent research of the Wolf Trap model, research from the arts education and early childhood fields, and Wolf Trap Institute’s over 35 years of experience, indicate that the infusion of arts integration strategies into curriculum content provides powerful teaching tools that enhance all areas of development including science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM skills; language and literacy; social/emotional growth; as well as 21st century skills that I mentioned before: critical thinking and problem-solving, communication, collaboration and creativity.

Q: How can other early childhood teachers integrate such lessons into their curriculum?

A: Wolf Trap offers an online community of practice for educators: . This is a login-based website, so it requires registering an account, however, it’s free to join the site, and signing up is quick and easy.

The site provides content and resources including video tutorials, audio clips, lesson plans and forums. Teachers can access the site and make use of these resources on their own, whether they have or have not yet participated in Wolf Trap programs.

It was important to us to make our materials accessible to a wide range of teachers to use and modify as they need.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to share about this program?

A: STEM industry employers continually stress that they need employees who are creative, can think outside of the box and persist through problems to find solutions.

However, schools feel pressure to have students perform on math and literacy assessments. So, the question is: How can we tap into children’s natural curiosity and build on it, while also teaching important curriculum topics and skills?

With arts-integration it is not an either/or approach. When teachers utilize the arts to teach subjects such as math or science, they fuel students’ critical thinking skills, and the students become invested and excited about their learning. Their creativity flourishes.

We know as fact that when teachers engage children in active, multi-sensory learning through the arts, they can adapt their instruction to support various learning modalities, higher-level thinking and 21st century skills development. This happens for young children in the EC classroom.

We’ve seen through decades of practice and research that the performing arts have a tremendous impact on children’s learning. By ensuring that children’s first STEM-learning experiences are effective and compelling, the arts can foster children’s excitement and cultivate their natural curiosity about STEM.