Art Education: Incorporating the Arts into the Social Studies Classroom

by Caroline Forni on Nov 05, 2021

The history of art has always been a topic that has fascinated me as a historian.  Art is one of the world’s most ancient tools of communication and it is a form in which we as humans can learn a lot about other cultures, as well as aid in forming our own identities.  As a Social Studies teacher, I am drawn to incorporating art into the Social Studies classroom to create a meaningful learning experience for students.  But that begs the question, if art can be applied to stimulate the learning of history, how is this done effectively?  Can pre-service and veteran teachers alike be taught to use art as a means of teaching, and if so, would many be willing to learn how?  Art in our society today is sometimes seen as more extra-curricular.  Through a series of Blog Posts this year I hope to establish a basis behind using art in conjunction with teaching history as, when done effectively, is an obvious pedagogical tool. 

 My interest in art history goes back as far as I can remember.  Years of museum visits and personal research has stimulated my love for art history.  Two summers abroad in Florence, Italy propelled this love into an all-out obsession with the historical aspects of art.  I began to see art as more than just pretty pictures, but instead as a means of learning more about the past.  In college and graduate school, I studied the use of art in the classroom.   During field study visits to local middle and high schools, I began wondering why the use of art was not more prominent in the social studies classes I observed.  I would think that because art has such historical connotations and can be used so extensively in the understanding of history that it would be a more widely accepted method for teaching history.  For example, when studying ancient Greece students could examine Greek pottery; or Chinese calligraphy could deepen an understanding of the Tang Dynasty.  Using art in these instances could help students to actually visualize what they were learning about.  When I began to notice that this was not the case and teachers were not incorporating artistic resources it made me wonder whether or not using art was in fact beneficial to student learning, or if teachers just did not feel the need or desire to integrate it into their pedagogy. 

When I finally had my own history classroom, I felt compelled to incorporate visuals into lessons as much as possible.  What I found in my classroom was that it was important to think of art as not just a subject, but as an important acknowledgement of civilization.  Each culture or period we studied in World History was represented by the artifacts left behind, and the achievements of their people.  When studying the Maya, Aztec, and Inca we could examine images of sun calendars and Quipu.  We could also look at aerial shots of Machu Picchu and Aztec Teocalli.  When studying World War I we could view actual photographs from inside trenches, and analyze maps of troop movement.  What is important to realize is that art in the Social Studies classroom does not necessarily mean a museum-worthy piece.  Art in this context is anything that we can visualize to help emphasize our understanding of time, place, and culture.  

Upon reflection about incorporating art into a history classroom, I truly believe it benefits all students within that classroom.  Students who are subjected to primary art sources when learning about historical eras help to further their knowledge of the time period.  I think that using art only enhances student learning and involvement within the classroom.  If used in an appropriate and meaningful way, art can engage its viewers and stimulate responses and actions.  In a history classroom where so much is based on certain facts and beliefs, art can either help strengthen those ideas or even contradict them depending on the interpretation of the viewer.  It is this aspect of challenging history that is so important but overlooked in many middle and high school history classes.  In order to deepen understanding of history one has to be able to look at it critically and judge the information provided.  By using art as an additional resource from a particular era one can attempt to gain a more well-rounded and all-encompassing understanding of the period at hand.  The more information a person has on a particular topic the better they will be able to decide for themselves how they feel about that subject.  History is primarily about interpretation and it takes a multifaceted education, complete with imagery and visuals, to learn about it extensively.  

Throughout this year I plan to submit further Blog Posts that include research on the use of Art in the Social Studies Classroom, as well as further methods for incorporation.  Literature review and lesson plan samples will be included in these posts.  Stay tuned!