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Art-Centered Learning Across the Curriculum: Integrating Contemporary Art in the Secondary School Classroom

reviewed by Teri Holbrook - October 12, 2015

coverTitle: Art-Centered Learning Across the Curriculum: Integrating Contemporary Art in the Secondary School Classroom
Author(s): Julia Marshall & David M. Donahue
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807755818, Pages: 216, Year: 2014
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At its core, Julia Marshall and David M. Donahue’s Art-Centered Learning Across the Curriculum: Integrating Contemporary Art in the Secondary School Classroom is an argument. It’s easy to imagine the scene: after observing lessons wherein art integration is limited to students illustrating their research reports or personal essays, the authors decided to push back and expand.

The potential of art integration isn’t in after-the-fact extensions, in which art is treated as the goodie to make the work palatable. Instead, the authors argue, art integration calls upon a blend of associative and logical thinking that is substantive, complex, generative, and disruptive. As Lois Hetland writes in the foreword, the book provides teachers with ways that “art can blow their curriculums open” (p. ix). To this point, Marshall and Donahue offer not so much a how-to, but a why-to. Why is art-centered integration of a deeply meaningful, carefully considered curriculum with art as its fulcrum critical for teaching students now, at a time of globalization and rapid change?

Marshall and Donahue base their answer in two related notions: first, that the visual arts, like all disciplines, are part of a system of inquiry and knowledge that can be “knit” (p. 4) closer by integrated learning; second, contemporary art, with its ability to surprise and provoke, is particularly well-positioned to promote learning across the disciplines. To the first point, the authors specifically name their art integration model as integrated learning through art or, alternately, “art-centered integrated learning” (p. 4). This move serves to point to the centrality of art in their model, shifting it from a curricular add-on to a significant mode of inquiry that can intensify student understanding of other disciplines such as the math, science, and language arts.

They make a strong case for the role of non-canonical contemporary art as a mode for transdisciplinary inquiry. Such art is unfamiliar, they maintain, and therefore not open to easy interpretation or automatic recognition. Plus, this work frequently takes up and responds to tough issues, rejecting simple answers (or any answers at all) and demonstrating art’s capacity for social critique. Such features are found in all disciplinary inquiry, and the authors argue that these similarities are why the work of contemporary artists can help students “build the mental muscles needed to grapple with questions for which there are no set answers” regardless of content area (p. 7). To bolster their argument, the authors draw on Bruner’s (1966) notions of disciplinary thinking and Hetland, Winner, Veenema, and Sheridan’s (2013) art-related habits of mind.

Following a first chapter that lays out their general argument, the authors move specifically into the elements of art inquiry, using examples of contemporary artwork to illustrate creative conceptual strategies employed by artists (e.g., juxtaposition, distillation, and extension). They provide concrete examples of the methods and tools artists and students can use in inquiry and offer suggestions for how teachers can structure investigative projects. The book then shifts into a series of chapters that focus on specific academic disciplines and fields: the natural sciences, the social sciences, history, geography, creative writing, and mathematics. These chapters each begin with an overview of the discipline followed by a section detailing intersections between the discipline and art. Each chapter concludes with examples of contemporary artworks that connect with the discipline. For example, in Chapter Three, The Natural Sciences: Understanding the Natural World, authors Lawrence Horvath and Julia Marshall describe artist Nathalie Miebach’s use of weather data to construct sculptures depicting hurricane patterns. In Chapter Seven, Creative Writing: The Long and Winding Road, Rick Ayers uses artist Do Ho Suh’s replicas of his various homes to draw connections between artistic expression and metaphor.

The final chapter pulls the content together by giving teachers practical suggestions for implementing an art-centered integrated curriculum. The authors offer step-by-step guidelines for how to develop such a curriculum via two routes: with academic content as the entry point and with art as the entry point. In addition, they provide a broad curriculum aimed at supporting teachers as they develop projects, designed to instigate ongoing inquiry and focused on Mansilla and Gardner’s (1998) four dimensions of understanding (purpose, knowledge, methods, and forms). Using this general plan, the authors conclude with several examples of model projects, including suggestions for contemporary artists whose work can be used.


This is a provocative and rich book that makes a strong case for a purposeful and substantive integration of art into disciplinary learning. The authors provide teachers with ample theory with which to frame their thinking. The discussions of works by Awol Erizku, Chris Jordan, Rick Lowe, and Doris Salcedo—how these artists think, the questions or concerns that provoke them, their processes and methods—are some of the best parts of the text and make the best argument for the authors’ premise. In these sections, the authors explicitly name the ways that the artists integrate evidence through purpose, knowledge, methods, and form, as well as the creative strategies they use. They provide teachers with both food for thought and specific teaching ideas.


The overview of each academic discipline is necessarily selective; readers will need to bring their own understandings. That said—the overviews are useful for providing insight into what the authors of each chapter value and how that affects their choice of artists.

The book features numerous illustrations of work by contemporary artists, but the treatment of the images hampers their effectiveness. The illustrations are printed small and in grayscale, frequently with multiple examples on a page. While they are described in the text, those descriptions can only do so much; details are not clear and the loss of color and depth is disappointing. Instead of giving readers a rich view of the artists’ works, the images provide a gist at best. However, a quick internet search can bring up full color examples that would allow for more robust readings.


Through its claims of the value of a deeply thoughtful art-centered integrated curriculum and the use of contemporary artists to instigate teacher and student thinking, Art-Centered Learning Across the Curriculum is ripe for pedagogical conversations and collaborations. It would be a worthy text for a reading group, where content area teachers and art educators discuss ideas together, formulate arguments specific to their fields, and work collaboratively to design a strong and hearty integrated learning curriculum.



Bruner, J. (1966). Towards a theory of instruction. Cambridge: MA: Harvard University Press.

Hetland, L., Winner, E., Veenema, S., & Sheridan, K. (2013). Studio thinking: The real benefits of visual arts education (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Mansilla, V., & Gardner, H. (1998). What are the qualities of understanding? In M.S. Wiske (Ed.), Teaching for understanding: Linking research with practice (pp. 161-183). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 12, 2015
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 18140, Date Accessed: 5/17/2022 6:06:40 PM

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About the Author
  • Teri Holbrook
    Georgia State University
    E-mail Author
    TERI HOLBROOK is an associate professor of literacy and language arts at Georgia State University. Broadly, her research—including text creation, analysis, and use—looks at how arts-infused and digital composition alters notions of literacy education, academic and literary writing, and qualitative inquiry. Her work has been published in Qualitative Inquiry, Visual Arts Research, Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, and The Literacy Research Association Yearbook. She is a co-editor of New Methods of Literacy Research, a qualitative research book by Routledge, and of the NCTE journal Language Arts.
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