Can you imagine life without art?
Then why is much of education devoid of art?
I was on a casual internet wander the other day when I come across a quote:
Art encourages children to think, developing skills and confidence as they go.
Which got me thinking. In their early years, children muck around with lots of art — play dough, clay, painting, colouring, sketches. You name it, and a preschool going child dabbles in some form of art on a weekly basis.
And then at some point in the primary years, arts gets the cold shoulder. Children spend less and less time on anything artistic as they grow older. And they spend increasing amounts of time perfecting more technical skills like math, science and coding.
On reading that quote, I was motivated to dig deeper. As luck would have it, I landed upon a few papers written by researchers who tried to answer the following question:
Does arts education and training transfer to skills enhancement in non-art subjects?
In countries like the US and others in Europe, the inclusion of arts in the curriculum seems to hinge on the answer to this question.
Yes, that’s right.
Policy makers need to be convinced that art learning leads to the development of cognitive skills in other academic areas like math and reading in order to justify it as a part of the curriculum. In other words, inclusion of the arts in the curriculum seems to depend on whether arts can lead to improvement in test scores.
But that misses the point entirely, doesn’t it? Art in any form is an inherently creative endeavour. Whether you talk of dance, music or the visual arts, they all require creativity, innovation and pushing the boundaries of what’s been done before.
The right question to be asking is whether art has a unique influence on learning in the broadest sense, rather than limit the discussion to test scores and other easily measured metrics.
Most fields are creative
Whether you talk of math, science or music, performance at the highest level involves (and requires) high levels of creativity. The application of science at the highest levels if a deeply creative undertaking. Look at the traditional K-12 science curriculum though, and you’d be inclined to think otherwise.
The typical child in 2021 is introduced to science as a collection of theorems, formulae and calculations. No wonder most children need to be goaded into studying science at the highest level. They see it as a dry and lacking in inspiration. Take the case of Mathematics and the proportion of ‘haters’ grows even more.
Most top-flight mathematicians don’t sit on their desks solving sums all day. If you get onto Youtube and listen to a talk or interview involving a mathematician, you will immediately realise that the math you did at school is very different to the math professional mathematicians do.
So if the top brass in almost every field point to creativity as their strongest skill, then why is so little importance given to it in school?
We don’t fully understand how the brain works
Part of the reason is that despite the substantial leaps in our understanding of the brain and how it works, we don’t quite know how different parts of the brain work together to create new discoveries, ideas and insights.
What we do know from a number of studies is that practising the arts (any art) does lead to enhancements in cognitive processing i.e. those who practice art have a higher degree of cognitive processing in domains related to their art. For example, studies suggest that children who are exposed to musical training early on tend to become fluent and faster readers than children who aren’t.
However, these findings are not necessarily causal. In other words, does the part of the brain involved in musicality also play a role in assisting reading? Why would one lead to the other? We don’t quite know.
The scientific case for arts inclusion
What we do know beyond doubt is that the more our senses are stimulated, the better our retention and the better the learning. Part of the reason for this is evolutionary — we evolved in a multi-sensorial environment. The stimuli we received ever since we came into being combined visual, auditory and olfactory stimuli.
And then all of a sudden, we learnt to tame ourselves, and stuffed our children into classrooms where the dominant mode of learning was and still is text based. The human brain remembers images by a factor of 6x better than it remembers sound or text. And yet, we hardly have any interesting visuals accompany the drab textbooks that children are forced to study from.
At its very base, visual arts bring into being our most dominant sense — vision. When children engage more than one sense, the learning is more likely to arouse emotion, which then increases the chances of it producing longer-term learning in the brain.
The same is the logic for including music and dance in the curriculum — when more than one sense is stimulated, we tend to feel more in sync with the activity, which results in deeper learning and better recall.
‘Why are the children doing so much art and craft?’
This is a question we’ve been asked occasionally by parents. We do a lot of art and craft in school — in fact, I don’t know of too many other schools that do as much craft as we do. But the reason for doing it is clear. The act of creativity brings out emotions which few other activities do. When children are emotionally attached to their work, they are bound to connect with the topic being studied on a deeper level.
Every theme we do incorporates lots of projects, art and craft work. Art is a universal language; and bringing as much of it as possible into the school curriculum helps with giving children a base from which to explore various topics in depth.
Imagine the following situation. You are trying to teach children about light. Some children don’t really show much of an interest in the physics of light. How do you get them to become interested? Bringing art into the classroom is one surefire way to ignite the passions of even the most disinterested learners. There is something special about art in its ability to give humans a unique view of the complex world that they live in.
Some recent examples from school
At TSJA, we have always believed that visual arts can complement learning effectively. All our themes incorporate an art and design element, with the various grades engaging in projects at a level appropriate to their skill level.
Just recently, the third and fourth graders started a theme on the weaves and embroideries of India. The theme involves matter on the differences between natural and synthetic fibres, types of dyeing, patterns, texture and colour. As part of the theme, the children engaged in making tie and dye. Below are a few examples made by the children.
Even though school is currently online, it was clear to see that engaging in this activity really brought the theme alive for the children. One father of an 8 year old boy remarked, “I didn’t think he would show much interest in this theme — but he seems to be enjoying it a lot”.
Some of the most successful people owe their success to their ability to be creative. And I’m not talking only about designers and artists. Many successful inventors and businessmen talk about the importance of creativity in helping them gain access to new ideas and insights.
Even if it doesn’t lead to improvement in test scores, a curriculum that involves arts greatly aids children in expanding their understanding of the world. In many cases, art can become the bridge that connects seemingly disparate bodies of knowledge.
Do let us know your thoughts in the comments!