Why art needs to stay in class
Surya Praphulla Kumar JANUARY 19, 2018 14:37 IST
UPDATED: JANUARY 19, 2018 18:02 IST

The Hindu Weekend
A new arts conference will discuss its relevance in school, as it improves critical thinking, cognitive ability and concentration. Plus, four global cues we need to follow

An art class is to relax, copy what’s on the blackboard and maybe get in a quiet gab. While we may wish this weren’t the case today, in most Indian schools, art education is still outdated. “The entrenched belief is that it is meant for those few who draw well. But art is about observation, cognition, concentration and so much more,” says Vidya Shivadas, director of New Delhi-based Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art (FICA), who will be talking about why we need to update our approach at the first edition of the Indian Art & Design Educators Conference in Mumbai next month.

Today, the world over, educators are waking up to the fact that in a digital world — where animation and live-action stories are exploding — visual literacy, or the ability to interpret and make meaning from visual information, is the need of the next generation. “Art and design improves perception and integration skills, it helps children learn to think out of the box, to innovate; it’s a process-oriented exploration,” explains Sara Vetteth, founder of the Indian Art and Design Educators Association, which is organising the conference. Unfortunately, India is still on the back foot, even as internationally, governments are investing more in their arts programmes (most recently, New York’s mayor allocated $23 million per year to theirs). “We have to work hard to ensure our schools keep up with current global practices,” she asserts.

Vetteth — who also founded Chennai-based RainbowFish Studio, which devises and runs arts programmes in school and workshops — discusses four things that we must learn from the West.

Why art needs to stay in class
1. Art of integration

The digital age is a visual age, and this means students must learn and think in new ways. In his book The World is Flat, Pulitzer Prize-winner Thomas L Friedman, said, “The secret sauce (to support the current creative economy) comes from our ability to integrate art, music and literature with the hard sciences. Integration is the new specialty.”

In the West, there are widely-hailed examples of music being used to teach fractions, and history being taught through theatre and scriptwriting. “We have to constantly think of ways to connect art to the other subjects like maths and science. For example, getting grade two children to draw robots, while the teacher discusses the difference between organic and geometric shapes. It’s art, but it also touches upon what they are starting to learn in maths. It give them an ‘aha’ moment,” says Vetteth. “Or, in a later grade that’s beginning biology, get them to draw insects. While it teaches students symmetry, which is art, you are also teaching them the insect parts, like the head, thorax, abdomen, antennae and segmented legs, which is science.”

2. In-depth knowledge

Art education needs to be approached in a more structured manner, looking at theory as well as context. “Besides learning about the elements like line, shape, colour, space, texture and form, children must also learn art history. It is important because, in essence, they are being introduced to innovators — be it a Leonardo Da Vinci, Pablo Picasso or a Rekha Rodwittiya — and it will help them understand how an innovator approaches things.”

Vetteth believes that India has an advantage over the West thanks to our rich tradition of art, which is everywhere. “Outside of school, parents can teach kids through the patterns they see around them, from kolams to folk, and our narratives in art (like pattachitra, Mughal miniatures or Rajasthan’s fabric painting) that tell such beautiful stories.”

Why art needs to stay in class
3. Get verbal

The growing use of visuals is expanding what it means to be literate in the 21st century. And creative confidence and visual learning are key in this scenario. This is a lesson Vetteth picked up from US-based National Art Education Association, which asks teachers to encourage children to verbally explain the thought process behind their artwork. “This not only builds creative confidence, but also enables kids to chart their process of exploration. This, in turn, helps them with reasoning, critical thinking and verbal skills,” she says, adding, “In the West, art is graded not only for technique but also for risk-taking. They push you to be unique and take a risk. And let’s face it, this is a concept that is quite difficult to teach through any other subject. We don’t want them taking a risk in maths, we want them to find the solution!”

4. Design thinking

An early introduction to architecture and design helps develop visual and spatial skills, and gets children to interact with their environment. “When they are exposed to concepts like designing an ‘experience’, for example, like walking through an airport or using an ATM, they are no longer living life passively; they are thinking and innovating outside class, too,” she says.

Some of her favorite initiatives include using Jenga to create towers that stay up and making weight-bearing bridges with paper. “These are the beginnings of engineering and design thinking. Children learn about structure, foundation and why corrugation increases strength,” she says, elaborating, “At Rainbow Fish, we teach them things like designing chairs. Did you know almost every famous designer — from Charles and Ray Eames, and Frank Gehry to Isamu Noguchi — has created one? Through such an exercise, kids learn things like empathy, by thinking who is going to use the chair, a child, an old person, an office worker, etc.”

The conference — which will be held at the Piramal Museum of Art in Mumbai, from February 15-16 — will have 12 speakers, including educator Maya Thiagarajan, artist Harry Hancock, Tara Books publisher Gita Wolf and the founder of Nirmal Bhartia School, Pooja Jhaver. “It provides us a larger platform where the individual conversations that we’ve been having with school principals, institutions, teachers and parents can all be brought together,” concludes Shivadas.

₹5,000 per person. To register, go to arteducatorsindia.org

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