The basis of arts-based education

Madhulika Sagaram

Arts based learning as an approach has been used in many areas of education whether they are informal or formal learning environments. While, informal learning environments like hospitals, recovery centers, special education centers have used it for a long time, the approach has great potential for conventional or formal learning environments like schools as well.

Arts have always been put into the category of co-curricular and extracurricular activities with preferential treatment given to core subjects. When art is taught only like a subject without integration and complementarity with other disciplines, its potential and reach is greatly minimized. Arts are not just visual and performance oriented achievements; they enable the learner to make connections to lived experience. Various aspects of life including social, psychological, and emotional realms of learning can be easily expressed as well as understood using the arts. It is imperative that a shift from looking at art as a subject is replaced by a movement towards ‘arts as a teaching approach’. Such an approach will allow for revisiting concepts at different times in different ways. This facilitates the movement from rote learning to critical thinking and creativity; thus, enabling teachers as well as students to reach their potential.

science-art Arts based learning and teaching
All subjects including mathematics, general combined science, and social studies can be taught in unique perspectives using arts based learning. Children are encouraged to express their thoughts and opinions through arts and performances apart from written work. Learning through arts is based on interpreting lived experience, through the child’s creativity, passion and in development of ethics and life skills through service and lifelong learning. The approach could be strongly steeped in local culture, craft, and art forms which are skill based, familiar, and have emotional relevance to the child in her immediate environment.

The connection of the lived experience to themes, concepts, or issues at the intersection of various subjects provides an opportunity for growth. Arts based learning as a teaching approach is designed to provide students with opportunities to use experiential learning as a strategy in real life situations and in their own communities. This enhances learning beyond the classroom and into the community and thus augments or fosters the development of a sense of empathy for others.

As a result of the synergy created, students and teachers are both involved in solving real world problems, teaching and learning as knowledge creators instead of just being consumers. Arts based learning has been used to engage students so that they have the ability to understand and be aware of their capabilities and capacities and are able to readily use them.

Arts based learning and cognition
Cognition is one of the natural outcomes in this kind of approach as a result of the knowledge construction. The teachers need to be oriented in such a way that they allow children to empower themselves, make their own decisions and enable them to develop an understanding of the importance of relating feeling and thinking with action.

However, it is important to note that art involves personal and impersonal expression; personal impression as evident in western perspectives and impersonal expression as evident in eastern perspectives. While western schools of thought entrenched in human psychology and psychoanalysis have used arts based learning as a means for personal expression, traditional Indian schools of thought have always used arts and arts based learning as a representation of observation of life and lived experiences. Both perspectives can be used in learning environments and classrooms based on required contextualization.

Language proficiency
Arts based learning can become a medium of expression when working with language literacy and proficiency development. Proficiency in language development is related to the production of sound and placement of words. While production of sound is related to movement of jaw, placement of words is based on the emotional development of the learner. Generally, the focus of language proficiency programs is on the development of vocabulary along with grammar. However, no matter how many words a learner knows and remembers, he/she cannot utilize the knowhow if expression is lacking. Usually, individuals who have a natural ability to learn languages have the ability to develop expression in that language. Such expression can also be easily developed using arts based learning with learners of any age.

In mathematics
Origami is an extremely relevant and effective art form to facilitate learning in mathematics; all of geometry can be taught using origami. Likewise, Indian tribal art forms, western and modern art can be used at all levels of learning and with all age groups. Mathematics is extremely musical and all string and percussion instruments fit very well in the paradigm of using music to learn mathematics. Craft forms such as paper bead making, jewellery making, art forms such as Warli, Bhil, Gond, Patachitra, etc., can be great resources to facilitate various aspects of numerical literacy for kindergarten as well as primary years. Traditional art forms such as rangoli, muggu, or kolam are also fantastic ways of learning mathematics. Also, something as mundane as the art of stringing flowers using thread and fingers can be used to facilitate mathematics. When the teacher is able to help the learner form connections between mundane activities and life processes, mathematics invariably comes into play along with interaction with the sciences.

The sciences
Arts based learning and sciences form a compelling case for facilitating learning about life and life processes. The connection between arts and sciences comes to life through an understanding of aesthetics and the facilitation of the learning environment. All life processes can be studied through life sciences to include biology, chemistry, and physics or applied sciences such as agriculture, nutrition, forestry, geology, biochemistry, etc. While life processes can be studied through life and applied sciences, human behaviour and its influence upon life processes can be facilitated through social sciences.

Arts based learning can play an important role at various levels, it can be the tool that can facilitate conceptualization of abstract concepts. For e.g.,theatre and props can be used to enact a plant cell and an animal cell along with storytelling and making an artefact of the cells using everyday materials and trinkets. Science education and arts based learning together form a formidable combination that can engage the learner and anchor learning as an integral part of life processes. Concepts that are confusing or hazy become crystal clear when arts based learning is used in conjunction to life and applied sciences.

Arts based learning is also a potent approach to facilitate social sciences, subjects such as geography, history can be easily connected to mathematics or language literacy in an effortless manner. Arts such as theatre, dance, music, and craft forms such as puppetry, traditional storytelling forms like harikatha or burrakatha (from the southern region) and Chhau (from the eastern region), among others, are effective forms of connecting social studies and arts. Several other disciplines like mathematics, science, language can be looped into the concoction of arts and social sciences using various art and craft forms. Pottery, sculpture, collage, and mixed media art are fantastic art and craft forms to interconnect various disciplines together.

Arts based learning as an educational approach highlights the interconnectedness of all disciplines and helps the teacher and learner overcome the barriers of fragmentation of knowledge in modern society. When learners understand that all subjects and disciplines are merely paths to reach the same place in the process of life, they are empowered to delve into life processes to identify their channels of passion and identify their leaning in life and their own potential. Also, noteworthy to consider will be the paradigms of western vs traditional art forms. Art in the western perspective is based on personal expression and can lead to the fragmentation that is already evident in modern education. However, traditional art and craft forms across the world are extremely holistic, integrated with life and its processes and in tune with nature. For e.g.,traditional tribal art forms such as Warli, Bhil, or Gond are observations of daily life and the beauty that exists within such contextualization and learning; such aspects are missed out in the modern and western perspectives of art as in painting where personal expression takes precedence over alignment with life.

The teacher will have to choose the type of art form and the leaning based on the goal of the engagement involved whether it is classroom based or an outdoor activity. Nevertheless, arts based learning can be a very effective approach to construct lifelong learning perspectives.

Thus, arts based learning as an approach and pedagogy can connect a continuum of disciplines at the subject or concept or thematic level to make all learning visible to the learner and teacher.

Bommala Koluvu as an artifact for impersonal expression of art

Bommala Koluvu (Telugu), Bombe Habba (Kannada), Bommai Golu (Tamil), Bomma Gullu (Malyalam) is a doll and figurine CULTURAL display found all across South India during Dusshera, Diwali or Pongal based on cultural practice. The practice of making dolls, recreating stories from books and folk lore, lived experiences along with development of fine, gross motor skills and cultural understanding in children is a characteristic feature of Bommala Koluvu. This feature is a description of a Bommala Koluvu called ‘Gardens of the World’ done by ABCD Home School for Diwali 2016.

boomalakoluvu-1 The children engaged in the Bommala Koluvu made connections between environmental science, ecology, mathematics, geography, global culture in the process of creating it. The miniature gardens and vistas provided an avenue to recreate an understanding of cultural preferences, norms, and varied ways of life. A great deal of measurement was involved in terms of space allocation, quantity of materials, including sand, sawdust, pebbles, etc. Quality parameters learned included grading of materials to match suitability of landscape being created. Alignment, sequences and patterns were involved across disciplines such as mathematics, science, ecology, and global culture. Children engaged with natural materials such as sand, rocks, various types of soil, plants suitable for different geo-ecological areas across the world, etc. They also developed an understanding of plant ecology, anatomy and physiology, all aligned with other disciplines.

Impersonal expression of art has been a prominent thread in processes of learning in India since ages. Bommala Koluvu was one such opportunity for community involvement, sharing of knowledge being passed from generation to generation, oral cultural traditions and assessment of knowledge construction. Children along with adults in their extended family and friends participated in recreating themes and concepts from puranas, folk lore and family traditions. The adults that co-collaborated with them and those that would visit to engage with the Bommala Koluvu would further add their interpretation and understanding to the child’s creation providing feedback or repositioning transfer points of learning. The children would restructure their story or understanding to improve the showcase the following year.

Bommala Koluvu was thus not just a cultural display but also one showcasing the understanding of the process of life through observation, interpretation and restructuring one’s perspective. The artistic aspects of the exhibit were never based on personal expressions but on replication of observation of life around. This characteristic feature is found in all traditional craft and art forms in India. The person or people engaged in creating art mimicked life rather than using psychological and imaginary constructs. Knowledge construction was based on internalized life processes and a deep understanding of social life in the community.

In the creation of the exhibit described, children visited different gardens across Hyderabad including a Japanese Garden, French garden, lotus pond, English garden, farm garden, ashram, and a rustic temple to develop an understanding of life in various conditions and environments. The children observed natural processes and life in each environment and thus could recreate their understanding of the same.

The author is the founder of Adhya Educational Society and Ajahn Center for Pedagogy. She is also the Director at ABCD Home School and actively involved in innovation in pedagogy and curriculum. She is a researcher, teacher, facilitator, artist, and development worker. She can be reached at madhusagaram@gmail.com.