Teachers as artists


Teachers enjoy doing things differently in the class. I have had the privilege of knowing and witnessing several such teachers weave magic in their classrooms and I’ve decided to take every opportunity I get to celebrate the wonderful work teachers do within the systemic structures of educational institutions. I’ll begin with two such accounts.

While learning about our five senses in class 1, Ms. K always set up five sensory stations at the back of her classroom and watched children bring the most unexpected objects to class. Everything from moth eaten old books and cactus plants to conch shells and freshly caught snails from the garden made a visit. The stations became a hang out place and a live learning station over a period of 3-4 months until the children unanimously decided they had had enough of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching.

Another teacher, Ms. J teaching ‘pollution’ as part of EVS in class 9, realized that the students could talk about pollution, its types, causes, effects and prevention in their sleep. Having overdone this topic as part of countless school assemblies, science chapters, geography lessons, World Pollution Prevention Days, their relationship with this topic was almost robotic. She decided not to “teach” the topic but instead leave her students with a large collection of National Geographic magazines from which they had to extract articles that covered the topic. Through real stories and lived experiences from across the world, they had to create an EVS chapter that was more interesting than what was presented in their textbook! The impact of this project on those children and the collateral learning that occurred can be an article in itself.

Unfortunately, not all teachers have the opportunity to see what the above two teachers saw – an opportunity to engage with learning. To connect with the students’ existing understandings and experiences. To believe that students must be given the freedom to interpret material themselves, uninhibited by the ritualized right and wrong question and answer routine. To know that learning must not restrict itself to knowledge but must allow and engage with feelings and the body.

I often meet teachers and heads of schools who request for training programmes that will support teachers to do things ‘differently’ and see these above-mentioned opportunities of learning. They express that while every now and then there are roleplay sessions conducted or an integrated art activity, the truth is that the classroom is overall boring and dull.

Photo: National Geographic Library

I recently read a very insightful academic paper titled ‘Countering dull pedagogies: The power of teachers and artists working together’ by Pat Thomson and Christine Hall. The paper essentially talked about the value in bringing in artists to work with teachers to develop creative approaches to teaching that stem from pedagogies that are open-ended, exploratory, collaborative, and inclusive. I run a collective that focuses on similar ideas, so the paper helped give flight to several thoughts in my head, but what made me pause and think was the phrase ‘dull pedagogies’. It’s probably what those teachers and heads of schools were witnessing but failed to articulate. However, Thomson and Hall have defined these two words with much ease.

Pedagogy, they say, is a word with varying meanings unlike the popularly understood ‘methods used by teachers’. It can be seen as a learning experience. The ways in which relationships are developed and conversations are held. The effective use of knowledge, skills, abilities, resources, time, space, contexts, and pace. Pedagogy also entails ethos of the school and the ways in which children are recognized and valued.

Dullness, on the other hand, as defined by them, is the day after day of the same pedagogy regardless of what is to be learnt. Dullness is located in textbook and PowerPoint based learning which focuses on syllabus and the right and wrong answers. Dullness is material thinly presented and difficult material skated over. Dullness is coverage prioritized over understanding.

This kind of dull pedagogy is also referred to as default pedagogy which we all recognize as a ‘lesson plan’ with its opening and closing plenaries and the middle period of direct instructions followed at times by individual or group projects where creativity is encouraged as part of presentation, not as a way of thinking. Teachers and educational systems often fall back on these pedagogic routines as they are designed to deliver measurable goals within set time structures.

In order to counter this dullness, there are often attempts to do things differently like asking students to respond to a book – usually an extract; or enacting an event in history that’s taken out of context; or writing essays about inclusivity while sitting in air-conditioned classrooms designed to exclude. Unfortunately, these are all dull pedagogies as well, as they fail to kindle the desire to learn more, dig deeper and be challenged.

The question that arises then, is how does one consciously move away from this dull and default pedagogy? Thomas and Hall, in their paper, conclude that when teachers and artists work collaboratively, the default pedagogy changes as artists often draw upon their own expertise and experiences to teach in different ways. The two together are likely to mix direct teaching of key concepts with self-directed inquiry which uses a range of material, media, and other resources that inspire artists.

Here is where my area of interest comes in – I am convinced that if teachers engage in artistic practice regularly and develop a healthy relationship with the arts, both professionally and personally, they too, can build a reservoir of experiences, inspirations, and passions just like artists, which will give them the language, tools, and conviction to break away from the default pedagogy they rely on.

Photo: Anthony Derosa/pexels.com

I have seen this shift happen after consistent, ongoing arts-based training that a group of teachers went through. After just a few sessions of improvisational drama games, teachers were seen being more playful and relaxed in the classrooms. There was a lot more laughter, movement – for both the teacher and the student – and there was a clear evidence of risk being taken by the teacher in terms of experimentation with approaching a lesson ‘differently’. Here were first signs of moving away from the default. The more we played together, the more they tried ‘playing’ with how they were delivering lessons in the class. Ms. S, teaching Hindi in the primary years, told children to bring in chess boards and place any five pieces anywhere on the board. She asked them to look closely at the board and start writing a story inspired by the characters and how they were placed on the board. She later told me that this was how she took ‘improvisation’ into her class. Ms. C teaching geography, set her class 4 students on a treasure hunt around the school with clues that had complex directions on them. By the end of the day, her students were experts in giving and following directions and had decoded it all out without using a compass but by simply observing the sun. Ms. C, by the way, considered herself a ‘non-creative’ person at the start of our programme!

Teaching must be seen as a creative practice and teachers must identify themselves as creative practitioners. Just like artists, teachers are skilled professionals who are experts in the subjects they teach. They employ a range of tools and techniques, creativity and imagination, work with limited resources, within a certain structure or environment, and make conscious choices to create experiences. Artists create visual, audio, and other sensorial experiences for their audiences, while teachers create learning experiences for their students. Teachers are constantly problem-solving, resolving conflicts, improvising, employing different point of views, being mindful of playing fair, and keeping personal biases aside – all artistic practices that are rarely acknowledged as part of pedagogy.

When teachers start identifying themselves as creative practitioners, they take ownership of their process. They work hard to research and engage with new ideas, they go searching for inspiration and they bring in their own passions into the classroom. They claim their autonomy because they find conviction in this journey. They stop relying on pre-set routines and formats and create their own ways which come from their gut and their hearts. They work with themselves – their minds, emotions, and bodies. They look inward to find answers. And when they do that, they’ve stepped away from the default and into the sphere of creating magic!

The author is an arts-based therapist, educator and children’s author. She is the former Executive Director of Akshara High School, Mumbai and has been working in the field of education for the past 15 years designing arts-based curriculum and training teachers. She can be reached at TeachersAsArtistsCollective@gmail.com.

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