Leonardo da Vinci – poet, sculptor, musician, painter, architect, geologist, engineer, botanist, philosopher, physiologist, anatomist, astronomer, and one of the most talented people to ever live! But did you know that he had trouble with reading, writing, speaking, and arithmetic calculations in the traditional sense? If he were alive today, he would be considered a ‘special needs’ child and labelled ‘learning-disabled’. We know him to be a great artist, famous for painting the Mona Lisa. Despite his academic impediments, his visual acuity and artistic ability enabled him to achieve ground-breaking developments. Da Vinci also invented many things, drawing numerous detailed sketches and ideas for inventions he never got around to building. More often than not, art is very enjoyable for children – the splashes of colour, the different media they can sink their hands into, and the experience of satisfaction in their artistic pursuits. However, parents and educators must remember that the process of creation is more important than the product. There is a definite link between learning and the arts, and we must give free rein to a child’s creativity.
Connections between indulging in the aesthetic domain and thinking are well-established. The creative process involves noticing relationships, redefining the elements, and reorganising parts into something new. According to art education researcher Viktor Lowenfeld, “The greater the opportunity to develop increased sensitivity, and the greater the awareness of all the senses, the greater the opportunity for learning.”
I remember taking an art therapy course as a psychology major in Chicago, where art was used as a medium to reveal your subconscious thought processes, helping it come into focus and aiding the healing. Learning starts with awareness and is to be experienced – be it through role-playing, gleefully singing a catchy jingle, immersing oneself in a vivid picture, drawing a basic diagram, or constructing a craft. In India, there is heavy emphasis on math and science, and those definitely have their place for success. There is no denying that developing a good scientific temper is important; but the humanising experience of the arts cannot be ignored in complementing holistic development. According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, our aesthetic needs come right after our educational needs. The word aesthetics comes from the Greek word aisthetikos, which refers to the ability to perceive through the senses. Aesthetics involves the love and pursuit of beauty as found in art, movement, music, and life (Schirrmacher, 1998).
Think about how much you learned as a child in school while performing in a cultural program or when compiling a project. Fine arts teacher at Glendale Academy, Mr. Krishna Reddy states, “Compared to any other subject, art is broad-minded, but at the same time helps students to fine-tune what they experience in the world around them. In daily life, a lot goes unnoticed, but when a child constructs a drawing or painting, things come alive by observing the finer aspects. Very naturally, without realising it, children reconstruct within their minds the visual impact of the subject and transfer that onto paper.”
When children engage in aesthetic experiences, they encounter five kinds of knowledge: physical, logical-mathematical, representational, social-conventional, and metacognition (defined as thinking about thinking). For example, through social-conventional knowledge, we teach understanding and respect for cultural traditions, history and heritage. Experiences with music, visual arts, dance and dramatics serve as symbols of cultural identity for children. Children also have opportunities to consider how and why they think as they do.
For children to develop into successful, contributing members of society, they must also be able to think and create. These abilities are not ‘right-brain frills’. They are life skills that help individuals understand, learn, and set free a creative thinking process that is essential for the global milieu.
Expanding the mind through art
School children exposed to drama, music and dance may do a better job of mastering reading, writing and math than those who focus solely on academics, according to a report by the Arts Education Partnership (2002). The report is based on analysis of 62 studies of various categories of art ranging from dance and drama to music and visual arts, performed by nearly 100 researchers. It’s the first to combine all the arts and make comparisons with academic achievement, performance on standardised tests, improvements in social skills, and student motivation.
The Arts Education Partnership is a coalition of more than 100 national educational, arts, philanthropic and government organisations. The CCSSO and the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies administer the partnership under a cooperative agreement with the United States Education Department and the National Endowment for the Arts. The report took two years to produce, with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and the US Department of Education. The Arts Education Partnership research from 2002 found that:
• Drama helps in understanding social relationships, complex issues and emotions, and improves concentrated thought and story comprehension.
• Music improves math achievement and proficiency, reading and cognitive development, and boosts SAT verbal scores and skills for second-language learners.
• Dance helps with creative thinking, originality, elaboration and flexibility, and improves expressive skills, social tolerance, self-confidence and persistence.
• The visual arts improve content and organisation of writing, and promote sophisticated reading skills and interpretation of text, as well as reasoning of scientific images and reading readiness.
• Multi-arts (combination of art forms) helps with reading, verbal and math skills, and improves the ability to collaborate and higher-order thinking skills. – Anjum Babukhan
The author is director of education at Glendale Academy and a global teacher development trainer.