Learning without Boundaries: Arts in the classroom By Ritu Talwar

Learning without Boundaries: Arts in the classroom Art as a medium of instruction liberates the mind and enables the child to discover the ocean of potential within. A creative pedagogue reveals her narrative. Ritu Talwar is an Art Educator, IGCSE, The Shri Ram School, Gurgaon “You might want to replace the Azure with Ultramarine blue.” […]

Learning without Boundaries: Arts in the classroom

Art as a medium of instruction liberates the mind and enables the child to discover the ocean of potential within. A creative pedagogue reveals her narrative.


Ritu Talwar is an Art Educator, IGCSE, The Shri Ram School, Gurgaon


“You might want to replace the Azure with Ultramarine blue.” My advice goes unheeded as Samar sits still as a rock unyielding and unaware of my words and the world around him. His unblinking gaze is returned by the still seascape he has now been working on for months together, never seeming to complete it. I lift the headphones from his ears and repeat my suggestion as I am quite weary of seeing him paint and repaint the clouds behind the vast ocean. He turns to stare back at me as if trying to comprehend what I had uttered. Slowly, the words stumble out of his mouth, “I don’t know ma’am, the sky doesn’t look quite right, I think I will work a little more on the clouds.” With this he puts on his headphones and resumes his leisurely brush strokes as if in a trance. I take a deep breath and squeeze out some ultramarine blue in the palette.


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Deep inside, I worry for this 16 year old, not because he can’t seem to complete his painting just like any of his academic assignments, but because he is so indifferent to it all…as if beyond care. His parents have given up on him and sometimes they are made to believe that open school is a better idea for someone like him, who cannot cope with the rigour of regular school. It’s a different matter that the theoretical aspect of academics fail to interest him. Blank answer sheets and empty notebooks are driving Samar’s teachers up the wall while the fear of board exams, just a few months away give his parents sleepless nights. As for Samar, his calm expression reveals no concern for all this or the mayhem his attitude may have caused. He seems to have drowned in the expectations of all around him as he ‘drifts’ through the school years. What keep him afloat are strong undercurrents of photography, music and art that remain his hidden passion. Some may know that he plays drums, but the fact that he is a brilliant photographer is a well-guarded secret. Samar opted for Art as his fifth subject choice in grade 9 and 10, but did not pursue it further. He loves the subject  but is just not confident whether it will guarantee admission in one of the prestigious colleges, or promise him a lucrative career. Also the other subjects offered in combination with Art are not exactly his favorite. So he has opted for Commerce stream at school and pursues Art only in his free time, as a hobby. Ironically though, his sketches and compositions reveal keen observation and extraordinary skill. His paintings have a dreamy quality and speak of the resonance he feels with unhurried pace of nature. Even his photographic forays reflect aloofness, a spark of brilliance obscured in anonymity much like the shooting star blazing a trail in the star studded sky he captured with his camera. His work emphatically portrays the disconnect Samar is experiencing from the real world – a world ready to judge him by his performance and one that doesn’t value his passion.

In pursuit of consistently good academic results, syllabus completion and well-disciplined campus, is it inevitable for an educator and in the broad sense, the school to lose sight of a child’s individuality? Jane Sahi proclaims in her article Roots and Branches “This management approach to education ignores children with varying gifts, abilities and temperaments”. Is it then our ‘moral responsibility’ to teach the child, whether or not he is ready to learn or can one attempt to recognise his or her true calling and make the environment conducive to his growth? How can we fire their imagination and instill a sense of curiosity in these young learners? How can we channelize their immense energy into a constructive realm? Are we willing to explore more creative, non-academic paths to knowledge at the risk of taking a seemingly less serious approach to learning?  I attempt to answer some of these questions through my essay that talks about practice of Art as a creative route to constructing meaning, fostering relationships and providing a window to further children’s voices.

Sitting in a corner of the art room, Abhay would scribble inconspicuously in his sketch book, his eyes glancing furtively around to see if anyone is looking at him doing so. When approached to share his work, he would resist vehemently and plead, “Ma’am, it’s not complete” or “It’s not good, it’s really bad.” As this became a routine, I was curious what Abhay was hiding, as some children would use the Art sketch book to write abuses or crack personal jokes at each other. I was concerned but waited till I was able to explore the contents of his sketchbook. To my amazement, Abhay was a wonderful artist, though his purview of drawings was nothing close to the topics given in class. He made skulls and guns and other boyish things that caught his fancy

with great detail and finesse. Pleasantly surprised, I realised, I cannot limit a child’s expression by defining the outcome in every class. Perhaps he was afraid of being reprimanded for not being in sync with his class or being compared to his peers. Abhay’s heavy body drew ridicule from his peers. Not willing to be recognised for his sketching talent, as that would bring him to limelight that he so advertently avoided, he found solace in his doodles which were only for his eyes. Most children give up these outpourings of their inner self as they grow older because grown-ups are judging them, expecting something that falls under the category of meaningful and productive.

When asked what the children would like to do in the forthcoming year during the art class, Vipul, an otherwise quiet boy made the most unexpected statement. He said, “Ma’am, how do you expect us to be creative and innovative when in every class you  tell us what to do and how to do it?” Shaken out of my reverie, I saw where he was coming from. Each year I spent considerable amount of time and energy to lay down the activities for students of the middle school, that would include skill development, art integration and appreciation. By setting clearly defined goals, was I actually doing injustice to those who think differently? Was I not pre-empting the outcome of the class even before they had begun to explore. What right did I have to limit their imagination to the level of my expectations? Will I be open to ideas that were out of the purview of the structured activity?

Jane Sahi’s observation “The child learns to conform, distrust his own experience and resources” finds validation in my experience with Abhay, Vipul, Samar and many more children who need a wider window to express themselves. As young learners what they need is the vision to ‘explore’ and ‘connect’ and not always ‘perform’ and ‘deliver’. I realised it was also imperative for me to observe how the child felt while doing the activity, not just what the child was doing. Was he or she able to draw out some experience from his past and connect it to the present? The emotional aspect of the agenda was as important as the skill the child was developing. While engaging with a group of learners, this insight can prevent one from alienating children with emotional or psychological baggage.

Attempting to review my own take on art and education, I referred back to the NCF 2005 that reminds us to recognise the child as a natural learner. It urges educators to use ‘a child centred pedagogy that means giving primacy to children’s experiences, their voices and their active participation’. But are we listening? As I walk past corridors of several schools, I hear teacher’s voices resounding while children sit and listen in dead silence. Is all well if the class is so quiet, or is something missing? The formal structure and dynamics of the classroom seldom allow children to open up, connect or express freely. It intrigued me that children always sit at assigned places in their classroom – sometimes even according to their roll numbers. When permitted to choose where they wanted to sit in the art room, some children were ecstatic while others couldn’t make a choice, perhaps because this freedom was never offered to them before. Imagine the confidence that can be instilled by entrusting them with this small decision. Similarly a change in the venue can foster learning exponentially as I experienced in an outdoor nature study class. Observing the leaves on the trees and drawing them was not the same as drawing it in the classroom. Not only could the children see the real colour of the foliage in daylight but also came to appreciate the subtle differences in the alternate, whorled and opposite placement of simple and compound leaves.

However I saw a reversal of the power roles in one of the SUPW sessions where some children from the rural area of Mewat were invited to attend art, science and Physical Education classes on the campus of our private school. The students of grade 11 were to engage grade 8 children from Mewat in an art activity, with guidance from the educators. The aim was to develop positivity, camaraderie and share best practices with them in three sessions of two hours each. My experience at the summer fellowship conducted by RRCE had given me lot of ideas that I wished to explore and I decided to test a few of them with this diverse group. Our students were enthusiastic but hesitant at first as they struggled to converse with their counterparts in Hindi while guiding them around the art room. The children from Mewat were reticent but looked excited. The girls in particular, heads covered and eyes gleaming were very quiet in the beginning of the class. Once settled and welcomed, all children were asked what they loved doing the most and what would translate into personal ‘freedom’ for them. They were to talk about the experience that was close to their heart and made them ‘feel free’, even if for a few moments. ‘Playing cricket’, ‘flying a kite’, ‘swimming’, ‘dancing’ some of the boys said. The girls as if taking a cue, came up with ‘listening to music’, ‘sleeping’, ‘skipping’ and so on. Some of them were too conscious to speak in front of the group so we waited for them to think and answer later, while the art activity was initiated. They had to now design and cut a stencil on the ‘freedom idea’ and use it to understand the concept of printing. As the children got busy drawing and cutting a kite, cricket bat, a flying bird etc, it was heart-warming to see the older children take charge of the class. They paired up with the younger lot and spoke to them about their experiences, while helping them to visualise, cut and use the stencil. It was amazing how freely the conversation flowed as suddenly these children from a rural, developing area had something in common with these privileged children from a city school with fancy buses and well equipped classrooms. The art room transformed into a playground that these children seemed to own as they moved around freely, laughing and exchanging ideas, determined to give shape to the feeling they shared. They all valued ‘freedom’, albeit in different ways. It was interesting that freedom translated to ‘I-pad’, ‘playstation’, ‘exotic chocolates’ and ‘holiday by the beach’ for some of the children from our school. Malhar’s response was different from the rest. She thought hard and said she related freedom to the ‘Jarwa’ tribe from the Andamans (where she had travelled in the summer vacation) as she felt they had the ultimate freedom of living the life they chose, amidst nature and with no routines to follow. In contrast, as we got more familiar with the Mewat kids, Muskaan opened up to say that she felt going to school meant freedom for her, so that she can become ‘something’ (someone) in life. Simply put, it epitomised the role of education. How wonderful it would be if more children (and adults) see ‘education’ as a path to liberation not only of the individual but also of the society. Clearly, Art initiated a dialogue that led to so many revelations and possibilities.

Art also extends itself easily to learning in other spheres. “Art and Craft help children to use their hands, heads and hearts to make learning something alive and dynamic”- Jane Sahi, Roots and Branches.

This was reflected in the model of a flower made by grade 6 students who were guided by their Science teacher to recreate the flower’s parts by observing a real flower and recreating it with paper, clay and wire in the art room. Clay was used for gynoecium and thin wire for the androecium. Art combined knowledge and skill to make their learning ‘real’ leaving a lasting impression on these young minds. Even years later, they will be able to recall the different parts with ease.

“Art provides a unique platform that celebrated workmanship without the confines of reward and punishment”- John Holt, How Children Learn

Aadya was introduced to Origami in grade 6 during an Art session. She found it fascinating to create a paper sculpture within minutes, having mastered a few tricky folds and bases. The activity challenged her skills and the success of her results inspired her. Internet and books fuelled her interest and every week she began beating her own record of making more complex albeit beautiful paper sculptures. It’s not surprising that imagining 3d spaces comes naturally to her now and she is making connections between Origami and fashion, architecture and product design. When subject choice is a big dilemma for other class 9 kids, she confidently chose Technical Drawing that complements her aptitude in visualising perspective and elevation. Art helped her recognise her calling and developed her motor and spatial skills. It’s no surprise then that Researchers at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have built a robot that can self-assemble and move without human intervention inspired by Origami, the Japanese art of paper folding, a breakthrough in technology – conceptualised through Art!

I have also found that Art techniques can be effectively used as pedagogy for differently abled children to construct knowledge. Working with one such group of students with varying abilities, I found it easy to reinforce the concept of sequential learning by introducing the accordion booklet that I learnt to make from my counterpart in a German exchange programme. The ‘Liporello’ as they called it helped the children build images around a narrative of their choice and break it down in a simple sequence of 4 steps. The response was awe inspiring, as children brought up a range of ideas from the launch of a rocket to a shipwreck, from germination of a seed to the changing seasons shown through four images of trees with different colours and number of leaves. This is where I felt the use of design as a technique worked very well for the learners. In the use of this and other such design based activities I have found children develop language, decision making, problem solving and critical thinking skills. Inter disciplinary learning also works wonders in rekindling interest in theoretical subjects for example making a miniature painting to understand life and culture of Mughals in history or using ‘Micrography’ ( portraits made of text ) as a visual to learn and share mundane facts and figures about authors, scientists or historical personalities in an interesting way. Historical movements such as the Renaissance can be best elaborated upon in the classroom through discussion and appreciation of the Art of the times. The works of Leonardo da Vinci and Michael Angelo can be exemplified to understand what ‘Renaissance’ or ‘Rebirth’ as concepts were all about and how they radically affected the political, cultural and literary atmosphere.

John Holt’s statement “Art makes us deal with real problems, for which there are no answers in any book” is a profound one. It would be best if we did not see Art as a mere diversion but a very powerful way of getting in touch with and expressing reality. The aftermath of Uttarakhand flash floods left a deep impact on our country. Seeing it as an opportunity for children to be sensitised to the causes and extent of this calamity, I designed an art activity for students of middle school. Initially as I brought up the topic in class, the indifferent attitude of the students was appalling. However, I persisted and gradually as the conversation progressed, emotions of fear, isolation, desperation, shock and insecurity surfaced among them. While concretising these emotions through ‘Word Art’ in the art class, where they had to select or create an appropriate typestyle and add symbolic illustrations, children discovered empathy and felt safe in sharing their vulnerability with peers. What unfolded was the forming of a new community as children from diverse backgrounds and learning abilities united in their vision to face up to a catastrophe of such magnitude in future. As a school that is constantly struggling to make the campus a bully free zone, a poster design activity on ‘who is a bully’ and ‘how can one stand up to bullying’ helped grade 6 children find their own solution to the problem. The concept of ‘Cyber safety’ is constantly being talked about in the school to develop an understanding of the pros and cons of being on the internet. Grade 8 children were asked to identify actual incidents of Cybercrime they or their friends and family may have experienced and narrate them in the form of a comic strip. Once again, Art validated their experiences and also helped them to look at possible solutions.
Art in school, should therefore be ‘bold and serious’, as John Holt put it, and not just as an escape from reality. Shilo Shiv Suleman, a young artist with a rare talent for striking imagery, gave voice to the rage we all felt over the Delhi gang rape with her Fearless Collective project where she invited women to post their experience of being ‘fearless’ on the internet. A girl after having posted her entry found the courage to lodge a complaint of a stalkist that had been troubling her for four year. Likewise, Jan Natya Manch, a theatre group who has been associated with socio- political issues since its inception 1973, is evoking the dormant emotions of violence victims through powerful street plays that mirror ‘real’ and ‘ugly’ truths of our society.
Our schools today reflect this reality and are an extension of the society itself. Our children must know that they have a voice and can take a stand in the most extreme circumstances. Cornered and upset with people around, an anonymous teenager resorted to abusive graffiti on walls of the school campus. Is he a rebel? Who is he rebelling against? Was the school and the education system unable to provide him with a bona fide avenue to speak? As Jane Sahi observes “A school that is centred on only one kind of learning and measuring success only in terms of worldly acclaim can be profoundly limiting because so many children will be excluded…To remove a persons’ sense of self-worth, possibility of choices and self-confidence means that the desperate desire for autonomy may result in violence that is channelled either inwards in self-destruction, or projected outwards in aggression to another.”
As the stories above indicate, there is a need to integrate Art into the fabric of education in a way that it prepares learners for taking on the role of a good citizen. Art education in school is a child’s first window to arts, it should therefore be given higher priority. There is a need to ground art into daily lives and to understand classroom as a microcosm of the society we live in. This cannot happen till we recognize that Art can nurture the true potential of a child and give him/ her voice that connects to the outer world. An Art oriented curriculum can provide a powerful connect to the teaching learning process that can break the monotony of rote learning and text book centric education. The role of Art in fostering an environment of peace and happiness at the elementary level, so vital in today’s hostile socio political atmosphere, is irreplaceable. It is therefore imperative that no pre service teacher training programme is devised without due emphasis on Art Integrated learning. Art educators across schools need to collaborate resources and share success stories on how best to envision Art as the harbinger of change in our society. They need to work closely with mainstream teachers to find every little opportunity to make learning fun and holistic. They must take forward this newfound faith in the Arts to build a momentum that contributes to Curriculum, Teacher Training and Policy making.

Going back to Samar’s story, when University of Bournmouth invited entries this year to a contest titled “Who am I”, I was able to convince him to participate. His response though, was a self-portrait sketch that was shattered in pieces like broken glass. His entry got selected and he was invited for an interview, but the shattered portrait stayed with me for a long time. The restlessness inside me subsided a bit when photographs taken by Samar were showcased in the exhibition titled “Follow your dreams” in the school foyer. Now there’s another visual that is etched in my memory, that of his winning entry, a lonely human silhouette that stands out against a vast, colourful backdrop of the sky as if celebrating the individuality within.
I was instantly reminded of John Holt’s words from his book ‘How Children Learn’, “There is more real learning in a good picture than in twenty work books”.

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1 Comment

  1. A brilliant article. Without the grace of art the future seems to be bleak. Be it mathematics or history, literature or geography–art is everywhere. Because art is essentially a sensitivity, a way of doing things with beauty, harmony, rhythm and grace. If in the name of ‘success’, ‘utility’ and ‘information’ we miss it, our schools and colleges would be transformed into mere ‘learning machines’ with the logic of industry–‘input’ and ‘output’, ‘investment’ and ‘marketable product’. Keep publishing good articles. Because there is hardly a forum that generates good ideas in the real of education.

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