Will Art Integration force 'authentic & deeper' learning to take a backseat?

More than 70% of the Indian Teachers who had responded to a brief online survey that I had developed with the help of two of my colleagues and circulated in early December 2020 were deeply concerned that learning might take a backseat when Art Integration gains prominence in the Indian School Curriculum. Many teachers who responded to the survey were worried that the idea of achieving learning outcomes might take a beating as we scramble to put Art Integration at the front and center of how we teach kids in schools. "What will happen to 'learning outcomes' when lessons are mostly about painting, singing, and dancing?" one of the teachers asked. "Is turning STEM (Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) into STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) going to be counterproductive to authentic and deeper learning, like it had happened during Continuous Comprehensive Evaluation?" another teacher wrote in response to one of the questions included in the survey.

The Curious Case of Michiko Maruyama

Michiko Maruyama was born and raised in Alberta, Canada. She had a speech impediment that affected her ability to speak and read as a kid. While her friends and siblings were out on the fields playing and having fun during summer vacations, she used to be sent to a reading camp with other children who were perceived to be slow at learning. After years of speech and language therapy, Michiko Maruyama finished her schooling and later graduated in Industrial Designing.

Michiko Maruyama used to be terrified of blood and needles. She overcame that fear when she was diagnosed with a rare type of tumor in her left leg and had to undergo surgery and chemotherapy. What she had experienced as a patient inspired her to switch from industrial design to medicine. Michiko Maruyama wanted to join the University of British Columbia to become a cardiac surgeon.

The application process for the University of British Columbia required the candidates to submit an autobiography in less than 1500 words. Michiko Maruyama designed her autobiography in the form of a comic book in which she turned into a little soybean to narrate her life's journey as a learner. She was accepted as a medical student into the University of British Columbia. But there was a problem: she did not know what to do to make sense of and master the complex medical and biological concepts and ideas she was supposed to learn. To learn, she started doing what she knew best - she started doodling all her notes.

She would listen to lectures throughout the day, take down notes in words and images, summarize the day's learning and convert them later into what she calls "Daily Doodles." She would do one doodle (painting) a day that represented what she had learned during the day. Painting what she had learned would help her connect the concepts and insights that she had jotted down during the day. She claims that her grades used to go drastically down if she did not doodle for more than a week. Michiko Maruyama went on to become a cardiac surgeon. She is now working on integrating cardiac surgery and toy design to create innovative medical learning resources.

Some of us may argue that Michiko Maruyama could do what she did because she is gifted as an artist and had the training to turn her ideas into meaningful artwork to learn!

When I had shared Michiko Maruyama's story with a small group of teachers I am working with a few days ago, one of the teachers interjected: "But, she was trained as an Industrial Designer and she is a gifted artist. Not all our students may be gifted like her at capturing their learning through art, as beautifully as she does. They may get caught up in making a painting or a song beautiful and that may steer them away from actually learning what they are supposed to learn"

Sunni Brown, the author of 'Doodle Revolution,' has an answer to this concern. She said in an interview given to The Print: "I give no points for the aesthetic quality of a doodle... The perceived skill level from the point of view of an audience may have absolutely nothing to do with the quality of the learning experience for the doodler. A visual display that we consider to be utterly hideous from an aesthetic angle may still have taught a learner something significant about organic chemistry. Learning is the point."

Learning is precisely the point of Art Integration!

There are four ways we receive and process information as we learn: visual, auditory, reading and writing, and kinesthetic. As Sunni Brown tells us in her Ted Talk: "Now in order for us to really chew on information and do something with it, we have to engage at least two of those modalities, or we have to engage one of those modalities coupled with an emotional experience." The best thing about Art Integration is that it engages the learner in at least 'three or very often often four of these modalities simultaneously along with an emotional experience.

"The arts are not just expressive and affective, they are deeply cognitive. They develop essential thinking tools — pattern recognition and development; mental representations of what is observed or imagined; symbolic, allegorical and metaphorical representations; careful observation of the world; and abstraction from complexity." - David A. Sousa, the author of How the Brain Learns.

When you are concerned that Art Integration may force learning to take a backseat, you are perhaps talking about the idea of Mastery, the comprehensive knowledge or skill in a particular subject or activity. Mariale Hardiman, vice dean of academic affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Education, explains how Art Integration will eventually help a learner attain mastery instead of sabotaging the process. She is known for her research on Brain-targeted Teaching. She says: "Mastery means memory. You have to remember what you're learning. And we know that's a problem in education. As I thought about repetition, that's where the arts first started coming in. You don't want to teach something if you're going to repeat that content enough times that it sticks. You certainly don't want to keep teaching them the same way over and over again. That's going to be pretty darn boring for them. So how can the arts help to reinforce content, and then how can it help to teach it in the first place? And so we started embedding the arts into every Brain-Targeted Teaching learning unit."

Art Integration is about embedding art into the process of learning and not about using art as an independent supplement to the process of teaching and assessment.

Way back in 2012, three years after the Central Board of Secondary Education had introduced the now-infamous Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE), I used to conduct one-day and two-day 'CCE workshops' in schools across India and sometimes in the Middle East. I had the rare opportunity to work with 100s of Indian Teachers during that period and understand first-hand how they perceived the idea of a continuous and comprehensive evaluation approach. During these interactions with the teachers, I realized that we failed to meaningfully implement CCE because we did not embed it into the actual teaching and assessment processes followed in the classroom. Most teachers always considered CCE as something they did apart from the traditional evaluation and not integrated into the teaching and assessment practices they followed on a routine basis. If we take a similar route to Art Integration, it may force authentic and deeper learning to take a backseat like many of us are worried at the moment. For Art Integration to be successful and to ensure experiential learning in the classroom, we need to embed it into our teaching and assessment practices.


This post is written in response to the first Frequently Asked Question in connection with Art Integration in Indian Classrooms. Click here to view the FAQ and Teacher Support Page on Art Integration in Indian Classrooms.

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