A matter of design : learning through art
Published in Teacher Plus in December 2020
I have spent most years of my life in art education either in an art school learning about art and design or teaching art and design in different capacities. In both roles, I have spent significant amounts of time realising and then sharing the role of art and design in our everyday. It begins with noticing that alphabet are drawings and goes far and beyond from the apps on our phone, the furniture we sit on, the cups we drink coffee from, to the house we stay in-all involving the application of art and design.
Yet, how, when and why did we unlearn this? While speaking specifically in the Indian context where kala (inclusive of all art and design practices) has always been a part of our life, how did we come to consider that as a practice of the few, for the few, by the few? How did we forget that art is not limited to a skill that someone can merely possess or not, that it is need based and founded on the principle to express? Charles and Ray Eames in their Report encouraging the development of a formal school of art and design in India make a telling observation. They explain what they mean by good design through the example of the ubiquitous Indian ‘lota’. While the report was successful in what it set out and we are grateful today for existence of the National Institute of Design, what we haven’t been able to do is identify ‘art and design’ that manifests itself as the “lota” around us all the time, integrated in our ways of living. In failing to make these observations we have taken a step back from art, creativity, innovation, ingenuity and expression.
We took the first step of unlearning that kala was a part of our everyday in school. This may cause discomfort to some educators, but let’s look at the bigger picture. To make my point, let’s ask ourselves if we know the alphabet? Can count upto 100? Do basic arithmetic? It can be said with some confidence that it will be difficult to find a reader of this article who will answer any of these questions in negative. Let’s now ask ourselves where did we learn all this, and it can be said with caution that most of us would have learnt these basics at school. Now, how many of us would be able to reflect the same confidence when asked, if they thought they could do art?
I wonder when school so effortlessly managed to build our foundations for language, arithmetic and logic, why couldn’t it do the same for art? And in fact, how did it manage to assure us that art was for a few when language and arithmetic was for ALL?
When we began to learn mathematics, science, geography and art separately (here, thinking that art was just aesthetics), we convinced ourselves that accountants liked mathematic, scientists like science, artists like art. But, ask an adult and they will tell you there are no categories when you have to make a meal, where you make a budget to buy the vegetables, apply science in cooking them, and aesthetics in serving them. The simplest acts of life are integrated, except our curriculum in schools.
Without the presence of culture and traditional art practices in our foundational years at school and in the absence of any other formal routes that ensured our introduction to these practices- we conveniently forgot about kala and its integration in our lives. This is especially worrisome considering that the crafts sector employs the second largest group of people in India, only after agriculture. In neglecting this plethora of knowledge, we not only limit our awareness and understanding of our own lives but we also limit our knowledge of how people live. What living means to different people, people who are different yet identify as us in ways, and reduce our sense of meaning making in this world.
Schools are struggling to achieve art integration because we as a society have come very far from appreciating art around us. When as adults we ignore art and culture, and fail to see its application in our everyday contexts, how can we embed it into our classrooms? Educators who have for so many years been trained to say that art is a separate subject and not their responsibility, how can they be expected to integrate art in their classrooms overnight? Classrooms are reflections of our past and cornerstones of our future. When our educators of today never received art-integrated education, nor were trained to deliver art integrated education, with no investment in their skills and development-how will they impart art-integrated lessons?
We spent the summer of 2019, going around schools in Delhi to ask educators about the challenges they faced in integrating art in education. After interviewing over 100 educators from a breadth of school demographics which included-primary and secondary schools, private, government, low income privately funded schools; the responses could be streamlined to three conclusions. First, the educators supported art integrated education, they wanted their classrooms to be active spaces where they imparted integrated education. Second, they felt unequipped and unsupported in this endeavour. They were happy to use tools and resources, but felt that they didn’t have access to them. Lastly, art integration is not effectively incentivised. The school inspector only inspects completed notebooks, not the capacity of students, hence the teacher though motivated was always caught in things which had bearing like completed notebooks and reports instead of art integration.
Analysing these interviews, we focused on the educator’s point about the lack of resources and tools that can be used to integrate art in their classrooms. In times of need, one can pick up a Mathematics textbook, look at the study material, recall some of our own time with the textbook when in school, and give the learner a direction to explore and learn. The same is not applicable to art. Where does one turn to for answers? Or questions to begin with?
We would say to our immediate environments, in how we live, where we live – “the everyday”. This is easier said than done as this would need a shift in the educator’s perspective and a fair amount of time devoted to practicing ‘the art of noticing’. And where would one start? After a summer spent collecting educator responses in India we were juggling with these questions through the lens of Visual Communication. Spending an afternoon volunteering in the Learnings Team at the V&A museum we were wondering how they managed to attract so many people and entice them to return week after week. It attracted people of all age groups, interpreting the same things on display in different ways. Maybe art could be integrated best in education with a resource that works as a museum! What if the educator had access to a resource like a museum that would be visual, integrated with history, science, politics, mathematics, craftsmanship, language and had no prescribed paths to follow?
This sowed the seeds for what is today called, Kalakarm Curriculum. It exists as a resource, museum, process, workshop series and a collective, all aimed to facilitate art in education and education in art. The mission is twofold, one is to engage with educators in equipping them with the tools and resources to integrate art and the everyday in their classrooms successfully and secondly, to intervene in education with creative inputs that contribute in making education creative. To achieve this tall order, we have begun with the beginning of everything, ‘THE DOT’.
The Dot is our first prototype that we have now shared and tested with many educators. We achieve the objectives we set out with this prototype by bringing it to educators through workshops where we introduce them to new perspectives for art integration. When we introduce ourselves and the Dot, we know that some of our participants wonder how they are going to integrate this in their classrooms when none of the chapters in any of the subjects in any of the classes is about the Dot. To this, we ask them to look around them and find the dot in as many objects they can-we facilitate this with our worksheet that works like a bingo ticket.
Leading on from this we ask, isn’t everything made of a dot? Because can’t a human cell be represented as a dot, and the polymer that makes plastic, and the grain of sand, and the seed that becomes a tree?
Doesn’t that make everything around us a manifestation of the dot?
Then if everything around us is a dot, isn’t education about understanding the world around us?
As soon as we have had this conversation, educators are able to see the dot in language, in shapes in mathematics, in grains, in food, in social science, in atoms, in science and so on and so forth. Dot suddenly doesn’t sit outside the textbook or the curriculum but very much within it, in fact in almost everything within it. With this, we answer the first question ‘Where to find the art for integration?’
The curriculum extends the dot by introducing indigenous and international artists that have devoted their artistic practice to the dot. While welcome to including artists we don’t know of, the curriculum mentions Bhuri Bai of the Bhil tribe, S.H. Raza’s Bindu, Robert Campbell Jr. who is an Aboriginal artist, Roy Lichenstien from America and Yayoi Kusama from Japan. With these artists we answer crucial questions, ‘How to introduce culture in the classroom?’ and ‘What is art and what is not?’
In one of our workshops on art integration we asked educators to create an art integrated lesson plan with the only condition that they begin with art. What this meant was that instead of trying to achieve their mathematics or science or language objectives with art integration we asked them to change the objective to ‘teaching art’. They worked on this in groups of four where each group was a mix of educators teaching different classes and subjects.
The educators were themselves surprised with what they had been able to achieve when they shared their lesson plans. These lesson plans were true examples of integrated learning where learning across subjects was seamless, holistic and each subject achieved more than what the textbook laid out. The participants no longer had to be convinced about what art integration could achieve or simply why it was important. They answered these questions for themselves.
The workshop allows the educator to be a learner, and engage with the activities themselves before they wear their educator hat again and figure ways in which they can translate their learning into a lesson plan. The responses from educators to the art activities and their lesson plans inspired from the activities are testament to the success of the workshops. Workshops also encourage collaboration and dialogue, the participants go back to their schools as ambassadors of art integration who can now convince other educators why it is important and also discuss a few tips on how it can be achieved.
We leave the participants with many resources, such as worksheets, lesson plans, references, slide decks that they can always revisit when at a lack of inspiration. But we sincerely believe, that the best inspiration for art integration comes from an active engagement with art itself. And this art sits in museums, on websites, in magazines, in our phone, in all things we do in our ‘everyday’.
The Art integration Report 2019 makes a very important observation when it mentions that art integration must be preceded by art introduction. Considering an educator who is brand new to art integration, this statement makes all the sense. But, also as a process to achieve art integration for an educator who understands integration, this is integral. Kalakarm Curriculum is built around this philosophy and encourages and facilitates this through its workshops and resources.
In conclusion, Kalakarm Curriculum, which set out to facilitate art integration because it believed it was important to introduce art in the classroom, calls out the same mission differently. Reading the goals of the NEP 2020 and with our interactions with educators we have realised that art integration is not an added task which because of its many advantages should be executed in the classroom. Instead, we have come to believe that if learning has to be integrated, holistic and creative, then art integration is a solution. It is not an end to be achieved but a means to the end of integrated learning. Because the very basis and reflection of integrated learning is ‘integrated living’, which is not a choice but the only option. It is time education reflects how we live, and to achieve this we need to understand how we and others live, much better. We will have to look at our ‘everyday’ more closely and we hope when you do it you will be able to see and identify the art in it - if you don’t know where to start - we would urge you to start with the dot.
A feedback form for educators after an online workshop on Creative Education.
These are some of the responses we collected during observations and interviews with educators in 2019. These worksheets were given to educators to collect feedback and document the workshops. Some of the educators responded to this exercise by mentioning how art integration could be easy to implement if it was as easy as distributing similar worksheets to learners.
An online version of our worksheet used to introduce ‘the dot around us’ to educators.
Another worksheet that illustrates how things around us are manifestations of the dot.
Artists and art works that are introduced in the ‘Dot’ series.
A lesson plan created by the participants during an Art Integration workshop.
Artworks made by educators during an online workshop to overcome their own mental blocks about making art.
Some examples of responses to worksheets that are part of the ‘Dot’ prototype.