Arts education is a must for future generations

We look into the varied curriculum visual art students are offered at international schools, as well as thoughts shared by their art teachers.

Art is a place where students can play with aesthetics and make beautiful objects, paintings and drawings. It’s also where kinetic learners thrive because we try things with our hands and get dirty and experiment with material and get unexpected, but prized results.

Arts education is a must for future generations

Often undervalued, it remains priceless

The concept of “art” can often be misunderstood, and branded as a hobby, or, in a school context, as a “soft” subject that will counteract some of its more academic equivalents.

While this viewpoint might be held by some members of our society, civilization has held art in high regard since the beginning of time.

When trying to quantify the “value” of art, we often talk about its intrinsic value — how it can be used to facilitate a creative output.

Yet it is important to recognize the wider impact that art has on our economy, health and well-being, society and education.

The highest recorded values received at auctions aren’t for jewellery, or fancy cars, but for art.

Art is passed down from generation to generation, forming heirlooms that are treasured. Art can unite and divide.

It informs and educates us about our predecessors. The precise value of art itself is somewhat hard to define, but it goes far beyond monetary value, and depicts the soul of a culture.

Studying art in an educational environment isn’t intended to prepare all students to become artists.

Art teaches you not only the technically competencies required, but also transferable skills such as critical awareness, independence, problem solving, focus, patience, perseverance and creativity.

An arts education is a must for future generations.

Research in neuroscience has accelerated over the past 30 years and although there is still much more to learn about the human brain, we now know more than ever before about the formation of neuropathways during childhood and how the brain works.

In 2014, The Education Endowment Foundation in the UK compiled evidence from a series of research projects about the arts and the impact it has on brain development.

Similar studies have taken place in the US. For primary-aged pupils, there is a positive correlation between music training and visuo-spatial and motor coordination.

In learning to play a musical instrument, the same neural networks are built to complete numerical and mathematical tasks. Creative drama has been shown to have an impact on reading and when the arts are integrated into the curriculum, students have a greater emotional investment in their classes.

The arts have favorable effects on cognitive abilities, self-esteem and social behavior.

What about STEM-related skills? Many people believe that it is more important to focus time and energy on the more traditional disciplines of math and science. However, if you look to research from some of the world’s leading companies at the moment, you might be surprised.

The softer skills of empathy, communication and coaching were more important for the “top jobs” according to research based on the skills and qualities of top employees of Google.

STEM skills are vital to the world we live in today.

But technology alone, as Steve Jobs famously insisted, is not enough. “We desperately need the expertise of those who are educated to the human, cultural, and social as well as the computational.”

(This piece is contributed by Charlotte Sneath, middle school assistant head, and Tony Pickhaver, deputy head of primary at Dulwich Shanghai College Puxi.)

Arts education is a must for future generations

Students at Dulwich Pudong during a painting lesson

A whole new world is out there for our kids

Art education enables students to explore their creativity and communicate with thoughts, emotions, opinions, or feelings in general. In this month’s issue, we will look into the varied curriculum visual art students are offered at international schools, as well as thoughts shared by their art teachers.

Arts education is a must for future generations

A yearbook of Wellington College shows students’ hands-on creating process.

Q: What are the key abilities your students should acquire? 

Janet Willis, prep school, Wellington:

What I value most in the younger children is their innocence. They have no inhibitions. You can ask them to do anything and they see it as an adventure. The word “can’t” just isn’t in their vocabulary. They want to go on an adventure with you. For the older ones, it’s much more about having the courage to be an individual and not copying ideas.

I also weave knowledge and understanding through everything I teach. I give time at the beginning and end of each lesson to hear the children’s voices and hear what they feel they have learnt. 

Matthew Tollitt, upper school, SCIS:

In terms of inspiring students, it’s important to expose them to what’s already out there at the moment, and also getting them to think creatively and have the independence to not just make the same type of artwork as another student in the class.

For example, in a Grade 9 to 10 class, even though we might work around the same topic such as identity, you may see one student working on the sculpture, another student might be in the dark room developing their photos through chemicals. Another student might be creating a painting.

Besides, in Grade 6 to 8, it’s important that students understand that art is important, not just for educational reasons, but for the world around us.

Laura Thomson, senior school, Dulwich Pudong:

Across all stages of art education, critical thinking skills are so important and analysis, meaningful experimentation and reflection are embedded within the curriculum alongside building practical skills. Art and design are about communicating ideas to an audience and it’s exciting to watch students gain confidence in expressing their ideas and considering ways to communicate with an audience as they grow.

Deeksha Gokool, senior school, SSIS:

Creativity means whenever you have a problem, you are able to solve it. Many people feel that creativity means art, but it’s not that. Creativity is that you’re able to adapt your thinking and find a solution with whatever you have. You don’t need to buy expensive materials to create something new or innovate. It’s about thinking and creating. And also being able to work as a team.

But the most important thing, whether it’s with Grade 7 or Grade 11, is for them to develop certain moral values and learn to respect the space and their friends. 

Greer Collins, high school, Concordia Shanghai:

As a former student of the arts, I was always focused on improving skills or learning how to use new media.

However, when I entered the classroom as a teacher I found that simply asking students to focus on skills and media wasn’t enough.

We needed to bring more focus on reflection, confidence and problem solving. The greatest artists are so unique, they constantly ask themselves questions and reflect on their process and they work hard at developing their skills which brings them more confidence.  

Laura Guay, secondary school, WISS:

Art education teaches students that there is a recipe for creating art and communicating visually. One must have a work ethic and a plan to produce something that expresses thoughts, emotions, opinions, or feelings in general. At the Western International School of Shanghai, students learn different art-making techniques in order to apply them to their own original works. We teach concepts and then ask students to make material pieces representing or communicating these concepts to an audience.

At the same time, art education is a refuge for some students. It's where they feel safe and happy, and it is where they can play with aesthetics and make beautiful objects, paintings, and drawings. 

Arts education is a must for future generations

Deeksha Gokool introduces a student artwork done by cardboards.

Q: What are your personal teaching approaches to inspire creativity?

Janet Willis, prep school, Wellington:

I always link the children’s learning with my own experience and what I know of different artists. For example, for a Year 2 lesson on the topic of “Circus,” I have drawn on the influence of Henri Matisse and taught the pupils to create collage just as Matisse “drew” with scissors. It is vital to build these skill sets. These children are year 2 and this is their first collage so they need to know how colors work together and how to overlap shapes. Each week, I build a different skill so that by the time they are in Year 5 they are capable of working on canvas and with a variety of media.

I encourage children to create their own designs based on individual motifs of artists such as Gustav Klimt. The children are inspired by artists’ methods but not constrained to copying them.

Each child owns a sketch book that they’ve made themselves out of an envelope, through which they learn the theory of tints and shades, before they put that theory into practice on a piece of work.

Matthew Tollitt, upper school, SCIS:

I hope to expose students to as many different materials as possible, so that they can find their inner passion, because not every student is going to be interested in painting and drawing.

Since I’ve come to the school, I’ve been trying to develop the department, including setting up a dark room installed with screen printing facilities.

Giving them the option of all these different materials keeps them in art.

Rather than being an instructor, I’m more like an adviser offering support rather than telling them what to do.

So for example, with the topic of identity, we will start off the unit by talking about what it means. I will also give some examples of areas of identity, which they may want to explore.

We might also go into the dark-room as a class to learn how to put a 35-millimeter film in the camera.

Laura Thomson, senior school, Dulwich Pudong:

We take care to engage students with concepts around art and make links to the role of the arts in culture and industry. Our middle school projects begin with inquiry questions that we return to throughout the term such as “how do creative teams collaborate cooperatively?” or “how could we create an artwork that reflects global citizenship?”

It’s important that theory and making are assimilated otherwise it can seem daunting and disconnected to learners. Big ideas in art such as the application of formal qualities, understanding of context and making sense of meaning are introduced in class and returned to in individual conversation with students. 

Deeksha Gokool, senior school, SSIS:

As an art teacher and IB examiner, I would say a backward planning from IBDP to lower grades is important to oversee a smooth but consistent scaffolding of a set of art making skills. I brought students to M50 Moganshan Art district and Art021 Exhibition around the city to get exposure to a variety of artworks, from sculptures, site specific installations to video projections.

The art studio is that special space where students can independently reflect on their learning. I am there to guide and push their limits, and at some point I just take a step back and see how they take over. 

Greer Collins, high school, Concordia Shanghai:

At our foundational level, students are exposed to as many types of art-making as possible so that they can try it all and see what resonates with them.

In our intermediate-level courses students may choose to move up a level to experience more complex media and deeper study of one topic such as design, ceramics or computer Art.

At the advanced level we offer courses meant for deeper reflection, a focus on process and portfolio preparation.

At all levels, we include as much art history as possible in order to enable students to understand why we make art, how it is made and how they might make their own artistic choices based on their own experiences.

Laura Guay, secondary school, WISS:

Nurturing student creativity is achieved by making the art rooms and the Art Department a safe and welcoming place. It is where we invite mistakes and celebrate successes. 

It is where we do not criticize but feel comfortable helping our art community by offering constructive criticism. It's where all are welcome, and everyone has a voice. 

If a student is interested in a video game and wants to explore painting a remix or mashup, they are encouraged to do so. Teachers meet the students where they are and celebrate what they enjoy. 

Art teachers at WISS are creativity coaches, encouraging children to solve problems creatively and then apply these high-order thinking and problem-solving skills to everything in their lives. 

Arts education is a must for future generations

Janet Willis instructs her students on their projects during an art class.

Q: What’s the relation between art and other disciplines?

Laura Thomson, senior school, Dulwich Pudong:

Art education has more similarities than differences with other disciplines! We introduce our students to the idea that art can be read as a text, that art can be viewed as an historical source and that art has an agenda, message and intended viewer.

Like other subject areas, skills and confidence are developed over time with purposeful practice.

Strong ATL (Approaches to Learning) skills including motivation, reflection and organization are the foundation for successful outcomes in all subjects including art and design.

What I love about our subject is that there are not “right answers’” and this leads to interesting conversations with classes and colleagues about craftmanship, skill and ultimately what “success” looks like in art and design. 

Deeksha Gokool, senior school, SSIS:

Instead of keeping each subject in isolation, students should find links and connections among subjects, deepening their critical thinking and developing generation of ideas. Art may not be your favorite subject, but studying the arts alongside other subjects significantly boost student achievement.

I collaborated with the History department to create links and get students engaged in their learning. After investigating on Native American History and Totems from History class, students created their own composition on Lino block, carved and finished a set of two color prints. I also push students to find inspiration by natural organic shapes observed under microscope from Science to design and create patterns in art class. 

Greer Collins, high school, Concordia Shanghai:

One key difference is that art education is a very hands-on discipline. Students are constantly immersed in ways to literally “get their hand dirty.” We’re truly always making things in the art room and it’s easy to think of the study of art as just that.

However, in many ways the study of art is not that different than the study of any other academic discipline. Art connects to so many subjects — using math to plan out two and three dimensional work, using science to understand color theory, learning how art connects to historical events or even learning to express one’s artistic choices through written statements and reflective writing exercises.

As mentioned before, art also builds skills in creative thinking and problem solving which have both been proven to be key skills in some of the most successful people in the world. 

Arts education is a must for future generations

Students from Shanghai Community International School are encouraged to discover their inner passion through exploring different materials.

What is the most challenging part in your teaching job?

Janet Willis, prep school, Wellington:

Engagement is so important for the pupils. Are they engaged? Are they determined? Are they collaborating? This doesn’t mean that they are all working in the same way. It means that they’re talking about their reasons for choosing a certain artist for inspiration and why they like their work.

Organization is another vital skill to teach. How are they organizing their work space? What are they learning? Being organized is something that we can nurture in children. Our art classroom is a specialist area in which children know they can find things that they can’t in their own classroom.

Matthew Tollitt, upper school, SCIS:

Receiving advice, definitely.

This means to get students to think about alternatives to their ideas. Sometimes they’ve got an idea. They just wanna go with the idea. But I’ll go around and give advice such as “Have you thought about this?” That’s something that we start off at really young age so when students go up through the school, they’re already used to receive feedback.

It’s just getting them to understand that the more advice they receive, the more effective their outcomes will be and more developed their ideas will be. But sometimes it’s difficult.

A bit of a misconception that can happen is them thinking about it’s their ideas, not teacher’s idea. But it’s this kind of collaboration aspect that we’re trying to get students to think about.

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