Art had a backseat

Decades ago in education, art had a backseat. In secondary education, it was expected that Maths, Sciences and humanities be studied over the performing arts. Art was not valued as a subject. How many jobs are there that would need art?!

Now it’s a visual world

There is increased awareness that our interaction with the world of today is predominantly visual. Young people tend to look for answers in videos or images first, then use text if they need more clarification - invariably on the screen of a digital device. This article on Reinventing Learning for the Always-on Generation supports this, and makes interesting reading. There are now so many employment opportunities that involve being able to draw, design, draft and deliver in innovative visual ways.

So developing our ability to communicate visually has become paramount - as a receiver of information and/or as a creator. Obviously skills are going to be greatly enhanced by learning about, through and with art. What is the message intended (or unintended) in an image, a picture, a painting? How can I make my artwork, or even just my photo, more visual appealing? However, not everyone finds engaging in art, easy. Therefore, individuals may choose to avoid it if they can. Does this matter?

Learning styles

We all absorb and process data in many different ways. There are quite a few models that suggest we all have preferred learning styles. Some of the predominant ones are:

* visual - we prefer a picture to give us the information
* verbal/aural - we like to read or hear information
* logical - we like to problem solve and see the sequence or pattern
* social/solitary - we either prefer learning with others or alone
* physical - we like to learn through making and doing.

It is interesting to consider our own preferences when engaging in learning. It’s possible and probable that we use a variety of modes to process information and to then develop new understandings.

For me, I like to see pictures, diagrams and images when acquiring new knowledge. I draw to help understand a concept. But I am also a logical, mathematical person, loving lists, agendas and problem solving. Some people have a good sense of pitch and can sing and compose music. Others are good at reading, writing and telling stories.

Strengths and weaknesses

It is important to note that, even though we may have a preference for how we learn, it is valuable for our overall development to engage in all styles or modes of learning. As a teacher, we develop an awareness of each student’s strengths and their weaknesses. So we don’t focus on just strengths of, say, a verbal learner who is good at reading but perhaps struggles with mathematical concepts. Those who are athletic and well-coordinated, loving to have a ball in their hand, may struggle with reading. Allowing them to stand or walk while reading, or hold a ball, can help. We need to support them grow in all aspects of their lives.

Knowing a student’s preferred styles of learning or strengths can be a way to help them build on their weaknesses. For example, a kinesthetic learner who loves kicking a ball might be able to improve his mathematical skills by counting, measuring, analysing his kicking skills. A visual learner who loves to draw and has a strong spatial awareness, can use these skills to help make sense of a piece of text or a mathematical problem they have been presented with.

Differentiation in teaching

Working with small groups of children who have a similar approach to learning enables the teacher to focus on building their strengths while also using these skills to build other areas of learning. Differentiation, particularly one-on-one, can help develop the artistic skills of a non-visual learner. They can then use visual strategies to strengthen other skills and understandings.

Benefits of visual skills

Although it is difficult sometimes to separate research from advocacy, there are suggestions that learning through visual cues and being able to visualise things are some of the strongest elements in helping develop new understandings. Teaching strategies such as using diagrams and pictures to help make sense of text, using colours to mark specific pieces of text, or drawing a representation of the text can be helpful for all learners. For a visual learner these approaches come more easily. For those who have a different preferred approach to learning, developing these skills can be of great benefit to their general ability to further their knowledge.

Art helps develop hand-eye coordination, fine motor skills, problem solving, and encourages a sense of creativity. Art in education helps develop our appreciation of the world around us - colour contrasts, line definition, shapes and forms. With change and innovation so constant and rapid, developing our visual senses and an awareness of what is and what might be, becomes essential. Studies in visual arts can help improve these skills.

Engaging in the arts, musical or visual, helps students build confidence and resilience and a greater awareness of themselves. The techniques required to be successful help the brain to grow and make connections. Whether using visual skills is a preferred learning style or not, participating in an arts education can benefit learning generally.

So why is art important in education?

It helps:
* strengthen preferred learning styles
* support the development of weaker learning styles
* improve our confidence and resilience and appreciation of self
* increase our awareness of the world around us
* build our ability to communicate in a visual world
* the brain grow and make connections.

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