Leveling the Playing Field: Art as an Equalizer in Youth Education

I would not call myself an artistic person. Many eons ago I did thoroughly enjoy the tranquil environment and creative outlet of art class in high school. Although I remain quite pleased with the slightly below-average coil pots from my high school ceramics class that are now relics somewhere deep in my family’s basement, exploring art is not something I can say I have a deep knowledge of or formal training in.

With that said, I love viewing art and I really love being taught to make art. I do my best to regularly attend new exhibits in Delhi to see what creations local artists have to share and most recently, I decided to sign up for a ceramics course. While these sorts of formal art courses will be a new adventure for me, I know that when I am given a project with the materials and proper instruction, I thoroughly enjoy the entire artistic process. There is always something therapeutic, deeply thought-provoking and pleasantly challenging about stepping outside of my routine and instead spending time to create something from nothing.

Of course, I was extremely privileged to attend a government school that offered rigorous and easily accessible opportunities in the arts. Not only did we take distinct art classes, but art was also occasionally incorporated into our lessons. We wouldn’t just do math, we would create geometric patterns using the math skills we spent time mastering. I remember particularly using sketch pads to observe my native New Hampshire’s natural environment as part of our environmental science curriculum. The importance of these sorts of activities in my own education demonstrated to me the benefits of integrating art into more traditional subjects like science, math, reading and social studies.

In the United States, this integrated approach to teaching art, as well as more formal art classes like painting, drawing, dancing and theater have been widely researched for their impact on student success in other academic and social areas. In fact, a 2009 study by Florida’s department of education demonstrated that students across a variety of socioeconomic classes that were involved in art courses achieved higher on standardized tests compared to their peers (Barry et al. 1990: 27). Furthermore, students in other states and even countries like Missouri and the United Kingdom had lower dropout rates, higher attendance rates, higher academic achievement and even improved social skills when they engaged in the arts (Scheuler  2010: 20 and Ofsted 2012). In addition to these improved quantitative results, at-risk students have also expressed feeling more engaged and motivated to learn when placed in arts-based environments (Barry et al. 1990: 27).

While I could find minimal published research regarding the impact of arts education in Indian schools, research summaries from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development point to the wide and varied impact of art on educational achievement in developed and developing countries (Winner et al. 2013).  Furthermore, there have been many public calls and conference supporting increased investment in art in government schools (Kumar 2018). In addition, research conducted by India’s National Council of Educational Research and Training, as well as recent developments in the national curriculum frameworks have formally highlighted the role that art can play to improve a child’s education (“NCERT Focuses on Art Education” 2013).

After learning about how the park by their school, along with other public spaces have been transformed by community initiatives, students collected and stenciled leaves onto posters asking community members to keep the parks clean.

This movement toward formally recognizing art as a more integral aspect of education in India is not only exciting for the academic benefits it can offer but also because art has the unique ability to create more equitable learning environments. In the government school I work in, the students come from a variety of linguistic, cultural and regional backgrounds. In addition, unlike in elite, private schools, resources like projectors, musical instruments, vast libraries of books or labs filled with chemistry equipment are simply not accessible. Furthermore, in an urban environment like Delhi, spacious learning environments for reflection or even inter-student dialogue can be hard to come by.

An example of the floor plan of Chasath Khamba, a 400 year old tomb, that 5th standard students visited and designed. This was part of the first lesson I designed for my project.

While each of these factors could present an obstacle to learning, art can offer a means of leveling the playing field between students of different backgrounds. When one student speaks Hindi and the other Bihari, designing pictures of animal habitats creates a bridge rather than a gap between the two individuals. When one student’s family has the resources to provide her with internet access and a computer while the other student must sell candy to support her siblings, we cannot ask both students to type or even write an essay and expect the same learning outcomes. While providing every student with the individual attention that they need to learn most effectively would be ideal, unfortunately, in the realm of government education, additional human resources like extra teachers and tutors can be costly. However, by providing students with a piece of paper, some colorful dough or a set of colored pencils, every student can draw their surroundings or create a replica of the heritage sites in their neighborhood. Not only will they exercise some of their own creative potential, but each student will be able to learn through their own, individualized process. Regardless of their math skills, both students can feel a sense of achievement when they create and measure something from their own hands. Instead of becoming confused when the teacher says “a triangle has three sides” in a language they do not understand, they can identify differences in a square and a triangle by seeing and touching their own creations.

One student works on her habitat model while sitting by a stream in the Nursery.

From this perspective, taking advantage of each student’s unique creativity offers an opportunity to teach the more “testable” lessons like fractions or measurements without fearing that some students may be left behind. Art, more than just a creative outlet, becomes a means of creating more equitable learning environments and ensuring that students are not at a disadvantage merely because they come from a marginal or otherwise different group. Until broader social change occurs in our education systems, there are few options for educating large groups of increasingly diverse students with more potential than curriculum that embrace art in an interdisciplinary manner.

I may not be training the next generation of Rabindranath Tagores or Leonardo DaVincis but I have seen that even the most simple art projects can transform learning environments. From drawing maps to designing habitats, art is one of the most universally accessible forms of education that we have.

Most recently, students created models of Sunder Nursery’s habitat zones using homemade play dough and small weeds.

Works Cited:

  • Barry, N., Taylor, J., Walls, K. & Wood, J. 1990. The Role of the Fine and Performing Arts in High School Dropout Prevention. Center for Music Research, Florida State University, Tallahassee.
  • Kumar, Surya Praphulla. 2018. “Why Art Needs to Stay in Class.” The Hindu, 19 January 2018. https://www.thehindu.com/education/schools/why-art-needs-to-stay-in-class/article22471482.ece
  • “NCERT Focuses on Art Education.” 2013. Times of India, 25 March 2013. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/education/news/NCERT-focuses-on-art-education/articleshow/19181755.cms.
  • Office for Standards in Education.  2012 “Making a Mark: Art, Craft and Design Education.” Accessed 5 January 2019. Manchester, UK. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/413330/Making_a_mark_-_art_craft_and_design_education_2008-11.pdf.
  • Scheuler, Leslie. 2010. “Arts Education Makes a Difference in Missouri Schools.” Missouri Alliance for Arts  Education. Last Modified March, 2010. St. Louis, MO. https://www.missouriartscouncil.org/graphics/assets/documents/b657d9f1adfc.pdf.
  • Winner, Ellen. Goldstein, Thalia R. and Vincent-Lancrin, Stephan. 2013. “Art for Art’s Sake? The Impact of Arts Education.” OECD Educational Research and Innovation. https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264180789-en.

Dan graduated with his undergraduate degree in international relations and Asian studies from Saint Joseph’s University in Pennsylvania. Dan spent four months studying at the Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics in Pune, India, where he conducted research on public perceptions of Pune’s LGBTQ community and pursued course work on India’s political, economic and social development in the 21st century. Dan also participated in the U.S. Department of State’s Critical Language Scholarship program, studying Hindi in Jaipur. In between semesters studying at Saint Joseph’s, Dan thoroughly enjoyed working for the International Institute of New England, where he assisted in the resettlement of refugees in the greater Boston area. In addition, he interned with the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia where he taught youth in under-resourced middle schools about international affairs and prepared them for Model United Nations conferences. In his free time, Dan especially enjoys traveling, cooking, hiking and coaching athletics for children. Through the AIF Clinton Fellowship, Dan is extremely excited to further expand his experience working with youth as well as his knowledge of South Asian languages and Indian society.

You Might Also Like

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Join Us

Stay up to date on the latest news and help spread the word.

Get Involved

Our regional chapters let you bring the AIF community offline. Meet up and be a part of a chapter near you.

Join a Chapter

Help us help those in need.

Subscribe to newsletter

Become a Fundraiser or Donate to Light a LAMP

Skip to content