The Art of Learning

My husband retired the week of the lockdown. We had just moved to our home which is on a farm in a rather remote village and were still in the process of shifting our goods and chattels from the apartment on the school campus where we had been living. One of the many things not available to us was bread – and no yeast either. This is how my journey into making sourdough began. Even though I followed recipes exactly, I ended up with disappointing results because the quality of the baked loaf varies with so many factors from grain texture to temperature and humidity.  So I have had to refer to the history of sourdough, find recipes that geographically match the extreme heat and dryness of the region where I live, understand the biology of creating a natural wild yeast culture with just flour and water, learn the physics of stretch and fold methods, calculate the mathematics of ratios and proportions and comprehend the chemistry of the effects of sugar and salt on the dough. This is an example of how the complexity of integrated learning can be achieved through everyday tasks that involve the arts: culinary, literary, performing and visual.

The focus of this article is learning through the arts, particularly visual arts, at the primary level. I deliberately use the phrase teaching through the arts vs art integration because the latter often gives the sense of adding on an art exercise as an afterthought – like teaching fractions out of a regular Mathematics textbook and then adding on a diagram of a pizza divided into fractions. Genuine art integration is employing the arts as primary pathways to learning academic concepts.

Think of this – two-year-old children are able to operate a TV remote control and a mobile phone even before they clearly recognize numerals or letters. They do this, seemingly instinctively, because something ‘happens’ when they press the buttons and keys. The children get immediate reinforcement that makes them feel empowered — this strengthens their learning and makes them want to see what else they can do with the tools. Now think of a classroom – apart from books and occasional periods with toys, what tools or manipulatives do children regularly use? Most children do not like learning anything that does not make them feel empowered. Writing answers to questions and solving sums, while essential to learning in classrooms, does not give children a sense of empowerment. Children feel that this is of little use to them and so lack the motivation to learn more. If every child must have a set of textbooks, why not also include inexpensive musical instruments like toy drums and tambourines or homemade maracas? There is so much that can be taught with musical instruments – the science of sound, the fractions of musical beats and rhythms, the vocabulary of lyrics, and of course, the sheer joy of music. If teaching begins with the arts and then moves to the concepts, it will make the concepts more accessible to children and give them the impetus to keep learning.

Visual arts are perhaps the easiest to integrate into all other areas of learning. Teachers do not have to be artists themselves in order to integrate art in learning but it is helpful to learn and understand fundamentals like the elements of art and principles of design to effectively use art as a primary pathway to learning.

Line, Shape, Colour, Texture, Space and Form are the basic visual building blocks for creating and understanding a range of visual art, from painting and sculpture to photography, architecture and digital art.

Elements of Art Poster from Little Artists, Book 5

Lines are the foundation of drawing. In art, a line is a moving dot.  Different types of lines — dotted, continuous, curved, vertical, jagged, horizontal, diagonal, etc., control the eye of the viewer. Lines outline and define objects in a picture; they create patterns and also convey depth, mood and movement. The set of three pictures given below is a simple illustration of how lines may be used to define shape and convey movement.

Shapes are enclosed spaces formed by lines. They are flat and can express length and width. Shapes may be geometric, such as rectangles and hexagons, or they may be free-form or organic, like the shapes of flowers, the wings of an insect or a drop of honey.

Colour is light reflected off objects. White is pure light and black is the absence of light. Hue is the colour name. Value is how light or dark a colour is. Tint is a mixture of a hue with white and shade is a mixture of a hue with black. Red, yellow and blue, the primary colours, are the only true colours. All other colours are mixes of the primary colours. Two primary colours combine together to make a secondary colour like green and orange. Brown, beige and grey are considered neutral colours.

Texture refers to the surface quality in a work of art. Textures do not always feel the way they look: a watercolour cactus may look prickly, but it is smooth to touch. This is called implied texture. Lines and colours help us create implied textures.



Forms are three-dimensional expressions of art. While shapes are two-dimensional, expressing length and width, forms express length, width as well as depth. Balls, cylinders, boxes, cubes and pyramids are examples of forms.

Space is the area between and around objects. In visual art, when we create the feeling or illusion of depth, we call it space.


The elements of art can be arranged in a work to produce the principles of design:

One might ask if one can create or appreciate art without knowing the elements – and of course one can, in the way one can enjoy a dish without knowing its ingredients or the steps of the recipe. But just like one can create and explore new recipes better with a knowledge of ingredients and cooking methods, in the same way knowing the elements gives us the ‘ingredients’ to both create and appreciate visual art.

Through visual arts, students delve deeper into units of study and are able to make and express more personal connections to the content they are learning. This results in more joyful learning. Learning through art is truly experiential. Children also learn to work collaboratively and feel connected to culture and community. Visual arts foster critical thinking and creative expression, giving children the all-important skill of translating theoretical concepts into innovative technology and applied design. What we call STEAM (integrating Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) in modern-day parlance was also part of Mahatma Gandhi’s pedagogical principle of Nai Talim.

Here are a few easy-to-do ideas to integrate visual arts in learning at the primary level.


Design a book cover; illustrate a poem; draw up a story road map; create a mini-theatre diorama for a story or a play; create a photo-essay (with captions) on a topic; use a world famous painting as a writing prompt (for example, Where would you take Monalisa to make her smile more widely?; create a graphic story/comic strip; build and maintain a picture dictionary of the new words you learn; illustrate grammar rules; make a bouquet of paper flowers and talk about the person you would like to give it to; draw a sleeping alien and write what the alien could be dreaming about; make a paper plate mask and use it to talk in character; choose a character from a picture or a painting and write a mini biography based on it; design a product that students would find useful and compose a jingle to advertise it; exchange a photograph with a classmate and guess and write about the events that led up to the photograph; create an exploding box or pop up All About Me fact sheet; write a colour or shape poem

EVS, Science, Social Science

Observe and draw a tree in three seasons; design a basic Rube Goldberg machine that can burst a balloon; draw sound wave patterns of different sounds like water dripping, a ball bouncing, a piece of music; imagine something you would like to invent — draw a labeled picture of it; create a thaumatrope; design a mural that captures the culture of the village, town or city that you live in; create and construct a bridge with everyday items  — compare to see whose bridge is the strongest; create an A to Z book on water; draw up an illustrated timeline of your life showing at least ten events; draw an aerial view; draw a floor plan; design a theme map of your country showing landmarks, foods, textiles or crafts; design a flag that represents your class; design a commemorative stamp; design and draw an article that uses a type of animal adaptation that would be useful to people (for example, gloves with suction cups like those on the tentacles of an octopus or pincers for lifting things like the claws of a crab); design a triarama of three different habitats; construct a model of the indigenous home in your area; learn how to weave a basic basket; design a park perfect for your locality; design a compass rose pattern; design an Earth day tee-shirt; draw a landscape featuring as many landforms as possible; draw the journey of a river; design poster advertising a local craft; draw up an illustrated chart of birds in your area; use waste material to build a 3D model of a globe; draw a map of an imaginary island —  make a legend for it; take a virtual tour of a famous monument — design a postcard based on it; make an accordion book (or any other folding book) of birds or butterflies; design a pop up model of a life-cycle


Create a shape themed flexagon; fold origami planes and check which design flies the furthest; draw multiplications stars; draw doodle recipes with ratio and proportion; study geometric shapes in the artworks of Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Raza and Mondrian — create a geometric landscape inspired by what you have seen; create shades and tints by combining different quantities of various colours; draw an illustrative A to Z book of mathematical concepts; draw a hundred of something; design and create a mandala; learn to draw a portrait using the correct fractions of a face; draw a picture that illustrates fractions; design a tessellation pattern for the cover of your Mathematics workbook; design a colour based puzzle; draw yourself in proportion to the tallest member of your family; draw a picture of an ant and draw things around it to make it look like a giant monster ant; print out an A4 sized photo portrait of yourself, cut it in half, stick it on a blank sheet of paper and draw in the other half to complete the symmetry; make a Mobeus strip and cut along the strip to see what happens; build a paper honeycomb —  brainstorm the ways to use the design

All of these suggestions can be adapted to Computer Science using digital media. Many of these ideas listed above are drawn from Little Artists, an Arts Education book series for primary school, published by Oxford University Press India. 

For a treasure trove of brilliant, creative ideas on integrating art with learning, visit: 

Assessing art integrated assignments may be done in a number of ways that each teacher knows best, but it is important to include an assessment not only of skill, but also of creative thought. To put it in teacher jargon, give grades for the drawing/painting and crafting skill as well as for the idea and creative thought behind it. This will help encourage students who have creative ideas but may not have developed strong drawing skills. For example, if you have assigned students to draw an invention, grade them not just for the aesthetic of the drawing, but also for the creativity of the invention.

Apart from the actual skills of good drawing, painting or crafting, art education helps students develop 5 critical skills, and these can form the basis of an evaluation grid.

To this grid, the teacher may add two more Cs: Content and Craft/drawing. Content would assess how the project matches up to the assignment that the teacher gave: does it meet with all the parameters that were expected? For example, if the students were assigned to draw a map of their classroom where 1 cm = 1m, the content criteria could include: drew the right shape of the room; used the scale accurately; marked the main features like desks, board and lockers. Craft/drawing skills could include: strong lines; good use of colour; neat lettering; unique, original icons for classroom features. Such an assessment can provide grades as well as descriptive feedback which is much more motivating for the student than a mere mark out of ten. Each student can build a portfolio of art-integrated assignments through the academic year and be continuously assessed on work that reflects their unique and original learning outcomes.

Assessing and evaluating learning outcomes continues to be an enormous challenge for educators during this pandemic. The pandemic, that brought much of the world as we know it to a standstill, has forced us to examine and question the merit of our systems — what we teach and how we teach it. Because so much of our assessment depends on the sameness of ‘right’ answers based on rote-learning, without the usual pen and paper tests, we are unable to fairly assess our students. Art is the meeting place of all subjects and integrating art in learning or learning through art will allow students to express what they have learnt in more individual ways. For example, we could have portfolios where students express their learning in Mathematics through infographics, themed maps and timelines for Social Studies, dioramas for Environment Science – each a unique personal expression of learning, done through the course of the year for a fair evaluation. Of course, this will involve planning and design, but it is a challenge we must rise up to, recognizing how essential art is the foundation of all learning.

It is no wonder, then that art, in its many forms, is practiced by almost all human cultures and can be regarded as one of the defining characteristics of human species.  So much of our civilization is based on creativity – from our homes to our clothes to the food we eat. Without the arts, we would have no stories, no music, nothing decorative – there would be a mundane sameness to all things. In pre-historic times when they still lived in caves, long before they learned to cultivate, build homes or develop a script for language, early humans were already making use of complex art. While the drawings and paintings depicted on cave walls are breathtakingly beautiful and have great stand-alone aesthetic merit, they were, in all certainty, used to record visual memory and facilitate communication and education among the early humans. The visual arts are not extra-curricular – they have always been and they continue to be integral to learning.




Anahita Lee has over twenty-five years of rich and diverse experience in teaching. She is now an education consultant who designs curricula and conducts training and development programmes for teachers across the country.


© Oxford University Press