Art essential in early learning, expert says, as Queensland kids channel Van Gogh

Art essential in early learning, expert says, as Queensland kids channel Van Gogh

Art essential in early learning, expert says, as Queensland kids channel Van Gogh

Updated 19 July 2017, 10:35 AEST

The belief of many teachers that they lack artistic talent is denying children the opportunity to speak the "language" of creative expression and improve their quality of life, says one early learning expert.

Rather cut off your own ear than attempt to recreate a Van Gogh masterpiece with a set of pastels and a crash course in post-Impressionism?

A group of five-year-olds dived right in when set this challenge by their prep teacher at Caloundra Christian College in Queensland, creating uncannily accurate renditions of the Dutch painter's Wheatfield With Crows.

It's not the first time Lindsey Maasdorp has set her mini-humans such a challenge, discovering that each time the result is the same: a striking grasp of some of the most complex techniques of art.

It's all part of the Queensland teacher's personal desire to bring depth, perspective and fun to early learning.

It's a desire shared by one of those responsible for teaching our teachers — Gai Lindsay, a lecturer at the University of Wollongong who is completing PhD research examining the visual art beliefs of early childhood educators.

"Children are more capable than anyone realises — very capable of learning visual art skills and techniques and using them as a language to communicate and make meaning when they're given the opportunity," she said.

Ms Lindsay, a preschool teacher and director for 22 years before entering academia, said despite its crucial role in expanding young minds, visual arts rarely went beyond the basics in the early learning years — owing largely to a reluctance by the teachers to teach it.

"Children are capable of so much more than what most teachers provide them with," she said.

Wheatfield With Crows by Vincent Van Gogh

Wheatfield With Crows by prep students from Caloundra Christian College

Education system 'left-brain dominant'

Helen Joy, a self-taught artist who has taught schoolchildren and adults how to unlock their "right-brain" talents, agrees, and says art may even be an antidote the increasing tendency to label children with learning difficulties.

"Drawing is a creative skill, a right-brain skill. The education system is left brain dominant, and makes us become left brain dominant, and the world is screaming out for more people to be creative yet they're not doing anything to promote that," she said.

"Pablo Picasso said all kids are born artists — the trick is to stay that way as we grow up.

"Something happens when you learn how to draw — you learn how to see differently, how to see different situations.

"By about age six or seven, after being in school for a couple of years, we start to learn that it's not right to be wrong. We become critical of our ability.

"I'm sure there are some really good teachers, and they do encourage the kids to be more creative, but the majority don't have the ability to be able to encourage that.

"By the time you get to high school it's an option to do art, and if you think you're not good at something you're not going to bother to do it."

Ms Joy said she also noticed profound changes in behaviour whenever she taught in the classroom.

"What happens with these kids that are labelled ADHD, Asperger's … I believe there is some difference with those kids, but more than anything I believe that they're more right-brain dominant and they don't fit into the education system," she said.

"Instead of being promoted to be more creative, they're medicated and told to sit down and be quiet."

Art 'makes life worth living'

Ms Lindsay suggested the lack of willingness among adults to teach art — including those in the field of education — resulted from them being convinced early in life that they lacked talent.

She said this lack of confidence, and a corresponding lack of skill, prevented teachers from effectively using art as a teaching tool, despite its potential.

"My feeling is that as human beings, making meaning visually is central to who we are, and I think a lot of people yearn for that and they are drawn to creative expression, but that lack of self-confidence shuts it down and cuts off a whole aspect of our humanity that actually makes life worth living," she said.

"There's lots of research that says teachers have issues around their confidence levels, and that they tend to avoid the subjects they're not confident with.

"I think visual arts is particularly vulnerable to it because teachers themselves have had their own visual arts identity knocked out of them as seven-year-olds and they've never moved beyond that. We get the undergraduates at university level who are training to be teachers, and the majority of them say they're not artistic."

"I find that paradox really perplexing — if teachers don't speak the language, they're restricting the child's opportunity to learn that language."

Ms Lindsay said art, as with any basic subject taught at school, required an understanding of technique and plenty of practice to improve skills.

"When children are learning to write their names, there's lots of scaffolding and modelling that happens, where the teacher is not afraid to say, 'this is how we move the pen, and how we make that shape', and then you build those skills," she said.

She said despite being integral to many of humanity's most memorable events, art's value in society was not reflected in the education system.

"I say to my students, you watch the opening ceremony of an Olympic Games — and the world watches that event — if you think about all the people who make that happen, they're artists, dancers, the musicians — they're the creatives," she said.

"Yet those are the very things that aren't valued in our education, because of the huge focus of literacy, numeracy and testing."

Teachers 'think they're not artistic'

Ms Maasdorp said while she did not consider herself to be particularly confident or creative, she was always will to "give it a try" and hoped to impart this willingness to her tiny charges.

"I'm not a very confident person, I'm very shy but the five-year-olds, they don't see mistakes. They're very accepting and they like to have fun," she said.

Ms Maasdorp said while art was included in the school curriculum, she had always sought to incorporate it more seamlessly with the foundations of early learning, literacy and numeracy.

"None of the teachers in our school are art teachers — everybody's not very keen always to do art, because they think they're not artistic," she said.

"Most of them just get by by doing something. They showed us the curriculum this year and there's definite elements that we can pursue, like line and texture, but I've always done my own thing, basically — and when it aligns with the curriculum, that's very exciting.

"In past years I've always done one of the old artists. I incorporate it in my learning, like if we're doing literacy.

"We did The Three Billy Goats Gruff, and I spoke to them about Monet's bridge, and we did that in pastels, watercolour.

"This time we did the Little Red Hen, and we discussed where bread comes from — wheat — and so that's how I brought in Wheat Fields by Van Gogh.

"I'm not artistic at all, but we all have a go, and we discuss it. We can see the perspective there, and in numeracy it's about near and far — all concepts in prep. It just goes really well."

Ms Maasdorp said she felt art often helped bring students along who otherwise might be left behind.

"There's a little boy in my class, he really shouldn't be in prep — he's just not emotionally ready, and I was amazed at what he did — he got the perspective and … he just loves colouring," she said.

"I thought of doing (Swiss-German artist) Paul Klee — he does shapes and we're doing that in numeracy next term, talking about shapes and patterns."