Is the Learning Experience Different in Arts and Aesthetics vis-à-vis Formal Education?

While living along the East Coast Road in Chennai, India one gets to see the spectacle of many Europeans and north Americans dressed in Indian attire, several of whom are students of Kalakshetra, the legendary school of music and dance. One can’t but admire the dedication with which these learners have come from far-away lands to appreciate, imbibe and own up Indian cultural traditions. On the question of imbibing, which is the subject matter of this post, one wonders if it’s any different for those students who come from abroad and those who are originally from within India. Because after all art and art forms know no boundaries. In the last decade or so, south Chennai has seen an efflorescence of music and dance schools of all forms – hip hop, latino, salsa, disco, free style – you name it, it is all there in addition to what schools like Kalakshetra conventionally offer in the classical Indian dance mold.

Sport and sporting skills is often a reference point in learning and development traditions not to miss our national obsession of cricket. Military practices of precision timing and endurance are also a source of precedent. I have however a different interest in drawing upon learning and development traditions: that of the arts and aesthetics. From school days onwards I had gotten to know that ballet traditions like the Bolshoi theater acquired their participants between their age of 7 and 9. Numerous have been the cases of child prodigies, musicians and performers who started out at a very early age and made it big in their chosen fields of art or aesthetics. For example, the legendary violinist and conductor Yehudi Menuhin started his instruction at the age of three. The mantra here seems to be “Catch them Young.”

When we refer to the arts and aesthetics, what do we have in mind? Broadly these are Singing, Music, Dance, Drama/Theater/Cinema, Art/Painting/Sculpture. Participants in these fields learn these skills in an atmosphere different from that of formal education. Increasingly in the Indian public arena, individuals are discovering what they most have a talent for? Doctors on completing their medical education are leading full time pop/rock bands and engineers on completing their education or even mid-way are moving to theatre or social work or civil service as their vocation. There is an interesting trend of many senior advertisement industry professionals participating in writing lyrics for movies, poems, theatre activities (the latter something that has always been there) but the blending of spheres is increasingly taking place. Creativity, Innovation, ‘Out of the Box thinking’, words that the formal sector swears by and finds hard to implement come naturally to those in the field of art and aesthetics. Generally, the skills that go into assimilating arts and aesthetics would be dubbed as ‘right brain’ activities where a lot more intuition, holistic and poetic meters are called for. What is different about the atmosphere of the learner in these fields? The learner is enthusiastic with the instructor or facilitator that he should get it right. Remember the famous scenes in “My Fair Lady” based on George Bernard Shaw’s ‘Pygmalion’ when Eliza tries to cultivate an accent with the help of Higgins and Pickering.

What are the differing motivations of the learner in art and aesthetics as different from formal education? One common thread is there is often in art too a strong commercial incentive. There are several performers who make no bones that they are in it for the money. There are other motivations like “Art for Arts sake”, “Transmitting tradition” (preserving heritage) and sheer satisfaction of the performance as a musician or a stage artist. The emotive space is higher and the participants pack the punch in their performances. The participant is more driven and the competitive arena is very different. Peer group pressure or competition often becomes peer group support in the shared feeling of a group or team to get it right. The urge to synchronize/synergize learning energies is strongly present and takes on a form very different from that of formal education. A group of dance performers in a synchronized performance cant get it right for the group until each one of them gets it right.

While one cannot say that learning and development traditions in art and aesthetics are “unstructured”, the shackles are much lesser. Again, does it mean that just because it is art and aesthetics the rigor is less and the training can be taken for granted? If not anything just the opposite, it is even more exacting and demanding because the self is propelled as the best critic and that judgment as we know is even more difficult to make or compromise upon rather than when others stand in judgment over our work. One would have heard several times what sound almost like clichés today, “bring out the best in the student/trainee.” It is often the instructional methods of the arts and aesthetics that succeed in doing that through various methods: making mistakes is not wrong; serendipity is to be encouraged; there is latitude of time; enjoy the task of learning and training (no one compelled the learner to be there); push the envelope/work harder for that Michael Angelo achievement, “Trifles make perfection”; even better a sense of solidarity with the learning group: take other learners with you in the path of knowledge.

The central question that folk in formal education would like to take away from art and aesthetics is the pedagogy (or instructional methods) of the latter and apply it to the former. What makes the learner tick? Is it all about right or left brain activity? As a friend expressed, people seek out right-brain kind of activities to break the monotony of continuous left-brain work. Its that monotony that formal streams have to shatter if they seek to make a breakthrough in adapting learning methods from one type of activity to another. Art and Aesthetics sound more fun. Are these the learning spaces in society where one lets one’s hair down? Whereas formal application and a lot of it are drudgery? Why is it with an increasing growth of extra-curricular activities, the child is finding the going in curricular work increasingly difficult. We have remained a society where we see the coming generations becoming mainly doctors, engineers and at the most CA’s/MBAs. However, a large part of society does live its life as doctors, engineers, CA’s/MBAs, lawyers, civil servants and so on. The effort made to learn on the beaten track has been the predominant effort.

Conceptually, to my mind, it is the concept of CRAFT that unites the learning around around formal education or that around art and aesthetics. Craftsmanship is common to both formal and the aesthetics streams. How many times have we not appreciated a store salesman who does his job of packing goods well? Likewise are the thousands of weavers, potters and toy-makers who are artisans, take pleasure in their tasks and earn their livelihoods from them. For in the final analysis, we are all artisans doing our bit to engender wealth and aesthetics both at the same time in this world. Artisans, history bears us out, have played a powerful role in both European and non-European histories but that is a different subject. What is of interest to us are their instructional methods in transmitting their skills from generation to generation.


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    Excellent article Abdul. I did a small research on why IIT students makes lot of fame and successful Versus other engineering grads. It turns out that IIT, IIM, BITS and other top notch students actively involved in extra curricular activities hence they are become a vocal point of where ever they go, i mean career point of view. IIT is producing a great engineers with artisan skill is very important. The same applies here at USA with IVY league colleges, there education alone is not so important but other activities like football, music etc. I think when i was in school, we had yearly 10-15 social participation and had a chance to learn some other activities. But now as you said, due to competition?? between schools and even parents, we tend to move away those from formal school and we utilize after hours for extra activities which i believe a distress to kids.

    A) We are overloading our kids with out-side-school timing, rather than playing in streets they are in some learning centers.

    B) If school provides some coaching for other activities, we can save some money for kids for their higher education rather than spending with private coaching.

    C) Learning other skills should be fun and should learn with close friends like same bench/next to desk friends. Now what is happening is, i learn math with A, piano with B and karate with C but i’m not any friendship A or B or C. So school level coaching of piano and karate etc.

    As a parents, i think we have to identify what is best of our kids and channel them through it. But based on my experience, it is very hard to identify those up to at the age of 9,10. And we can slowly feed them those skills with the help of school is great, if not then private parties. I strongly believe up to the age 9,10 let them play what ever they want is wise.

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    Abdul Fakhri said June 7, 2009, 12:31 pm:

    Thanks smuthurangan for your kind words and the elaborate comment. Basically we can see it as a problem of “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

    In your response, I see the following very important thoughts:

    1. That even among the formal stream those who have been successful have been those who have paid attention to their extra-curricular activities;

    2. Overloading children is bad and it takes the fun out of the experience which is a crucial element for their learning experience;

    3. Friendship is important; while they learn with diverse people, unfortunatey they dont necessarily bond with some of them. This is a very good social opportunity for ties that may last a lifetime;

    4. Whatever maybe the art or dance form the 9 to 10 age band must be treated sensitively and again there should be no compulsions there;

    5. Most importantly, as in study so in play so in arts and aesthetics, we need to ask the learner, what does he/she want to or need to learn. No forcing them on any path.

    Numerous have been the stories even within the conventional mould that go ” Sigh! I wanted to be a doctor but my dad insisted that I become an engineer! “

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    In my opinion, most of the learning in a man’s life, takes place informally.. and the bulk of what we term as formal learning is mere feeding of data.. 🙂

    Also, learning most happens, wherever there is two way interaction.. And the learning most happens, only when the learner involves himself in the subject being learned..

    That’s why, in sports, in arts, and in many other extra curricular activities, one learns a lot, because, all these extra curricular activities involves the participation of the learned than the teacher.. In short, this can be termed as practical training or learning..

    Even in corporate scenario, the real learning happens, only after the associate get out of the ELT.. all that happens in ELT stage are fundamental preparation..

    The learning also happens most in the family, in case of artists or skilled professions.. we see, the children of popular artists, easily imbibing those skills, even though, they might not become popular like their parents..

    And NOT to mention, even in the political family, the learning happens implilcitly, and that’s why most of the politician’s sons/daughters, want to enter that area, as they become familiar with these as they grow with their parents..

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    nayakar said June 8, 2009, 11:17 am:

    The pursuit in Arts, particularly performing arts, is like working on your Golf game.. The primary and, in most cases, the only reference point is how you were a DELTA of time before.. That DELTA could be a week, a month, a year – doesnt matter… It is the concept of pushing yourselves to be better than you were before that makes training and rigor (I agree that its a lot more rigorous – has to be, its tough!!) a lot of fun as well..

    If we can manage to have a situation where each participant, in a formal learning environment, merely focusses on improving himself, the fun part of learning will be an automatic companion.


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    Abdul Fakhri said June 8, 2009, 11:28 am:


    Thanks. You have made an important point indeed that the boundaries between ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ may be a bit fuzzy.

    Agreed that the greater the involvement of the learner in the process the higher or even quicker the learning.

    Hereditary transfer of skills is an interesting topic but that is besides the point of this post. Thanks again for your thoughts.

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    Hi Abdul,

    Wonderful and thoughtful analysis on how academic learning could evolve. Also enjoyed reading the comments.

    My impression is that more and more people are starting to look into their passions beyond their purse. I don’t know the exact reasons as to why it is happening now – maybe some of their basic needs are already covered. I know a few friends of mine who have quit jobs in IT companies to pursue a career in Western/Classical music, teaching etc.

    On the subject of learning boundaries, I think that extra-curricular activities create a greater sense of expansion and individuality and maybe it’s own sense of natural gratification. Hence it is more easier and quicker and self-driven. Again this is true, only if it was the individual’s choice. I sometimes see this forced down the throat of kids too.

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    Abdul Fakhri said June 8, 2009, 2:00 pm:

    Thanks Venkat. I agree about the comparison to the Golf game and the point about DELTA.

    The focus on improving one’s skill leads to fun being an automatic companion of the ‘work’ involved.

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    Abdul Fakhri said June 8, 2009, 2:06 pm:

    Vijay, thanks for your kind comments. You are right in saying that if basic needs are well-covered, then we are able to consider passions in music and the arts.

    One clear thought that has been attributed to extra-curricular activities is that they develop personalities and citizens in the healthy and progressive sense of the term(s).

    You have used an interesting term there ‘learning boundaries’ : the more we dissipate and dissolve these boundaries the better for all learning efforts.

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    Rangarajan said June 8, 2009, 2:19 pm:

    Nice post Abdul! And good ideas have come from suggestions too. I am also of the same opinion that once our basic needs are taken care of, we can resort to focus on other avocations to such an extent that it can be a main activity by itself. We all know now that sportsmen, artists can also be called professionals! (on a lighter vein, I wonder why politicians are never called so !! 🙂 )

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    Today, one of my relative’s child was asking some doubts in her hindi book.. she was struck with reading some word, in the Vande Mataram Poem.. I told her the pronounciation, and it was very dry to read word by word that poem..

    Then suddenly i got remember of a classic vande mataram poem in my cell phone, and played to her.. She immediately picked up, and after hearing the song for few times, she started reading the poem in the same tune, and picked up all words perfectly as it is used in that song.. (Its not only her.. me too, corrected some mistakes)

    There are lot to interpret from this incident.. I am just presenting it as it is..

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    Thanks Senthil for the pertinent observation.

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    Thanks Ranga for your comments. The moot point here is that non-formal points of learning or assimilation are as significant as the formal ones and the learning experiences/environments in the two differ widely. And also even the term ‘non-formal’ maybe a misnomer as we notice that the arts and aesthetics too have their rigor and challenges.

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    very thought provoking Abdul. I think most of our curriculum is left-brain oriented. In science or maths, there is no such thing as a partially-right answer. you either get it wrong or right. I know there are exceptions to that, but for the most part, that is true. This makes people queasy about making mistakes, because every mistake gets penalized by the taking away of the marks. Whereas, if you are studying music as an example, you may get the overall tune correct, but are allowed to make several mistakes in the song in full and still get reasonable amount of marks. This is because what is correct or incorrect is highly subjective. maybe this gives the students the freedom to make errors and learn which is actually the foundational method of learning – make mistakes.

    Interestingly, Tony Buzan (the inventor of mind-mapping) once remarked in a lecture that we seem to be using left-brain communication techniques also. For example, our teachers/parents question us on why we made 3 mistakes and lost 3 marks instead of applauding us on getting 97 percent correct. If we start looking at it that way, maybe our approach to handling mistakes and consequently learning would be that much better. Wishful thinking i guess, in a society that prides itself on rote learning.

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    Thanks Sukumar. How wonderful would it sound to many children, what you have stated here, that the “foundational method of learning – make mistakes! ” 🙂

    Two thoughts here:

    first of all are the left/right brain distinctions almost like straitjackets where there are no overlaps or perhaps there is a zone of some fuzziness between the two halves of the brain, perhaps some form of blurred boundaries?;

    second, all well-meaning people within the educational system seem to be clear that we have to break free from rote learning. Whether this is actually happenning is a different matter.

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    The leftbrain and rightbrain do seem to be designed to do different things. And it is the confluence of both that produces the best. Focusing on either is a problem. However, most things we do seem to be left-brain oriented, that is why you see an excessive focus on it.

    I don’t think it matters what people’s intentions are. It is the actions that count. I don’t see movement on that front, until then intentions don’t matter.

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    I was thrilled seeing the term “confluence” of both brains that produces the best. Probably, the left-brain slant as you visualize it comes to us from the days of the hunter-gatherer societies.

    Breaking free from the rote-system is indeed happenning but in select schools across the country. Numerous experts have indeed noticed this and sought to change the system. This has something to do with ‘teacher-training’ systems as well.

    Just as corporates take an interest in ‘Train-the-Trainer’, likewise our public educational system needs a constant overhaul in the form of making the teacher rethink the assumptions on which the instructional methods rest.

    Again, there its a catch-22. The over-emphasis on scoring marks for engineering/medicine seats would be pointed as why thats where the teacher’s efforts would be evaluated and not if the student had a different learning experience.

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    Darshan said June 18, 2009, 2:51 pm:

    Many times I wonder…… If i do not wear my cognizant badge, what is my Identity? being a father, husband, son etc., is diferent…..but… identity of my own…. a good vilonist….. a great tennis player……wonderful singer…….trekker….. many times…..there is no other identity……will be lost between work and domestic life…..

    I think it is a great idea to have some other form of engagement…..for everybody…….which will help in creating a different facet of the person….where he/she can find solace……unwind and express….

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    Abdul Fakhri said June 21, 2009, 9:55 am:

    Thanks Darshan. Very nicely expressed about multiple identities. Our routine life tries to straitjacket us and the multiple identities that you have expressed there shows how you have tried to avoid the beaten track.

    Definitely, its also about unwinding but more importantly about expression. To bring the hidden right brain skills to the fore and derive satisfaction from them.

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    Soumya said June 30, 2009, 6:48 pm:

    Hi Abdul.
    Very beautifully penned post. Couldn’t help connecting many of your points to my experiences in daily life (right from admiring the foreigners who throng Kalakshetra to learn Indian art forms and the importance of CRAFT in shaping one’s life).
    //Creativity, Innovation, ‘Out of the Box thinking’, words that the formal sector swears by and finds hard to implement come naturally to those in the field of art and aesthetics. //
    Couldn’t agree with you more on the above point.
    i guess a majority of us are tuned into seeking a profession that would win us our every day bread and butter rather than embracing an art form that would fully satisfy our souls. That’s how for generations, we have been resorting to teaching, banks/railways (“or secure government jobs) related jobs and in recent times sought refuge in IT/corporate jobs. It takes immense courage to plunge into an art like music/dance/poetry by risking a steady source of monthly income. However, nothing can be more fulfilling to oneself than pursuing one’s passion. Men like Mozart, O.Henry and our own Subrahmanya Bharati lived in abject poverty but have blazed trails of glory and set remarkable trends in their respective fileds.
    In modern days, art also helps people make decent money in addition to giving satisfaction to oneself. Whatever be one’s profession, each one of us should have a healthy hobby like writing or dancing or music – to protect our minds from the whirling currents of every day stress.
    Well written post Abdul. Thanks for the insight.

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    Thanks Soumya for your elaborate and thoughtful comment. You are very right about the difficult choices that one has to make when it comes to one’s vocation. There are challenges in pursuing one’s passion.

    One point that I tried to persist with in the post is where you are in agreement with is whether the processes of learning are different in the formal sector vis-a-vis the aesthetic ones.

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    Very interesting post, Abdul. This is an area where I have a lot of interest in, both in my professional capacity, and as a parent. I do some work with the Kuruvilla Jacob Education Initiative where they have been trying to introduce Activity-based Learning in Corporation schools, in order to create greater interest in studies among students. My children go to The School – KFI where the educational methods are quite different from what we see in most other city schools, and the emphasis is on allowing the child to discover his potential, instead of getting caught up in the usual competitive race for admissions to Engineering colleges. Unsure of what the ultimate outcome, I do hope that this will eventually make a difference in the way my children will learn or love to learn what they learn! 🙂

    What are the differing motivations of the learner in art and aesthetics as different from formal education?
    Formal education, as is present today, was probably devised by Macaulay with the intention of creating “babus”. I can’t think of too many people who will grow up thinking their life’s purpose was to be a government clerk, officer, or even a programmer! However, there is a direct correlation of what time you spend on your art (or sport) to what you want to be. The day we are able to build relevant correlations between what we study as part of formal education to our goals in life, we will probably discover ways of making formal education also far more exciting!

    I would surely want to come back to this post again to look at more learnings I can take away! Thanks.

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    Thanks Raghu. Its good to read an enthusiastic comment about one’s post.

    Macaulay was a problem and to the extent that his legacy permeates our system today is still a problem. However, we are now 60 years into a free India and cannot keep blaming Macaulay.

    For one Macaulay has possibly been reinvented several times to suit the needs of the times. Secondly, it is difficult to blame Macaulay when a large part of the absorption of University graduates (of all streams) is done by the private sector too.

    So probably we need to look at how employment and related educational needs has figured in relation to the market over the last 60 years.

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    Raghu, also its good to know about the Kuruvila Jacob Initiative for promoting excellence in school education. Non-state actors have played a vital role in the past in promoting education and would continue to do so. In fact, from the vantage point of industry itself this is one of the key approaches to solving any talent mismatch issues that which entrants have and those which they need to have. Good to hear that you are part of such an initiative.

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    In my childhood, learning the arts was a hobby, a passtime in which you could indulge in your vacations. It happened in a leisurely fashion, learning from parents/elderly relatives/gurus who taught at their own pace. Children were taught to unwind with these arts.

    Today, the scene is so commericialised, I sometimes pity the children who are pushed to excel in this as well. You can’t be an ordinary performer, but a child prodigy. If you are a good performer, then you need to win prizes in popular contests.

    So it leaves me in serious doubt if teaching methods are any different in arts today. arts/academics, I guess it is the whole outlook that has changed, not just the teaching method. As long as the objective for any learning today is earning and popularity, it affects all aspects surrounding our learning I assume.

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    Thanks Revathi. I could not agree with you more about the commercialization of arts.

    It has also taken on some very unfortunate dimensions in the form of reality TV programming which is bad enough for adults but putting children through that experience is giving them a wrong message about what they are expected to do with their lives.

    As someone was saying recently, the message that we are giving to the children and youth of our nation is that unless you are a “celebrity” you are a nobody ! That is the pathology of “visibility” everywhere around us carried too far !

    Being and becoming child prodigies in the natural performance of the child at ease with him/herself and his/her craft is fine. We have seen so many examples before the advent of reality TV. This is a new kind of TV performance forced on children that in yesteryears we only used to hear about greedy star parents.

    Parents egging the children on in this is pathetic when I saw a case of a girl collapsing in the studio, taken to the hospital for neurological treatment which the doctors maintained would take some time for the child to recover. Whats the point about subsequent blame game between the program producers and the parents when the damage has already been done.

    Let a thousand flowers bloom among the children but let not a single one feel the burden of the ill-conceived route map for him/her.

    Sure Revathi, you are speaking about the context in which this learning takes place. Both for formal and aesthetics-oriented it could be commercialised and non-commercialised. Regardless of that, i.e., in either context, my post was about the method, the approach and the epistemology within such learning is driven.

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    Jayanthi said June 16, 2010, 9:33 am:

    I really loved reading your article. You have an amazing vocabulary. I required a dic. for certain words. I would say even that is an art. It can never be informal. In all my dance stage performances, I always had the same feeling as I had, when I took up my 12th board exam.

    We have something called body memory and that is one good thing about art. That is, by rigorous practice, you can become an accomplished performer even without any conscious effort.

    I had the opportunity to do a TV show for a private channel where the main topic was ”the other side of art” (Kalayin Marupakkam). There I made both the parents and the art teacher to interact to find why there is a gap between academics and arts. It was very interesting and I learnt a lot from their views. May be, I can share more of this with you when we meet next time. Keep writing.

    Please visit my husband’s blog (in Tamil) : (and)
    My blog:

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    Abdul said July 3, 2010, 3:10 pm:


    Thank you very much for your kind words.

    Having 2-left feet, I have the greatest awe and admiration for performers like yourself whether in solo or group dances. The latter never cease to inspire me for the amazing synergy and coordination. They are probably some of the finest examples of team work that so many can learn from.

    The concept of ‘body memory’ is brilliant and fascinating. Something that I learnt from your comment.

    I shall definitely both your husband’s and your blog sites.

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