Art-based learning: a fresh view of learning

Eva Jansen
Eva Jansen Product Manager

In this digital age, you can read the most wonderful articles 24/7. Last year, I came across an interesting article on my Facebook timeline about medicine students taking a fine arts subject to become better doctors. How?

The NOS website was only one button away. [1a] Here, I read that the fine arts subject was not an optional subject, but that it was part of the curriculum. How interesting! What makes art-based learning so special? Out of curiosity, I looked further and found many articles on art-based learning. I found that American medicine students at Yale and Harvard have been visiting art museums for many years. [2a] Art-based learning is believed to support doctors in learning indispensable skills.

How does it work?

If the universities are to be believed, skills such as looking objectively, puzzling capability, communicating and discussing are all trained by looking at art. Looking objectively is looking without prejudice or value judgement, puzzling over the image to recognise patterns, communicating to exchange information, and discussing the exchange of opinions. For instance, a doctor has to examine a patient objectively, see the connections between symptoms, and then express his or her thoughts and possibly defend them in the treatment team. Actually, art-based learning is more or less similar to this example.

When you look at a painting, you can decide what you look at and what you think about it. You are easily inclined to consider something ‘beautiful’ or ‘ugly’. But would you still think in these terms if you knew the context or if your friends had an opposite opinion?

Art-based thinking forces you to postpone your judgement. An example: Egyptian hieroglyphs (figure 1) are often described as ‘cartoonish’ or ‘childlike’, although the creators were not after realism. The message had to be clear on a limited wall surface area. Seventeenth-century sumptuous still lifes (figure 2) are often described as ‘strange’ or ‘incoherent’, although realism was exactly what the creators were after. You may argue that the overloaded tables were an artistic excuse for portraying the various fabrics and materials (e.g. silver, silk, fish scales).

Practice makes perfect

In the history of art, several subcategories can be distinguished. Some art historians focus on style (how), others on origin (where from), iconography (what), or technique (with what). It is often a combination of disciplines, but especially iconography provides training for looking carefully. Time to practise! Two works of art are shown above. They share the same subject, but the styles, origins and techniques are different.

Step 1: looking objectively

Before you establish what is portrayed, you make an iconographic description: telling what you see without attaching any meaning to it. Preferably you do this in a structured way, for instance from left to right or clockwise. An example (figure 2): a woman on the left with an open book in front of her. To the right of her there are a white dove and a winged person. The winged person is standing on a cloud and raises his right hand. In his left hand, he carries a bouquet of white flowers. A basket with some needlework and a vase with white flowers are pictured at the bottom of the scene.

Step 2: puzzling

Now that the ingredients are known, you use your knowledge and experience to attach meaning to the description. The dove is a first hint. In Christian imagery, the dove is associated with the Holy Ghost. In the same imagery, the winged person is an angel, and the white flowers are a symbol of chastity. In the Bible, one person is the most pious and the chastest of women: the Holy Virgin Mary.

Step 3: communicating

Now that several elements are compatible with each other, I dare to attach a meaning to this. An example: on the basis of the elements found and their coherence, it can be established that this scene represents the Annunciation, the moment at which the archangel Gabriel tells the Virgin Mary that she will become pregnant of the Holy Ghost, as described in the New Testament.

Step 4: discussing

Who am I to establish this? Testing your hypothesis is essential. A collective truth is only possible via discussion. I dare to argue that the painting is about the Annunciation, because several examples have been found in western art with a similar iconography (see figure 4). In some cases, Annuntiatio Domini (Latin for ‘Annunciation of the Lord’) is written underneath.

And what is in it for me?

Now I understand why medicine students are positive about art-based learning. Additionally, I can see possibilities of using it in other fields of work. There are some clear parallels between creating an exhibition and creating e-learning: you want to get knowledge across to a diverse audience, the message is conveyed by means of words and images, and the message is supported by technique and design. Art-based learning comes in handy in assessing designs. Here are some tips.

  1. Look in a structured way: make certain that you do not miss anything and force yourself to look from top to bottom, from left to right, or clockwise.
  2. Detach form (style) from content (iconography): do not get distracted by any wrong colours or fonts; focus on completeness first.
  3. Do not speak your mind yet: do not try to influence your colleagues or client with your value judgements. Give everybody an opportunity to form an opinion and discuss the quality next.

Like to know more?

Continue to follow the New Masters for more blogs on art & e-learning. Previously, Eva wrote about the possibilities of Location-Based Learning and Virtual Reality in the museum world.


[1a] [May 2016]

[2a] YaleNews [April 2009]

[figure 1] Unknown, Egyptian Book of the Dead, approx 1300 BC, papyrus, location unknown.

[figure 2] Christiaen Luyckx, Sumptuous Still Life, approx 1650, oils on copper, Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal.

[figure 3] El Greco, Annunciation, approx 1595, oils on linen, Szépművészeti Múzeum, Budapest.

[figure 4] Pietro Cavallini, Annunciation, 1291, mosaic in Saint Mary’s Basilica in Trastevere, Rome.

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