Creating art transforms learning in vibrant school

Issue: Volume 97, Number 11

Posted: 21 June 2018
Reference #: 1H9jL1

Beauty and creativity are part of a pioneering strategy to help overcome the effects of poverty at a remarkable decile 1 school that embraces visual language to support learning.

Knowledge gain: Interactive murals are painted on play areas on the ground, such as this numbered spiral game with pictures of toys in each block, as part of the learners’ Toy Investigation.

Art is everywhere at a South Auckland school that is rich with creativity, visual language, images and symbols that send messages to promote learning. In a sense, the whole of Mountain View School in Mangere Bridge is an artwork. Both inside and out, students are surrounded by bold colour, strikingly quirky buildings, painted numbers and words and symbols on the walls and ground, making up a cultural landscape that reflects the needs of students.

Everything counts: The school’s walls, fences and windows are learning landscapes. The students researched, created and painted alphabets within picture frames on surfaces using themes of animals, minerals, birds, fruit and vegetables including eggplant.

Principal Sue McLachlan says her team has worked hard to bring oral, written and visual languages together at the school to maximise the children’s learning and break down barriers. It’s beauty with a purpose, and it’s working.

“You can transform ugly places with art. Our whole school is a transformation space, for a very important educational purpose,” she says.

Interweaving: The taniwha of learning, te taniwha o te matauranga, helps children learn the colours of the rainbow in sequence, and to count in 2s, 5s, 10s, 100s etc, so they can hop, step and jump at the same time as they practice their mathematics.

The children work on curriculum studies in the classroom and from this work they devise playground games and continue their learning as they play.

“When they were studying fractions in mathematics they formulated a fractions hopscotch. These games are painted on the pavement areas to continue interactive learning both inside and outside the classroom,” says Sue.

“As part of a social studies investigation about toys, the children invented a numbered spiral game with pictures of toys featured in each block.”

Counting mural: This mural includes numbers as well as reflecting Pacific and Māori themes and objects including kete and hibiscus.

The artworks include many pieces donated by prominent New Zealand artists, but much of the art was the work of students. The approach has evolved over two decades as a response to poverty in the local community.

“We couldn’t just plod along at normal pace – ours is a decile 1 school and families struggle financially. But although they are poor in one sense, they are rich in others, such as in close family connections, art and culture. That is all mirrored physically and visually in our school.”

Remembering: The olive grove planted by the students provided learning opportunities as each class participated in creating giant wooden poppies and installing them in the grove, which is used for Anzac Day ceremonies.

Flowers, such as hibiscus, and other reflections of Pacific cultures and art, feature prominently on building pillars and are part of the school’s embrace of community.

“In the old days, most schools were grey places with a lot of concrete and plain walls. But buildings are not just vessels – they can be inspirational. We use ours to send constant messages to inspire children and their families to bring their culture to the school. Everything – walls, signs, shapes, colours – is part of the cultural landscape we live with, and it shapes our ideas and thoughts,” says Sue.

Creative landscaping: Ceramic tiles and mondo grass around the base of these magnolia trees form a sunflower head, inspired by the students’ study of painter Vincent Van Gogh’s work.

Their physical environment sends out covert and overt messages to students so that the learning never stops, in or out of the classroom, because the need is great. Low English language literacy amongst new starters is a major issue, as they are behind on day one and need to catch up.

Some children start in Year 1 at the school having never read a single book as there are no books in their homes. “We want them to be their absolute best. But in poverty, you need wraparound help, so that is what we deliver to speed up learning,” says Sue.

Art teaches lessons: The children made woven flax artwork in collaboration with artist Jeff Thomson, and these are displayed on walls and on the ground.

In the playground, painted markings teach geometry. Words painted in purple on the pink pavement teach spelling patterns. A long boundary fence has been artfully painted by the students with fruit, words and letters. A multi-coloured hopscotch area has numbers to teach children about patterns of numbers while they play.

The buildings have few straight lines – unusual angles are the norm and there is barely a plain, undecorated surface. Windows are not symmetrical; some buildings resemble large boulders, reflecting the presence of nearby Mangere Mountain, a volcano, which is a major physical presence in the community. This is deliberate. It illustrates divergence and difference, says Sue, to encourage creativity.

“Beauty brings out another quality – it’s not just an extra. It’s an integral part of what we do and who we are,” she says. “Beauty and creativity are change agents that can transform people and places. They are vital educational instruments.”

Gobble gobble: When learning about recycling, the children created characters, including Greedy Pig for food scraps.

ERO reviews confirm the effectiveness of the strategy, which Sue and her team have developed over 20 years. Its 2017 report said: “The school responds very effectively to Māori, Pacific and other students whose learning and achievement need acceleration. Approximately 10 per cent of students are targeted through personalised acceleration strategies, in either reading, writing or Mathematics. There is evidence that these students consistently have success in their learning progress. They generally accelerate to expected levels within a 12 month period.”


BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 2:14 pm, 21 June 2018

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