One Small Voice: Noorlinah Mohamed

Published on 8 June 2015

The arts can be used to teach science and engage those with Alzheimer’s disease, says theatre actress and arts educator Noorlinah Mohamed.

Some people know me as an actress, but arts education is my first love. In Katong Convent, our late principal Mrs Bong, a poet herself, made arts education part of the daily curriculum. She had us read literature aloud and perform in school; she invited others to perform for us way before assembly plays were a thing; she taught us poetry writing… I didn’t even like it at the time, but it definitely shaped me.

Now, I see the arts in every part of life. I’m in the National Arts Council’s Teaching Through the Arts Programme, where I work with a team of artists to integrate arts into the teaching of math and science. 

For instance, we’ve been teaching the water cycle at Haig Girls’ School. Condensation can be baffling because you see nothing until water suddenly appears when invisible water vapour comes into contact with a cooler surface. So we analogise it to telling secrets. The students play the secret holder, hot with anticipation, approaching a cooler, non-anticipating person, and finally revealing an unsuspected secret — the water vapour. Or we create scenes where students are water vapour, pretending they are floating in the air. The arts uses the body a lot, creating moments where the child is learning on the floor rather than bound behind the desk. They use their imagination, play with thoughts, ideas and concepts… just really play.

Sometimes, people ask: how does this serve students’ grades? My answer: it shouldn’t have to. How about development and well-being? Arts integration gives students a lasting impression of how wonderful a subject can be, how joyful coming to school is. It also encourages them to learn deeply, to be open to learning, and find ways to learn. That doesn’t always equate to perfect scores, but teachers and kids come around saying math classes are fun now, and filled with laughter!

The arts were also how I engaged with my mother when she contracted Alzheimer’s. I told her stories, we did drawings together and it taught me empathy, to consider: what is she thinking now? Once, when I was in England studying for my PhD, she was hallucinating, screaming and crying that her childhood sewing machine had gone missing from the house, and that her mother would be very upset.

My husband used his iPad to Skype me in a panic. I got him to follow her and asked her to show me where the sewing machine was supposed to be. I asked her to tell me the story of the sewing machine — what was around, who was around? And I asked her, okay, at this time, was I born yet? Then she looked at me and slapped her forehead. It dawned on her that she had conflated time and the sewing machine was long gone. We were actors analysing a character’s time period, except the character was my own Alzheimic mother. The story also helped her find a moment of calm, giving us a way to engage.

I’ve also used the arts in projects to empower prisoners or even economically-challenged women. People engage through the arts because everyone understands artistry in their own way, whether in baking a cake, or combing their hair. And I see it everywhere, I live and breathe the arts.

Noorlinah Mohamed is a multi-award-winning theatre actress, creator of community and public arts engagement projects in Singapore, and lead practitioner and consultant for the National Arts Council’s Teaching Through the Arts Programme. She is currently communications, engagement and marketing director of the Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA) as well as director of The O.P.E.N., SIFA’s festival of ideas and public engagement initiative, for which she is organising 15 Stations, an augmented reality tour of the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station. Noorlinah holds a PhD in Arts Education.

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