Teaching Experimentation

I bet your students don’t draw like this! And I’m sure you don’t teach them to, and that’s good. You shouldn’t… Not because it’s not great drawing. It is… I’ll explain what I mean below. Besides, this isn’t really about drawing like this. I want to talk about experimentation.

Disperse1 by John Adams

Disperse 1 by John M. Adams, artist and educator

An artwork like this draws me in simply through the nature of the marks. As an artist, I wonder (among many other things), “what tool made these marks? How was that tool held and moved by the artist’s hand? And how did the artist come to this unusual approach” I’m willing to bet no one taught John M. Adams to draw this way. The quality of the marks alone suggest his methods are the result of experimentation… lots and lots of experimentation.

Originality and creativity, including unique approaches to media like we see in this example, are highly valued in the arts, and by art teachers, but a strange phenomenon can occur when an art teacher gets excited by a new artist or artwork. Far too often, out there in Art Education Land, the teacher decides to have her students study the work of the artist and copy those qualities that make the artwork unique. What is wrong with this picture!? Artists do not become creative by copying! This is what I meant, above, when I said you shouldn’t teach your students to draw like John Adams. We want our students to develop their own creative solutions!

If we want our students to be flexible, fluent thinkers and artists who are willing to take risks, we need to teach them skills and habits that support these behaviors. We can help them practice methods of experimentation, we can encourage them to try things they have never done before, and we can provide an environment where it is OK to fail. We can, and should, help them recognize that artists develop creative solutions through hard work and experimentation. It is far too easy to believe, as the myths tell it, that great artists were somehow born with a natural gift that led them, without struggle, to their creations, but this is crap. (Yep, that’s what I said.)

So let’s not ask our students to copy creative works… ever. (No, really, I mean it. Go find those lessons that have students make little Van Gogh and Chuck Close paintings, or make their own little Egyptian sarcophagus… Did you find them? Now just throw them away… Go ahead… I’ll wait.)

…Instead, let’s teach them the skills they need to be creative thinkers and creative makers. These are 21st Century skills embraced by educators and employers alike. They are hard to define, and hard to assess, I admit. It’s very hard to put experimentation into standards-based terms. How does one assess the degree to which a student is willing and able to experiment to solve a problem, or measure a student’s willingness to take risks? Nevertheless, these skills will serve our students now and in the future. Experimentation:

  • Expands thinking to include a greater range of possible solutions
  • Develops flexibility in application of techniques and media
  • Expands appreciation of art works (and other things in the world) that break from norms
  • Supports fluency in any problem solving situation
  • Supports development of a personal style
  • Develops critical thinking through the act of evaluating and choosing from outcomes

An art curriculum cannot be based, entirely, on experimentation. Creative approaches must be balanced with specific skills (or Skillz), and we must think clearly about how we present creativity and experimentation to our students: not as a natural gift or inclination, but as a way of working and a set of skills that anyone can learn and apply to develop creative solutions to problems.

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