I ask this question frequently when I visit an art room, “What are you working on?” I even ask when I already know the answer.
Recently I went into two art rooms at the same school. The classes happened to be the same grade level and I was excited to see the two art teachers were collaborating. In this case, that meant I saw the same lesson happening in both classrooms.
I asked my question in both classes. I one room I got answers like these:
Just doing a contest (it was not a contest)
We are doing this (points to paper)
We are doing… (reads title of paper)
In the other classroom the response to my question was an enthusiastic explanation of the project, and each person at the table wanted a turn to describe their ideas to me.
Now, this was not a thorough study. I asked just a few students in each room, but the difference was astonishing! In the latter example, students were clearly more engaged and using higher order thinking skills. In the first, students barely knew what they were doing, let alone what they were learning.
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE?!
What can you do, as a teacher, to make it more likely your students will respond to, “what are you working on?” with enthusiasm, awareness, and evidence of thinking and learning?
A Leadership Conference marks the beginning of each new school year for the school and central office administrators in our school system. This year’s conference was our first real opportunity to hear from our new superintendent, Dr. Scott Brabrand.
First, he spent 15 minutes drawing a cat, with unimpressive results. Then he asked an art teacher to help him for one hour, and drew another cat. This time, the results were quite impressive. With only an hour of instruction, he was able to grow from a child-like line drawing, to a well-defined, natural form of a cat including value, shading, and texture. Well done, sir!
So what’s the point?!
As educators we must consider our own mindset around teaching and learning. That means we must, first, recognize our mindset, and second, be willing to challenge and change that mindset. We cannot expect to be successful, as educators, if we don’t believe in the human ability to learn. And we won’t meet our mandate to reach every child if we have anything less than this growth mindset for each and everyone of our students.
If you’re interested in reading more about mindset, check out these posts:
I hope when you read, “What is your purpose here?” You can fully envision the scene from Pirates of the Caribbean, Dead Man’s Chest. If not I think the image, below, is linked to a gif. (Hit me with a comment if you know the response to the question from the movie.)
I suppose it’s fair if you are wondering what this has to do with art education…
I met with art collaborative team leads recently and posed a question about the purpose of art CTs. Some quick answers included “to collaborate,” “to share ideas,” and “to share best practices.” Yes, these are reasons we get together, but why do we do these things? Why do we collaborate? Why do we share ideas?
TO IMPROVE STUDENT LEARNING!
I am surrounded by this language all the time in the instructional services department. If a similar question were asked of a group of my central office colleagues we would probably all respond in unison.
This interaction with my art instructional leaders helped me realize that this is a message that I should work harder to promote. It’s a mindset that can impact how we interact with our work. Everything we do should be with the goal of improving student learning.
Let me get right to the punch line. Don’t waste perfectly good instruction time having your students make a color wheel!
There’s a reason there’s an uninspiring, frumpy old lady shown in this photo. Color wheels are boring! If you need to hang one in your class for reference, FINE! But there is far too much to learn to ask your students to make one.
I may be a bit biased from one of my own teaching experiences. I once had a colleague who’s Art 1 students spent nearly the full first quarter painting a perfect color wheel. The result? By Halloween they hated art and wished they never signed up!
Here are 10 ideas better than a color wheel:
Practice gesture drawing with primary paint colors.
Collaboratively sort, arrange, and rearrange hundreds of different color objects or 1 inch squares from color print (magazine) pages by color groupings or relationships.
Set up a competitive painting challenge in which students complete as many tasks as possible in a given class session. Each task combines color theory and painting skills. For example: create a gradient wash with a vibrant hue. Create a natural texture using dry brush technique and a neutral color. Create a gradient blend of complimentary colors. Etc.
Play with layering color gels and filters.
Make artwork by layering colored tissue paper with a wash of glue (creating a transparent effect).
Challenge your students to fill a hundred or more squares on a painting surface, each with a variation of the same hue. (Use this as the ground on which a meaningful artwork is created.)
Collaboratively reproduce a “pixelated” image of a famous artwork or school mascot using food coloring and water in plastic cups arranged in a grid. (Photograph from above.)
Provide precut papers with all of the necessary colors and have table groups race to arrange them into a color wheel as a warm up.
Have students use color relationships to arrange themselves in different ways according to the clothes they are wearing.
Have students photograph objects with their phones and arrange the images by color.
And if none of these suit you fancy, just have them paint! They will learn more about mixing and using color in an authentic context than they will by making a color wheel.
Jacqueline S. McElhany has a nice article in the January 2017 edition of Art Education. In Awakening Student Ownership: Transitioning to a Student-Centered Environment, she describes taking some very important steps toward improving the art experience for her students.
This transition included the very important step of switching from teacher solved art making assignments, to designing instruction around big ideas — turning over the problem solving to the students.
THIS IS OUTSTANDING, AND A GREAT FIRST STEP!
For this lesson, she told the students they would be “creating their own unique mask sculptures that represented their identity.” The article goes on to describe the delivery of this student-centered lesson in a fair amount of detail. Students were encouraged to explore and experiment, and the teacher served as a “guide on the side.” Again, all good, but I fear there is something missing: INSTRUCTION!
One of the challenges of facilitating student-centered instruction is not going too far. Art instruction can be too restrictive, and it can be too loose (In fact, how tight and how loose can be adjusted in response to the abilities of the students). In every case though, we must balance the open-ended aspects of our lesson with some structure that will result in expected learning outcomes. Turning over every aspect of choice to the students discards the opportunity to teach the students specific content.
As one example, a specific media technique could have be taught (and assessed) through this lesson and it would have been significantly stronger. This would take away the full range of choice of materials from the students, but they could still have a lot of flexibility in the choices they make in addition to using the specific material and technique that is taught and assessed.
So you decide to make an artwork. What materials will you use? How big will it be? What is your chosen subject? What style will you employ?
You haven’t even started, but already you have put a number of restrictions on yourself. Why is this such a natural part of artmaking?
In one of my Big Idea posts, Why Teach with Big Ideas, I mentioned Embrace the Shake, a TED talk by Phil Hansen that addresses the idea of working within limitations. Not all artists have something happen to them (like severe nerve damage) that forces a particular limitation on their artmaking, but whether they know it or not, artists apply limitations to their ways of working all the time.
As educators we should embrace the shake for one very big reason: Working within limitations is the nature of problem solving. I mean, come on… describe a math problem you have ever seen that doesn’t provide parameters?
Consider how you could develop a learning sequence to help students understand that/how artists create restrictions for their artmaking and eventually prepare students for designing their own restrictions.