To dramatically increase the number of students and teachers engaging in project-based learning and performance assessment we need to highlight examples that are attainable. Rather than ask teachers to become master designers of curriculum, we should encourage teachers to tweak, or adapt, their current work to give it a more performance-based flavor. Here are a few examples from Envision Schools using a few of our design principles for instruction:
A very fast read with three principles and four resources.
Some Tensions in Art Education, Including Grades and Subjectivity
Year after year I teach at least three terms of Art 1 Foundation. The course is designed as an introduction into basic design principles, which students explore through a variety of media and problem solving prompts. We have two versions of the course: a one-term (10 wk) course for sophomores and upper formers who have not had a freshman arts foundation experience, and a 2 term (20 wk) course for freshmen. Art 1 Foundation is a prerequisite for any electives offered by our department.
After four years of teaching the course, any dissatisfaction I feel with my own methods for instructional design derive from three problems.
One obstacle in teaching a foundation course on art, especially the studio aspect, is that not every students has the same prior knowledge or experience with techniques, terms, or media. (This can be a benefit to the student or a detriment to his/her creativity and learning)
Another challenge is creating an environment which fosters creative risk taking while at the same time demanding that students generate work at their own standards for excellence. (Two ideas which are hard to develop alongside one another in the minds of 9th graders)
The last is a matter of values. As a department, we have a long tradition of valuing technical skill as a key to assessment in studio art. In today’s global culture of art, there is a place for technical skill, but the contemporary problems that define art are more about concept and less about representation. Trying to push a young students mind into the endlessly imaginative realm of problem solving, while maintaining a hard-edged focus on the ability to draw in perspective or shade with a pencil feels at odds.
Art exists because there are certain things we struggle to put into words, things which are better expressed through the marriage of the creative mind with the physical world. To create meaning by the arrangement and transformation of material in alignment with our own unique vision is the essence of art practice, which is at best: personal, process-oriented, and nonverbal.
Putting a grade on that can be daunting, and I’ve heard the argument: we just have to do it! I’m not a fan of grading individual pieces of art, because my focus is on helping students develop dispositions. Qualities of thinking are more important to me than the ability to shade well, yet our department puts a huge focus on that. So I’m stuck trying to find a balance between teaching techniques and teaching modes of thought, between valuing the quality of a product and valuing the risk-taking and the creativity of the thinking that went into the product.
If any of you have ideas about how to do this, I’d love to know.
Meanwhile, I’ve begun to develop ways to express to my students, that in a way I have to look for both technique and skill proficiency, as well as risk taking and creative thinking. The problem is when you give a kid a single grade along with feedback about their learning and performance in both areas, they’re conception of where they can go becomes narrowed because of the grade.
John Maeda talks about the difference between MIT and RISD, in that each embodies a different type of thinking.
He says (at 1:05) that
"MIT is much more logical — left side. RISD is much more illogical, right side. Illogical means difficult to define in some kind of stepped out, algorithmic way. No cookie cutter recipe style of thinking here. It’s all kind of like free and transformative."
If my goal is really to put value on this style of thinking, how do I best go about assessing it and at the same time encouraging it? By grading students, both against themselves and against their peers, I’ll unavoidably put some restrictions on the parameters of their thinking. I want to open up the boundaries for new types of thinking, not limit it; that, in a nutshell, is my problem with grading.
A student wrote to me recently in response to a B+ I gave him. His response was “surprise”, he said. In an effort to help the student (and perhaps myself) understand what that grade meant, I responded with the following:
Thank you for your email and your question.
You showed a great deal of improvement over the course of the two terms. By the end of the year, your thinking about art had matured. Throughout ten weeks you experienced a number of opportunities to demonstrate the level of sophistication of both your conceptual understanding and your developing technical skill. The degree to which I assign a letter grade to a student has much to do with these dimensions, but overall depends upon a number of factors, including how far a student has come since the very beginning of the learning experience, the extent to which he/she has mastered both the understanding of concepts and the development of skills, the quality of the student’s creative thinking, his or her particular approach to solving visual problems and taking risks, as well as the extent to which a student contributes meaningfully to the classroom environment, including discussion.
Your performance during both terms demonstrates that you met the expectations satisfactorily, and in some areas demonstrated the potential to be outstanding.
As I said above, you improved in your understanding of design principles and the concepts in thinking about color and other elements of art. The understanding you arrived at in the end is a result not only of what has been presented to you throughout the term, but also the level of depth with which you tackled those issues in your own thinking. You arrived at new understandings, yet had the potential to take your understanding even further in the time we were together.
The quality of your work satisfied the expectations of “good” work in art foundation. I hope that you would agree that the quality of your work when compared with others and with the work you were doing at the beginning of the term, has the potential to enter into the “outstanding” realm, but hasn’t gotten there yet.
The quality of your creative thinking is also “good”, but in order for it to be “outstanding” you would have more explicitly needed to demonstrate use of creative “out of the box” thinking in the way you used principles. Each piece you create demonstrates the level with which you use creativity to your advantage to make an interesting image. How interesting that image is to a viewer is the metric with which I measure the level of creativity. You use the design principles well, but in the future should look for ways to increase the level of creativity.
All in all you had two good terms in art foundation, but you still have progress to make in terms of challenging the level of your creativity, in mastering technical skills, and making informed, interesting, and creative decisions in compositional layout.
I hope this helps you better frame your the strategies you adopt for improvement in art.
My response articulates, for the most part, what I expect of students in the environment I have to work. It however is not the ideal I have for educating students to be creators and creative thinkers.
I’d like to develop some ways to get the students to better understand where I want them to go in their thinking as well as to develop more effective methods of assessing those qualities which I think are important. I’m at a loss to see how I can accurately assess dispositional thinking without it seeming subjective (which I think it might have to be to an extent).
The Limits of Disciplinary Knowledge for a Young Artist/Educator
I’m not going to pretend to know everything about my discipline. I learned a great deal studying my way through school, but I learned even more in the past four years of teaching. It really is true what they say about learning something far better when you have to teach it to someone else.
While I’ve gained knowledge, there’s still a great deal I don’t know, and I’m sure my practice would be improved if I expand my understanding. My struggle has more to do with time and choice than anything else. It’s such a busy place where I work and I want so much to focus on learning more, and I do! But, it’s not as simple as we all wish it might be. I’m coming to know so much about the mechanisms of education, about the brain and how it works, about the way people learn and how they’re uniquely motivated. Doing so takes time (and yes, reflection), and it’s pulled me away from my pursuit of learning about art.
I once had a teacher who offered me a bit of wisdom: when it comes to making art, life will inevitably get in the way, so remember to make time and to practice.
In school it was so much easier, since it was all that was expected. With the resources of a university at my disposal, I could easily learn about art through the experience of exploring the available knowledge, whether it be the tools of the studio, the people in the environment or books containing the wisdom of brains long gone.
I remember scouring the library for new images and forms (this was before Google made searching images so simple): for new ideas. What struck me the most was the times when I would read theory from artists. So many times these theorists from every genre and generation would talk about the “new art”, and I could never understand what it is they meant. The idea confused me because in my mind, art was not allowed to change. Art was a discipline with firm boundaries and rules. Certain principles must guide every aspect of art from composition to color and from creation to commerce.
Now, after years of suffering the joys of naivete, I understand what those artists meant when they wrote of the “new art”.
This year I took the opportunity of writing a letter to the parents at Lawrenceville. It was to be about art at Lawrenceville, but I saw it as a chance to share some of my personal views on what it means to be a person seeking to understand that which art has to offer.
Dear Lawrenceville Parents,
Students are busy with academics, athletics, and extra-curriculars these days, not to mention Facebook, Twitter, blogs, texting, and email. Instantly they post pictures to the web and scroll through streams of imagery, video, sound and print. In an age when everybody naturally generates content, it’s vital that the digital villager knows what it means to create a footprint, and that each seeks to understand his footprint’s relationship to his self, to technology, and to society.
Art media may suggest particular uses, but they don’t prescribe only one. Likewise, technology suggests we interact with it in obvious ways, but people always find new and novel means to use the technology.
The role of the artist in contemporary society, as father of Media Studies, Marshall McLuhan observes, is to identify those opportunities inherent in a material, a medium, in information or technology, and manipulate them in exploration of what’s possible. Art, McLuhan concludes, “can always be relied upon to tell a culture what is happening to it.”
At a time when new advances instantly render year old technologies obsolete, we must remember art. The artist is a soothsayer: a figure who, through thinking and making, foretells the road on which culture travels. Emerson writes: the artist goes “where there is no path and leaves a trail” for us to follow.
At Lawrenceville, students not only practice the process of art, but also critically investigate the sensory world of their daily lives. Each becomes aware of creative processes by probing his own motivations in an effort to better “know thyself”. Through acknowledging the limits of their own abilities, students seek to make their work and lives meaningful. Professor Robert Richardson, in First We Read, Then We Write, articulates Emerson’s philosophy on the creative process. “Art is the path of the creator to his work”, says Emerson. “One cannot repeat it enough” Richardson writes, “art is not the finished work, art is the getting there.”
In “the getting there”, Art asks the maker simultaneously to look both inward and outward: to examine herself, as well as the society in which she finds herself. As Alfred Whitehead wrote, “Fundamental progress has to do with the reinterpretation of basic ideas.” The emerging glitz of speed, the glamour of instantaneous communication, and the universal access to information demand that we reinterpret our basic selves.
Man is made anew in his relationship to electronic media. The information landscape has changed our habits, has shifted our aims, and has remade our relationships to one another. No longer can we say that art is the image frozen in pigment, suspended beneath the vaulted barrels of guarded rooms. Art today is information: image, sound, and text; alive in the form of bits and bytes, evolving as it spreads from brain to device. Students of tomorrow should have the capacity to recognize these societal shifts and make their own personal transformations meaningful. Empowered by knowledge, these thoughtful creators of content will manipulate the tools given them to critique and mold their own footprints in this rapidly evolving information environment.
Clearly my understanding of the discipline of art has evolved and become tied up in the nature of human experience itself. Having read enough about the state of art in different historical eras and art’s relationship to society and to the man who both consumes and creates it, I have a much better sense of what all those theorists meant when they referred to the “new art”.
Nothing is static. Things change, as they do also in education.
Web 2.0 has given me opportunities to understand the current limits of my knowledge and to redress my understanding when I have misconceptions. I have a blog that I’m not so good at keeping up these days. On that blog I once posted lessons in basic drawing. I did one about perspective — showing the viewer how to draw a cube correctly and then to cast its shadow. One of the most frustrating, but also the most rewarding outcomes of making that post is the commentary it invited from viewers around the globe. From some, especially those with very little knowledge of the discipline, I got a great deal of praise, but from others who understand the discipline much more deeply than I do, I got feedback which was critical, yet supportive.
Where do I stand as one who knows about art? Somewhere in the middle, I guess. Gosh, it’s not like there’s really a clear spectrum, standardly accepted, that defines any person’s understanding of art. (This is part of the problem I have with teaching courses on art — the criteria for success, if defined solely by the teacher, narrows the possibility for learning). There are so many dimensions of understanding one can achieve in a discipline — so much specialization that goes on.
I can say that through my own experience as a learner, as one who is self motivated to understand the world around him and his place in it, that I have acquired both skills and knowledge of what it means to inquire wholeheartedly into a discipline, to ask the right questions, and to do so with the aim of building new understandings. While my grasp of content will always lack in both breadth and depth, my understanding of how to access, study, and synthesize new content into schemas of knowledge will ensure that whatever little chunk of the world’s vast databanks of information I possess in my meager brain will ultimately grow.
For me, that’s more important than specializing in a particular content area. I’d personally rather know a little about everything than everything about very little.
Having spent the year working on my teaching practice, I now have the moment to reflect. Throughout the year, I worked with a mentor teacher to focus on improving my means and substance of feedback, the methods I use to clarify purpose to my students, and new ways (for me) to motivate and engage my students (including the use of technology in the classroom and game-design principles), based on congnitive science findings which explain how and why we’re naturally motivated. Over the year my classroom and my role in it has changed significantly.
In the next 5 blog posts or so, I’m going to reflect on my areas of focus for this professional development experience: I’ll explore the things I’ve done, particularly in the design and implementation of my courses, I’ll examine what improvements, progress, or changes I have seen work or not work, and I will look ahead and consider changes I’ll make for next year.
For those of you who don’t know, I teach both Art studio courses (9-12) and a year-long Cultural Studies course (9th) at an independent boarding school called the Lawrenceville School in central New Jersey. The 2011-2012 school year will be my fifth year teaching (here or anywhere). Our students are co-ed and range from 9-12 grades. They come from a variety of backgrounds; there is no typical Lawrenceville student.
Having gone through this school as a student myself, now ten years ago, I’m struck by the diversity of our student body. While I remember there being an effort toward diversity while I was a student, I now see the fruits of our admissions department’s labor. Our kids come from everywhere, and represent so many different cultural backgrounds. If there’s anything that ties them all together, it’s their potential to do well in a rigorous residential learning environment. And as every good side has a bad, they also have the great potential to be shaped by whatever culture dominates the landscape of Lawrenceville presently. In some ways, it builds their character; in other ways, it strips them of their unique perspective, their genuine curiosity, their passion for life and learning, their inherent creativity.
So, with the good comes the bad. Hopefully I will touch upon this element as I make my way through this series of blog posts.