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).
Does anyone have ideas?