A Re-Assessment

Last week, I met a West Vancouver teacher, formerly a Vice Principal, at a gym drop-in. We got to chatting about education and before I knew it, we were talking about pedagogy, philosophy and grading practices. More specifically, we were talking about the philosophy behind grading practices, when teaching art to young children.

It all started with a story about a posting in a public forum. A parent had photographed a wall of children’s art in a school, with a comment on the uniformity of the pieces. In short, every child’s art looked more or less the same. The mother asked, what are we really teaching our children, if their projects are all identical?

You can see how that would get my brain fizzing, can’t you?

The teacher’s response had been that she was teaching a particular method to the children, so the final outcome was less important than the way it had been achieved. A valid observation, for sure, but one might also ask: why were the children so cautious? Where was their curiosity, their drive to hypothesize, to experiment, analyze, examine and tweak the boundaries? One might ask, were the children simply delivering what was expected? And if that is not the case, why are children taking few risks, taking care to produce something that they know will be acceptable?

A few things are going on here, as I see it: first, I’d need to know more about the atmosphere in the classroom. For me, art is like a barometer for classroom culture – it’s based on intuition, subjectivity, calls on the innermost, private worlds of children’s imagination, so the extent to which these instincts are gratified in class makes that climate visible – on paper, in clay, in whatever medium is being used. So if the children do not stray from what they perceive to be the expected path, that tells you something how risks are perceived here. Is one generally rewarded (or restricted or penalized) for not following instructions? How does the teacher regard his or her own instructions where art projects are concerned? Are they edicts to be followed verbatim or are they items for discussion? Does the teacher expect (and convey the expectation) that experimentation is part of one’s practice? Or is the practice of art more like assembling a piece of furniture from Ikea?

But now it is time to stop being the devil’s advocate and consider the full reality of these identical projects:

That there is definitely a time and a place (and a person) for self-assembly style art projects. If a child is extremely anxious and simply cannot take risks. If a child has special needs that are manifested in meticulous adherence to rituals and protocols. Or if time is limited and you simply want to cover this one method before moving to a second project, in which the kids go wild and expand on what they did with this first project… in these cases, why not?

All art lives on a continuum of experimentation, so in a way, that one snapshot is meaningless – unless you know what happened before and after it was taken, it can only be taken as just that: a snapshot. Who knows? Maybe the teacher already taught them to make their own paint? Or their own paper? Or encouraged them to find materials for the project in unlikely places? Or had the children work with a new partner, ie. used the project as a way for strangers to become friends…?

The act of making art is about so much more than the product we see at the end, so if we use this as our sole criterion for judging either teacher or learner, we betray our own limited vision.

Toward the end of our conversation, the West Vancouver teacher asked me, so how should we assess art, in that case?

Here’s my answer:

Set new criteria. Don’t judge the art, look at the artist, both as an individual or as a member of a community:

As an individual

  • What was her source of inspiration and how did she come to it? Has she given new life to everyday projects?
  • What words did she use to describe her choices? Does she talk about how the materials felt, looked, responded to cutting, gluing, folding, scrunching or other treatments?
  • Was she curious, did she experiment, try new ways of engaging with her chosen media?
  • What did she do when things went wrong? Did she go from “oops” to “never mind” to “Aha!” or did she quit?
  • What kinds of narratives emerged while working on her project?
  • What observations were made about viscosity (glue, paint?), humidity (clay, watercolour?) texture (brushes, fabric?), gravity (drips?), motion (centrifugal force?), or other principle of science while working on this project?
  • Is her work guided by a belief in constant self-reflection and improvement?
  • Who does she appear to be making the art for?

As a member of the classroom community

  • In what ways did she communicate her interest in the work of other students (assuming that collaborative learning is a guiding principle)?
  • What kinds of comments did she offer to her peers? Did she try to encourage others to work through blocks, or self-doubt?
  • Did she offer suggestions to others for colour, medium, shape?
  • Did she bring questions and ideas back to the teacher, showing that she’s thinking ahead to a second iteration of this project?

It all comes down to this: are we treating children as manufacturing units and adults as consumers? Or are we teaching children to become artists, changing the way they think, work, find inspiration and solve problems, coach each other and contribute powerfully to their learning community?

I have my answer already. What’s yours?

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