Amidst all of the difficult and heartbreaking things happening in our world today, there is a new, unique beauty emerging. And I believe there’s something we can all gain from it. I wonder if, perhaps, we will all be able to see the big picture a little more clearly in the future.
As we have all been forced to dive headlong into distance learning, educators like myself have to re-think the way we teach and what is most important. We must ask “big picture” questions to develop meaningful curriculum for our students within this new, largely unfamiliar context. How do I want my students to grow? What skills do students need to gain from my class? What learning is meaningful to them right now?
Like so many other facets of life as we know it (or knew it), the “traditional” classroom setting and structure has been turned upside down through the forced transition to distance learning. This is especially true for art class.
What likely comes to mind as parents and students think of art class is: a room filled with similar-looking student-made artwork and uncountable supplies, direct instruction from the art teacher on a particular artistic skill (sketching, painting, etc.) followed by a related assignment, and then each student uses an allotted amount of time to produce something similar to the teacher’s example and instruction. In this setup, the end result is usually another version of a ‘teacher project,’ something the students develop to emulate what they’ve seen and been taught.
For many years, I’ve been moving toward a different approach to art education in my classroom, known as Teaching for Artistic Behavior (TAB). The basic tenet of TAB is that all students are artists. As artists, they choose what to work on and what the purpose of their work is, in the context of demonstration from the teacher and collaboration with others. They also are encouraged to evaluate and reflect on their work in meaningful ways that they can share with others. While my transition to Teaching for Artistic Behavior has felt a bit challenging to implement in the traditional classroom setting, I’m discovering that my students’ creativity is flourishing through distance learning.
My students and I are (obviously) not physically together on a daily basis now, so I’m not necessarily able to walk step-by-step with them through each moment of their art projects. Their access to supplies is limited, comparatively speaking. Yet I have seen unexpectedly stunning artwork come forth. More than just the artwork itself, though, is the way students are developing their artwork at home. They synthesize new ideas by bringing their own life and ideas into their art.
In an investigative project completed at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2007, researchers identified eight particular dispositions—or habits of mind—that students are taught in order to think like artists. The eight habits are: develop craft, engage and persist, envision, express, observe, reflect, stretch and explore, and understand the art world. When students activate these habits of mind, they do things like take up subjects of personal interest, develop mental pictures, imagine next possible steps, create works that convey an idea or feeling, and learn to think about and talk to others about their work. This is exactly what is happening in my distance learning art classes.
Through being forced to learn at home, my students are discovering the creative process in profound ways. They are quickly growing into the role of lead artist as they are largely left to make their own choices, self-pace when it comes to developing artwork, and generally have the time and freedom they need to think for themselves. Through a necessarily slower pace of instruction, my students are able to create more thorough foundations for their creative work, think deeply about global themes (like journey, adventure, religious experience and more), and develop a vision for their art in their own time. In other words, my students aren’t simply learning things like proper watercolor technique or principles of drawing (although those are important). They are, in essence, learning a new way of thinking.
I believe that this new way of thinking--practicing artistic habits of mind outside of the traditional classroom setting--is instilling in students certain skills that they will need to thrive in the 21st century. While most of my students will not become career artists, they will certainly need the skills learned in art class in whatever they pursue. These skills include critical thinking, problem-solving, reason, analysis, synthesizing information, research, innovation, self-direction, perseverance, adaptability and initiative.
As I speculated at the beginning, it's possible that there is something for us all to learn in this. As we face unprecedented changes and challenges and uncertain futures, we're being forced to slow the pace of lives in many ways. In this quest for a new normal, we can ask ourselves questions like what matters most, where do we find our worth and identity, and what is our purpose. In so doing, we might just get a clearer, more expansive view of the bigger picture.