“…Boring!” – a reflection on Art School teaching and learning.
“All claims of education notwithstanding, the pupil will accept only that which his mind craves.”
At first glance it would seem odd (if not downright ridiculous) to me, and any other genuine creative for that matter, that many of the students that I teach seem able to turn the creative projects, and indeed all the time* they spend within the walls of the arts schools I lecture at… into a chore.
*and the opportunity for unabashed self-expression that this brings.
But…sadly, they do…
Not all of them, it’s true… but many.
Projects are invariably: “too hard“, “don’t make sense“, or worse,”boring“**.
**Despite never having attempted or experienced the task at hand before, so as to test its apparent “repetitiveness, monotony or lack of variety”.
Further, in an environment that should be seen as (and in truth, IS of course) a voluntary embracing of their own education, skill-building, peer-support and networking, tutors and support staff are mythologised by students into vengeful prison wardens who wish to stifle self-expression (in the corridors, if not on canvas) and seek to “mark down” student work at every given opportunity, obviously out of some form of spiteful jealousy (rather than going out of their way, more often than not in their own, unpaid time, to hunt for, and to try to find evidence of work that can in fact be marked against the printed, posted but ultimately unread learning outcomes – but that’s the subject for another post).
And despite all the obviously good intentions of the instigators of the various formalised institutional processes, no amount of mapping numbered learning outcomes, summarised “to-do” checklists, illustrated additional handouts, interactive whiteboard presentations, question trees, carbon-copied records of formative and summative assessment and social media based learning technology with briefs and lectures in podcast form seems able to break this tenacious spell.
The problem, and probably one that is especially prevalent in the Creative Arts, is unfortunately deep-rooted and multi-faceted.
It is in part a combination of following:
1 – the unrealistic expectations of people/governing bodies/other stakeholders who share the outmoded belief that every student in a given class or cohort is ready to achieve at the same level at the same time (in spite of their insistence on a celebration of diversity and differentiation on promotional leaflets and in observation and lesson planning advice);
2 – a cultural miasma pervasive amongst young people (and by this I mean those entering their teens through to those in their mid-twenties – and beyond) who see a personal future devoid of gainful, fulfilling employment (if any at all), and so deem their self-actualisation through education as being of no value.
All of which can be seen reflected in a dark mirror of media quick fixes and entertainment industry snake-oil salesmanship that offers the notion that self-worth can be gained through Cinderella style “star-maker” competitions;
3 – the, without doubt, cyclic impact of those parents who feel the same indifference towards the future and education as above (primarily because many of them actually still fall into the category above) who take no part in their children’s education, place no value in it, and see educators and the institutions in which they work as little more than state sanctioned “baby-sitters” and “creches” respectively;
4 – …and (and this is specific to the creative visual arts though not exclusive) a change in education over the last decade that has seen the removal, or possibly more accurately the “erosion”, of drawing from the curriculum.
I personally developed my drawing not only at home, but in the hours spent drawing and creating illustrations, graphs, maps, charts, diagrams and visualisations for Biology, Physics, Chemistry, Geography, History, Maths and even occasionally English; not including my given classes in Art.
This developmental practice that gives confidence and fluency in image making or visual idea communication and puts the student firmly on the road towards their 10,000 hours of mechanical, psycho-motor skill building has in part been supplanted by online tests with pre-purchased visuals in-built, or the acceptance that images downloaded from the internet are of equal value (a passive rather than active learning strategy) to those studied through “concentrated attention” (Franck 1993:36) and recorded to paper (or tablet or i-pad, I’m no Luddite) by the student themselves.
We get an increasingly large amount of students arriving at art school (whether at 16 or 18 in HE) who we are having to [re]teach the fundamental basics to, a task which is much, much harder at this level (see point 4), and one the students wish to avoid, due mostly to the reasons sighted below;
5 – The complex issues surrounding the paranoia relating to “peer judgement“, and the ever present “fear of failure” and its subsequent attitude of “it is better not to try, rather than to try and and be seen to fail“;
6 – The fact that many of our students simply do not read, for pleasure OR even as part of there studies, avoiding the library with an urgency and dexterity reserved for particularly traumatised spider-phobics; leading to, in many cases students who as internet natives have been enabled to surface skim their understanding of the world in order to satisfy a (ironically) “results” oriented education system.
One of the major problems teachers in art and design schools have is getting students to understand that:
– a, research is not cheating – real creatives have stood and continue to stand on the shoulders of giants, they do not manifest incredible ideas fully-formed out of their heads like Athena leaping from the cracked skull of Zeus***!
You/we need to look at the work and practice of others to inform our own. – Many students either think this to be a slight against their unrecognised creative genius, or more often than not, simply too much effort – Or worst of all, something that must be done, because the brief says so, so “I’ll do it at the end”.
Please, no really, if you are a student reading this, let me explain …Research done by students at the end of a project, where the research has simply become a mechanical copying and pasting task, or a task to satisfy a seemingly unreasonable request on the part of your tutor/lecturer, is NOT in fact research, or more acurately, it serves no purpose other than robbing you of time you could be spending living, it is valueless, go to the pub, you are wasting everyones time.
It has become, through your own choice, simply an additional chore with no meaning.
Research, to have ANY value whatsoever must… MUST… must, come before the act of problem solving in the/your design process, it can run along side it during the project as you work out ideas, it can start and stop depending on the tasks you take up, and the problems you seek to solve within a project’s time frame, but more than anything… RESEARCH MUST INFORM THE OUTCOME, or if not the outcome, then the decision making, one way or another, within the project itself.
If you leave it, and do it at the end of a project simply because you have to do it, you are wasting YOUR time, your tutor’s time, and any money it cost you to print out your valueless research sheets.
Do your research as you work!
Okay… back to students not understanding that:
– b, that reading about design and art history will in fact inform their work positively as well as the broader understanding of their own work.
Their are rules. Rules that have been worked out by those that came before, sometimes over centuries, and even if you intend to be a maverick, and rebel against the norm, to push boundaries and place yourself outside of the accepted rules, you must by default, learn and understand the rules to effectively achieve this.
Breaking rules without first learning them is laziness of the most dull-witted order. If a student shows me “a white canvas” as a solution to an artistic problem, I would still want to know how they got there, to show me their mental/cerebral process, act of removal upon removal that led to this hyper-redacted/minimalist end point.
– c, that the value of reading around their subject, and subjects not directly associated with their core study will ultimately make their work more meaningful, powerful, and will inform their at times incredibly narrow view of the world.
I have in my time, teaching level 2 students, variously had to set self-inflicted erroneous opinions straight such as: “No the Vikings did not get wiped out by the Romans“; “No, Rome is not in Greece“; “I’m sorry but not having family members who buy a newspaper is no excuse for not knowing who Hitler and the Nazis where”; and possibly the most disturbing of all (though that last one really WAS a doozy); “No, the Sun does not in fact revolve around the earth“, this last rebuttal caused such a traumatic revelation in the student that she visibly steadied herself, several hundred years of scientific understanding crawling across her mortified face as she realised she was, in fact a passenger on a moving object for the first time in her entire life.
With this lack of engagement with books and the vast universe of potential learning and joy at learning within, befuddled and confused notions of History and current Geography abound; leaving us wondering what a student sees in their head when they consider the world at large and particularly the past, or how they slot the occasional events that are revealed to them into their personal cerebral timelines.
Many of these (what back then would have been thought of as General Knowledge) facts and ideas I had absorbed before moving up into high school aged 10/11.
All this through books and publications as unacademic as; The Joy of Knowledge, 3000 Questions and Answers, A Children’s History of the World, An Encyclopedia of Mythology.. all birthday or Christmas gifts, mostly from my parents who by the time I was ten years old, may well have had less books in the house collectively than I had amassed in my own room. But still, they encouraged me to read.
If you wish to simultaneously depress yourself and yet laugh uncontrollably, get some of your students to firstly, draw a map of the world as large as they can on the whiteboard, then add the names of the countries they know and those you shout out… for bonus fun, get them to plot various historical or socially significant world events on top of this.
I’ve often tried to explain to students how engaging with these additional pieces of knowledge and developing a wider understanding of the world, not through rumour or social media or internet forum gossip, can add a wash of colour to your everyday life.
A little science, a little history and a rudimentary understanding of geography and other cultures can go a very long way.
Having developed a love of learning, facts don’t remain simplistic, isolated and unrelated objects or orphaned packets of information, they become tools for prying at the shutters nailed over the world and its hidden meanings; a language that can be read on any given street.
An intrinsic self-built Wikitude if you will, that adds colour and layers of information (and questions, lots of questions) over the grey, flat, familiar streets you walk down every day.
7 – Lastly, if not quite finally …but of course, completely understandably, occasionally, it can be simply the age of the students.
F.E. students in particular have a whole bunch of other, “more important” life stuff going on.
This can be the hardest barrier to bridge. The teenage brain is changing; there are parts of that brain that are hardwired to question the motives of their elders, to push boundaries and take risks, physical, and social. Something in this smart, upright ape’s mental make-up that is telling it that to make its own way it must rebel against the elders of its “oversized Merkat”-like social groups, whether parents or teachers or other authority figures and defend their own notions, opinions and values, however ill-founded they might be on occasion.
And yet in our wisdom we have chosen this as the best time for these at once, brilliant, tumultuous, irreverent, vulnerable, self-critical, protean, raging, naive, angst-ridden, rapid adapters to settle down and study.
So, how do we make the things we wish them to understand accessible? How do we show them that we don’t wish to sell them the things the world says is important, but instead to coax their own application of value to things other than themselves (i.e. their immediate needs and desires) and the things that are insidiously targeted at them for profit.
How do we make this process of “seeing and appreciating value” appear less…
And in my case, is there a way to steer them toward reading, research and critical evaluation as part design methodology…?
A “gateway” we can usher them through…?
…“concentrated attention” quote from Franck found via from The Enactive Evolution of the Practitioner – Patricia Cain