“…Boring!” – a reflection on Art School teaching and learning.

“All claims of education notwithstanding, the pupil will accept only that which his mind craves.”

Emma Goldman

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…

…well, Boring?

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

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~ by hesir on February 21, 2012.

13 Responses to ““…Boring!” – a reflection on Art School teaching and learning.”

  1. That’s a great post Gareth. Really interesting to read and thought-provoking.

    Linked in to point 5, the fear of failure, I would also suggest there is a strong trend, especially propogated by the media, toward the viewpoint it is cool or more socially acceptable to mock, disparage or negatively view others and things they produce, rather than positively criticise or praise. I would certainly point to a lot of television programmes taking this approach, especially reality television, for example Come Dine With Me, and (unfortunately?) television is a very strong influence on adolescents. In fact, I would suggest that in a significant proportion of children it has more impact in shaping them than their parents. Having said that, I don’t mean that television is the only culprit and an evil that if removed would solve everything.

    I also love learning, yet often find I have to motivate myself to start doing it, by prompting myself that I have to do it. As soon as I start, I enjoy it and wonder why I sometimes have difficulty in making time for it, yet despite feeling this each time, the knowledge doesn’t protect me from the same responses in future. I find the same with exercise, I love it as soon as I start and I know this beforehand, but sometimes it’s still difficult to start. I don’t know whether this is a product of developing a viewpoint that these things are a chore earlier in my life, but it is something I’ve personally managed to reduce a lot to increase my motivation. Extrapolating from that, I suppose there are similar feelings that students have built up from their experiences in life and it’s very hard for them to even recognise their natural response to the subjects, let alone counteract it.

    Also,. I completely agree about the age thing. I certainly didn’t do any of my best studying in my teens and early 20s, due to having so much to learn about the person I am during those years. I’m not sure what the solution to that in terms of the education system is though. One thing that would be positive to draw out of it would be a culture of learning throughout life, rather than a focus on specific learning ages.

    • Hi Will, thanks for going into such depth with your response…

      Sorry for my late reply.

      I know what you mean about that inertial problem of starting something, particularly starting something new, into which the fear of failure can become entwined.

      I have similar feelings (usually relating to formal paperwork, and anxiety over forms and official paperwork etc, laughs). It’s a tough nut to crack, especially with students who are, in spite of their hardwired “rebellious” attitudes are quite often a less than progressive and peer-stilted demographic.

      I was particularly encouraged by you closing comment though about “One thing that would be positive to draw out of it would be a culture of learning throughout life, rather than a focus on specific learning ages.” – which I guess, as educators, is at the core of what we should be catalysing…

      Thanks again for sharing your thoughts here

  2. dammit, hesir.

    Here you have presented a clear description of the state of the problem, but ended with a question, not a conclusion. This means I will be distracted throughout the day as I attempt to both answer the riddle and teach my teenagers these very same things.

    • Thanks Abraham… I guess the whole point of me writing was to vent some of my own questions about my position on the subject… laughs.

  3. Hi Gareth, I cant argue with this post at all. I think we fail our young people simply because many are not HE/FE material but with no real alternatives in the jobs market the often end up in further education by default. I believe many will never make the grade or indeed even jump the first hurdle.

    We must discuss this over a pint sometime 🙂

    Cheers Neil

    • It’s a sad truth, but no different from when we were growing up, with the exception that we weren’t told we had a right to qualify in anything.

      I never once thought whilst growing up I would go on to study a degree, it was a subject never raised in my home (much like driving – neither of my parents had gone into higher education much as neither had had the means to learn to drive or afford a car). I was always terrified once on my degree of failing.

      Someone in authority somewhere* had given me money to study, a benevolence that I felt totally beholden to and pictured in my head, anthropomorphosising this gift of monies as Harry Seacombe in his role from Oliver as Mr Bumble, my stern benefactor, allowing me to go to study on the condition I did just that.

      I had grown up on a housing estate at the back of a small seaside town, we didn’t borrow money, it was an unheard of thing to be beholden in this way; an alien concept, and kind of frightening.

      Failure was not an option.

      But, without the (excellent, and for the most part non-elitist) grant system I would not have gone to college and done the things I have done or led the life I have led.

      This “means tested”, meritocratic method of bringing students from a wide range of backgrounds into higher education is undermined now as successive governments try to run education at a profit, while using the FE and HE systems as nothing more than a method of disguising statistics and masking their inability to control or discuss solutions for rising unemployment figures in our youth.

      It devalues the education system, as does the constant grading and tick-box monitoring of results of institutions, regardless of the money spent on marketing and press coverage to the contrary.

      *I was one of the last years to be given a grant by my local authority…

  4. Good post,
    Nothing to disagree with, but what do we do now?

    We are handed students who are also used to being pampered; by Schools staff terrified of league tables, by parents uncaring disinterest in their children’s development who think buying stuff is all that constitutes a parents responsibility and that education is only a teachers job.

    I am often amazed by these spoiled children of all classes who have no idea of any values apart from price.

    Anything difficult to do (like holding a pencil, seriously! holding a pencil! not even drawing with it!!).

    You can’t really blame them, they’ve had a lifetime of tests and meaningless tick box education, never given time to finish work before moving on to the next subject because next week a new system will come along. So they live in a distracted bubble, nothing is important or relevant to them. They have a warped sense of perspective and entitlement, without any justification or evidence. They are totally without responsibility for their actions. I noticed that as Teachers we have more legal obligations to a child’s welfare than the parents. Even phoning them in the morning to wake them up so they come in and diet is a part of FE course tutorials! Since when did we take over the responsibilities of parents?

    Then there’s the old chestnut of Knowledge, now seen as the lowest form of learning, instead of the foundation of all learning. Well there’s always the internet.

    All the time students are being treated as Educational Units, who are all identical, will all succeed (or else! well for us it’s or else, for them it’s a bit ‘whatever’).

    There is a government survey that suggested children at 5 are no more intelligent now (despite all the education they receive) than they were in the 1950’s. Now this proves the stupidity of the report writers and the education planners and academics whose ideas on education are to do with the spherical chicken world of statistical data.

    Anyway..what do we do already, or should be doing?

    1. Make it interesting? Well some things are boring, can’t be helped. Showing a practical use for the boring, in context, sometimes helps.
    2. Mark and assess them fairly, with feedback on how to improve. Otherwise if we pander to them (and our institutions), the real world is going to come as such a smack in the mouth to them.
    3. Try our best, know that even then some will fail and failure is not bad, sometimes we fail because we are doing the wrong thing at the wrong time. There is always time and room for improvement.
    4. FE and HE credits, go out there into the real world, come back when you’re ready to study. Or even start the FE/HE calender in January, so you get 5 months thinking time. Other initiatives, training, apprenticeships.
    5. One thing I’m not good at, but is essential, strict discipline. Really, most of these students actually request it, they know they can get away with murder, in some cases literally, with no responsibility regarding their own actions.

    Going to add this one and face the angry mobs;

    6. ALL PARENTS to really consider if they like, can spend time with ,care for or want children, if you’re not bothered, don’t have the time or care about them, PLEASE don’t have any and do us all a massive favour.
    Education, interests, engagment, understanding, knowledge, development, responsibility, interaction with others. These ALL begin at home, with the parent/s. They have nothing to do with teachers or schools or even books, that comes later.
    Oh, and sometimes kids fail, or take the wrong path. It may be their own choice or just circumstances, as teachers we try and help them, show some responsibility and help us as well.

    That is all..now to rewrite a scheme of work, some assignments and consider how much work we really do that’s unpaid..if we all claim it back we could bankrupt the U.K. again.

    • …point 6 is a biggie for me, definitely.

      Thanks for taking the time to feedback Andrew.

      I know you’ve considered all this as much as myself.

  5. Gareth, you can type!.. Having had time to only read some of this post…

    Self actualization is a key word here.. And that the students recognize the very meaning and usefulness of it in such austere times?.. As in, the dream jobs that are out there are oft the ones that we ‘create for ourselves’… ?

    The removal of the boundaries/ boxes is what I am interested in. That students may do well not to wait around for clearly defined opportunities, moreover, make such opportunities out of invention beyond the norms.. use a little NLP in their daily practices , re-wire from the roots of the creative talk that they walk… Design is also a state of mind, creativity is how well we action the potentials therein.. ?

    Just a brief thought

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