The way things develop in the classroom is sometimes painfully slow, but with patience there can be good results in the end. There is an inevitability to this, with just one or two hours a week progress is never going to race along as fast as you might like.
Looking back on a couple of my posts from the past months it is easy see this slow process of development. Back in the autumn I visited a fashion exhibition at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague that focused the clothing of the nineteenth century. This was enough to prompt me to set about rewriting an assignment that I planned to make use of during the winter. Last month I wrote about the pupils response to this assignment in my Sir….were you a punk and Gender roles in the classroom posts.
Now, nearly six months after starting to develop the lesson material we have reached the end of the process.
A variety of assignments have been completed by the pupils, and have been marked. The lesson material has included research elements, written reflection/opinion forming parts and practical assignments. As the designer of the lessons it has been interesting to see how pupils have responded. Overall I’m not unhappy. However, one thing is hugely clear to me, when the pupils get down to the practical assignments their enjoyment and engagement rises. Sit them down at a computer and ask them to answer questions on what they like or dislike about a particular piece of architecture or fashion design and it can be so hard to get them to tune in and get started. Ask them to produce a three dimensional architectural design or a fantastic fashion creation I almost feel I can go and sit in the staff room and leave them to it.
This observation raises for me three main questions.
- Why is it that practical work can engage teenagers so effectively?
- How well are they learning about issues of content during this practical process?
- Why do so few pupils choose against pursuing practically orientated subjects at school in their later years, especially if they are seen as being academically talented?
I think the third point is a very interesting discussion, but it shall remain for a blog post on another day, but what about those first two points?
Why does practical work engage pupils well?
Practical work in the context of the secondary school is very much the exception to the rule. Pupils spend the largest part of each school day listening to teachers, completing written assignments, confronted by texts in either digital or book form. Given this situation, it is perhaps not surprising that they enjoy practical work purely as a break in the monotony of the regular pattern. But I think there is more at hand here than just a change in the normal passage of things. A practical assignment, certainly in an art context, can contain a huge variety of facets that challenge pupils in a great diversity of ways. Added to this, often in practical work there is a multitude of possibilities for successful completion, or put another way, no one correct answer. That offers a sort of freedom and confronts the pupils with a variety of choices that they must make. It is didactically good to challenge them and offer them diversity in the way they must set about carrying it out a task.
Add to this the other challenges that practical work offers. Different materials, self-discovery, spatial awareness, dexterity in hand eye coordination and creativity. So much more is suddenly going on, it is little wonder that this can feel refreshingly different in the course of the school day.
The ‘otherness’ of these challenges has a further engaging element, that being the magical aspect of transformation that much art has. You begin with base elements, a pencil and a piece of paper or a piece of clay for example, during the course of an activity these undergo an almost magical alchemy as they are given new form. Observe the wonder in children as they observe what others have achieved with the same materials or with a different approach to the same assignment.
How well are they learning about issues of content during this process?
The question of what is being picked up by pupils in a practically driven session is sometimes a little tricky to measure. But there can be little doubt that ‘doing’ for oneself reinforces the learning process. My biology department colleagues value their practical sessions for the way that carrying out certain processes allows pupils to see and experience a theme in a more interactive and hands on way. It cements the theory into place.
In the art department the hands on activity often is the central content of the lesson. It gives pupils the chance to express what they have learned and develop their study of a certain area or theme. My recent work on architecture and fashion are a good examples of this.
You can talk about how an architect works with volumes of space in their work, or how a fashion designer blends the modern and influences from the past. You can ask pupils to look and reflect on the work of others to try and grasp these approaches. But to can also set a practical assignment that forces them to consider it for themselves and be confronted with similar problems. In doing this the learners gain a better grasp of how other artists and designers have faced up to these challenges.
But perhaps most importantly of all it confronts the learner with the role of creativity. Much in education, certainly at secondary school level, is about achieving a sort of functional proof of understanding. It might be accurate reproduction of material in an exam or showing correct application of systems or theories. The art department offers learners the chance to start to learn the importance of artistic and creative flair and choosing their own route. Taking the world we live in beyond simply functionality into an environment where beauty, originality and the element of surprise are valued.