Digitalization – finding the right fit

Forcing digitalization into education can be a painful affair. Some people might say ‘yes, that’s what they’re trying to do to the education situation that I work in!’  But that would be to misunderstand what I mean by forcing digitalization. I am absolutely for the use of digital technologies in education. What I mean though is that the use of computers, laptops, tablets and indeed phones have a place, of that I’m sure, but exactly what that place is may take time to find.

The school I teach at took a decision a few years ago to move to a form of computer aided education where every pupil works with their own iPad. I’ve been teaching art lessons with the possible digital dimensions that this offers for two and a half years now. Despite being one of the most progressive minded in the school when it comes to the iPad, I would also say that I am still finding my way with the device and uncovering the possibilities. It’s a fascinating process for me, and I think for my pupils.  Searching out for the opportunities where it offers extensions to a project, or perhaps simply something new and previously unconsidered.

A few of these curriculum enrichment situations have been exactly what I have been experiencing in the classroom this week and observing in the pupils results.

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Last year I worked for the first time on a children’s book design project with the fourteen to fifteen year olds that I teach. In short, the pupils write and make an illustrated story book in which an artwork that they have previously researched plays a starring role.

Last year, each group of three produced and entirely handmade book. Illustrations were made, text was added either by writing it out by hand or printing it out on the computer and collaging it on to the illustrated pages. The results were satisfactory and in some cases good, but the problem we encountered in integrating the text was a bit of a puzzle. The classes worked well, but without the luxury of having the iPad to combine the language element with the illustrations.

This year though the situation is different and it is fascinating to watch. Groups are sharing tasks, stories are being written, handmade illustrations are being produced using the traditional materials, the artworks are being photographed, digitally enhanced where necessary before being inserted into page layouts and finally the text from the story is then laid on top.

I’m not quite finished with the assignment yet, but I’ve seen enough already to know that this is an example of digitalization extending a project into new areas. Groups are working genuinely as groups, sharing tasks and discussing what they are doing and working with a high level of engagement to produce and end product.  What was a good project has become an excellent one through a well-fitting digital extra element.

For those who are interested, the app we are using for the layout is the excellent Design Pad By Quark.

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Average???

Pupils sometimes say things in class that prompt a reaction in me. It might be instantaneous, a sort of verbal ping pong if you like. It might leave me pondering the pupil opinion in the train on the way home, or it might even cause me to write something, as in this case.

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The pupil concerned was a boy in one of my third year classes (ages 14-15).  Let us call the pupil Jack. Jack said something that didn’t so much make me angry as unsettled when he expressed an opinion that is certainly shared by many of his peers I suspect, but in Jack’s case it was just so up front, it confronted me. I reacted by writing the following text on the train on the way home, initially with the full intention of mailing it to the whole class just to get it off my chest. In the end I didn’t preferring my own brand of ‘slow burn’ solution of classroom persuasion and enthusiasm. It does however make quite a good blog post though.

The written reaction I wrote to Jack’s provocation goes like this:

I’m not picking on you Jack, but your comment about producing work of ‘average’ quality being OK has set me thinking on my way home today….thanks for that! Let me share a few of my thoughts with you all.

I tried to make clear to you this afternoon that I didn’t see ‘average’ effort being quite enough in my lessons. Let me enlarge on this….

Imagine at the start of the school year, your form teacher is telling you your new timetable and who your new teachers are going to be.  Do you want average teachers, or would you rather have all the best ones all week?

On a Saturday morning would you rather play in a football or hockey team of players who just gave ‘average’ effort? Or would you rather play in a team of players who are trying to do their best?

Your mum or dad need their car fixed, do they want an ‘average’ mechanic who does just enough to get the car on the road again, or would they rather have one who understands fully what they are doing and can carry out the work to the highest standard?

Would you be happy with a dentist doing work of an ‘average’ quality on your teeth? Personally I’d like to have one you knows exactly what they are doing and works to the highest standards!

I guess I also like to work with others who are trying to produce their best work. That goes for my colleagues, but also for the pupils I work with. I see myself as being part of a team with my colleagues, but also as part of a team with you….dear pupils 😉

I don’t give you a great deal to do outside of my lesson time, but what I do expect/require is a focused and ambitious attitude in the lessons. This is equally true for pupils with enormous creative talent and for those who find my subject, let’s say, more challenging!

Jack’s initial point of being average might often seem enough on the short term (getting you through into the next school year). But increasingly showing you can do more and shine in what you are doing is going to become important.

I could have ranted on a lot further, but it’s a problem that most of those who work in education will recognize to a lesser or greater degree. In the Netherlands we call it the ‘sixes culture’. Scoring five out of ten is a fail, scoring a six isn’t, although it is only marginally better. But when you can pass with a six, why bother going for an eight?

Much has been written and discussed about this problem. It does seem to be a problem that particularly afflicts boys, but by no means all boys.  The peer group does often to be playing a significant part. Sometimes it almost reminds me of the middle distance (1500m to 5000m) athletics races that my son runs.

When he’s trying to run a personal record in say a 1500 metre race it is all too important that he finds himself in with an appropriate group of athletes. Obviously the abilities in the group have to be reasonably well matched, competition is important in bringing out the best performances. Yet a too evenly matched field, particularly in a championship race where being the first over the line is everything can throw up a bizarrely slow race as everyone spends all their time watching what others are doing, the whole field clumps together and nobody seems willing to take the race on and show how fast they can run.

I understand fully why this happens on the athletics track, but it does kind of remind me about some behaviour that I sometimes see in the classroom, a behaviour that I remember experiencing myself and seems, as I said earlier, particularly to afflict boys.

Ambition to achieve well can be a strangely unpredictable measure in teenagers. It can run hot and cold. Working in the art room I certainly observe this. Triggering interest and engagement is the initial challenge, but sustaining this into often quite extended practical assignments is still more important, and that is what I will be working on with Jack.

Stating the obvious – language as a tool of communication

Yes it might sound rather too obvious to write about, but often language isn’t quite as hard and definite as we might think.  How often have you left a business meeting or a discussion with friends or family, only later to wonder whether you have interpreted what was said correctly or encountered a creeping feeling that you, or they, have been misunderstood?

It’s just this kind of area that, my Finnish colleague, Pasi Kirkkopelto, and I are pitching into with the photographic project we are running between our art classes in Finland and the Netherlands.

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Photograph by Suzanne Jongmans

A couple of weeks ago I had my fourth year classes (aged 14-15) write short 200-250 word descriptions of an image from a set of photographic portraits made my Dutch photographers.  My pupils approached it in a quite nonchalant way, of course they could describe a portrait in such a short text. Even after completing the task they were quite confident of the quality of the description that they had produced. To them, working in small groups as they were, they had the feeling that they had produced a ‘bullet-proof’ description. They’d covered everything, it was clear, they had considered everything. I’m guessing that in Finland there was a similar feeling, maybe the Scandinavian counterparts were slightly less confident with their use of English than my bilingual Dutch pupils, but I suspect there was a comparable feeling of having covered all the necessary detail.

We subsequently swapped the descriptive texts over, without passing on the actual photographs to the pupils. The task that followed was then to produce a photograph of their own that was based on the text.  A direct copy was never likely to be the result, our aim and hope as teachers, was for a set of technically well made photographs, that had an interesting and engaging relationship with the original source image.

In this situation, the use of language is very much as a filter. In 250 words, a certain amount of information can be passed, but a very long way from the text covering every last detail. With the new descriptions in their hands my pupils soon started to discover for themselves the limitations of language and how it can fail to be an accurate and precise tool of communication.

Before they even picked up a camera for themselves I had them work on a simple composition sketch of the photograph to work out for themselves how the various elements fitted together. In no time there were puzzled faces, not because the English was poor, it was just that their interpretation of the text just didn’t quite seem to add up. I haven’t spoken to Pasi in Finland about his experiences with my pupils’ descriptions yet, but my guess is that he’ll have encountered comparable puzzles.

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For our art project this is an interesting way of diverting away from just making a reconstruction of an existing photograph. But there is also perhaps a more serious and important language issue at a stake here. Language is not as concrete as we might like it to be. Misunderstandings and misinterpretations continually interrupt and effect everyday life. Problems can of course arise when language is used by someone who does not yet have a full mastery of it. But equally difficult is when someone’s use of language is overly (and maybe unnecessarily complex) leading to problems of interpretation for others.  I read an article about just this point recently highlighting the problems of over complexity among native speakers of English in a university setting.

Native Speakers….always the right choice?

The message seems to be, keep it clear, keep it concise. But I would also say, in terms of expressive and descriptive content, overly basic use of language comes with its own set of risks!

Avoiding a cultural backwards step

A few weeks ago I posted about the British government’s plan to scrap Art History as an a-level exam subject for eighteen year olds:

Culturally stepping backwards

I would like to claim that my post made all the difference to the debate. But the truth of course is that the likes of Simon Schama and Anish Kapoor weighing with their hefty opinions has led to a rethink. Surprising? Well yes, in the world we seem to be living in of intellectual dumbing down. But good news non-the-less for the British cultural climate.

Art history a-level saved

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