Rotterdam is more like Dubai

I do like a good blog post title. Although I actually can’t claim this one to be one of my own. It’s stolen from a page on the travel section of the BBC website. The first line of the article is “Rotterdam is like Disneyland for architecture geeks”.

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http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20171219-the-dutch-city-thats-more-like-dubai

Last month I walked round Rotterdam with a few friends. Our guide on this tour was another friend, and someone who has lived his entire life in the city and has a history and arts related background and so was able to provide plenty of contextual background to the city sights we were exploring.

The residents of Rotterdam are proud of their city, and our ‘tour guide’ was day is no exception. There is a lot to see, as the BBC article explains, the city has quite literally, risen from the ashes of the war time destruction of the 1940s. Like in other cities, many of the buildings have been given names by the locals. We saw the Swan, the Pencil, the Whistling Kettle and others.

The combinations of the new and the old is often quite breath-taking but makes the view from street level all the more interesting. I’ve not actually been to Dubai, so it’s difficult to comment on the comparison of the Dutch modern architecture capital with that particular city. Although the cold winter winds that sometimes are channelled between the architecture of Rotterdam probably do give an experience somewhat different to the climate in Dubai!

The BBC article ends:

“Rotterdam is like Disneyland for architecture geeks. But it may be even more fun for the rest of us, who don’t usually pay attention to the buildings we work, play and live in, and who’ll go home and wonder why our cities can’t be a little more like Rotterdam”.

A sentiment I can certainly relate to.

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Patience and practical assignments in education

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.

famke fashion

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?

max archtectureWhy 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.

Gender roles in the classroom

Sexual stereotyping, and a tendency to stay within the most expected of role models it would seem is alive and well in the classroom. Or at least it is amongst the fifteen and sixteen year olds that I teach.

For several weeks now I’ve been working with them on a module about architecture.  It has been largely theoretically based focussing on contemporary buildings in our locality and via the internet, around the world.  All ninety two of the pupils I teach have completed this part. To add further depth to the assignment I include practical assignment at the end of the project. This involves producing an architectural design, firstly for the interior layout of a building (done on paper) and then for the exterior (done on the computer using Google Sketchup). I’ve done this assignment a number of times and know from experience this somewhat technical challenge is not everyone’s thing. So I have started to offer an alternative assignment in the form of a fashion design assignment. An architecture/fashion choice is always going to split pupils along a bit of a boy/girl sort of axis I suppose, but this year it is particularly pronounced. In the overall group, which is probably pretty close to 46 boys and 46 girls, just one boy (well done for being up for it Daan!) has chosen to do the fashion assignment and the number of girls selecting the architecture assignment can be counted on the fingers of one hand. I can’t recall ever seeing such a uniform division of my groups.

gender

It is all pretty anecdotal evidence of sexual and cultural role models in the classroom, but does perhaps hint at greater and more significant imbalances. This particularly the case when you look at both the pupils who choose to study art and culture as an exam subject in the upper years of school, and (not insignificantly) the teachers doing the teaching in schools.

I work in an art department of eight members. It is a group of diverse ages from mid-twenties up to colleagues in their fifties. Within this group of eight, I am the only man.

I am also the national arts subject leader for bilingual education in the Netherlands. In this role I regularly chair meeting for groups of art teachers. At such meetings the female/male balance is often of the order of 80/20 at the very best. A further observation and confirmation of the ‘female heavy’ nature of the sector was made clear to me last year when we were interviewing for a new department member. As I sorted through the pile of application letters and CVs I was desperately hoping that after thirteen years working in an art department of only women I might actually be able to turn up a male colleague at last. But there simply weren’t any such candidates to be found.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with female colleagues, I enjoy working with them. Where my problem lies is what image this sort of situation presents to the pupils. It cannot be unconnected with the classroom observations that I started with. We really seem to have our work cut out in trying to persuading teenage boys in particular that creativity and artistic flair is something they could aspire to wanting to be successful in. It’s a bit of a paradox really, within school male artistic role models are at something of a premium, outside of school in the art, music, film, photography, theatre, design and architectural worlds there is an abundance. You could even argue that the situation somehow reverses itself, a problem that has often enough been addressed by women artists in the past.

School Cultural Newsletter December 2014

It is the start of a new month and time again to send out a cultural newsletter to my pupils and colleagues at school in the aim of keeping the cultural profile and interest levels as high as possible.  Sharing it with the online world is of course good also to do.

cult.nes.dec 2014

To read the full version click on the link below:

dec 2014(blog vers.)

If anyone is interested in making use of the idea in their own educational environment I would be only too happy to share my material and format with them, don’t hesitate to get in touch if you would like to.