Priceless moments in education – the Jean Paul Gaultier dress

Once in a while something in the classroom happens that is just priceless. It might be the timing of a joke, throwing a ball of paper over your shoulder and across the classroom straight into the bin or a truly insightful comment of a pupil. Yesterday produced such a moment…..

It concerned a fashion assignment my fourth year pupils (15-16 year olds) are working on. A number of the girls were sitting at computers doing some preparatory work by researching nineteenth century fashion and contemporary designs. I don’t have any fashion orientated training, more a passing interest that has recently been stimulated visits to a number of museum fashion exhibitions. To my pupils, I think I am very much their art teacher and one with a particular interest in painting and sculpture.

As I walked around watching the pupils trawl through hundreds of photographs on a variety of sites one of the pupils stopped me and pointed to an image of a model in a dress on the screen.

gaultier“Do you know by any chance know who designed this dress sir?” she asked.

I looked over her shoulder, I could hardly believe the coincidence, it was one of the gowns that I had seen last year in the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague last year, and better still, I did remember who’s it was!

I paused for a moment and said, “yes, that’s by Jean Paul Gaultier”, carefully saying nothing more, and definitely not referring to the source of my knowledge. A couple of searches and clicks later and the pupil concerned had double checked my identification and found it to be true.

The best bit though was when the girl sitting next to her (and a bit of a fashion expert herself) slowly turned and looked up at me and said, “and you can tell that just by looking at the dress?”

“Yes” I said and walked away. As I moved on I glanced back, the look of dumbfounded amazement on the second girl’s face was truly priceless!

They say that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, but equally, a little knowledge , used sparingly can be a truly wonderful thing. You can walk away appearing to be, if not a genius, at least a contemporary fashion expert.

Further fashion related posts:

https://petersansom.wordpress.com/2014/12/16/is-fashion-becoming-my-thing/

https://petersansom.wordpress.com/2014/12/17/fashion-and-storylines/

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.

Sir, …..were you a Punk?….and the fashion of offence

During my cultural education lessons with my fourth years (15-16 year olds) I spend a little time looking at some applied arts. And amongst these lessons what better applied art to make use of than fashion. Nice and close to the range of interests and experiences of the pupils you would think. You might also think that they would relish the idea of the more experimental and progressive work of modern designers.

I acknowledge that I don’t teach in one of the more cosmopolitan cities of Europe. I actually teach in a relatively small provincial town. But even so, I am still regularly taken aback by the conservativeness of my pupils. Are there rebels amongst them? Well, when it comes to clothing, probably not!

westwood2I watched a film with them today about Vivienne Westwood that spent a considerable part looking at the Punk related fashion she, in collaboration with Malcolm McLaren produced in the late seventies and early eighties. We saw the bondage trousers and the near pornographic t-shirts that were intended to stir things up and to shock. The film certainly caught the attention of the class, to say that the pupils were shocked, in the same way that the general public might have been shocked back in 1980, wouldn’t be true. No, they weren’t shocked, they were bemused.  They just didn’t seem to understand why someone would want to confront someone in that way through what they wear. They also wanted to know whether I had been a Punk back in the early eighties, but I had to admit to being just a shade too young for that!

I guess we are living in different times.  I can think of plenty of things that you could put on a t-shirt nowadays that would be shocking too. The perception of the world today is such that a provocative statement of offense to others might involve a risk to yourself. It would really seem that sensibilities have shifted. We are exposed to so much through modern media, but simultaneously there does seem to be a creeping restriction in freedom of expression that didn’t seem to be the case thirty years ago.

Could the rebels clothed by Westwood back in the late seventies and early eighties have a place in today’s society? What shocks and offends today is not the same as what shocked and offended then. The Punk fashion point of reference seemed to be the establishment and society that was immediately around them. The explicit content that featured on their t-shirts then would probably now result in little more than a shrug of the shoulders of passers-by.  The global village nature of the world in which we now live in means that frames of reference and potential offended audiences are spread over the entire globe.

Fashion and storylines

Having visited two fashion exhibitions in the last couple of months (which if I’m honest is quite unusual) I find myself reflecting back a little on what I have seen. What has engaged me, what has caught my attention?

The two exhibitions were one that took a look at nineteenth century fashion and linked it with a number of contemporary designers at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague and The Future of Fashion is Now at the Boijmans van Beuningen museum in Rotterdam.

den haag

In short the show in The Hague focussed on the developments and progressions through the nineteenth century, the silhouette, the fabrics, the under garments and the history and romance of the designs as the title Romantic fashions indicated. The Rotterdam exhibition had a perspective of looking ahead, exploring new materials, functions and the practicalities and impracticalities of things we might wear.

Future-of-Fashion-is-Now-3In the Boijmans show in Rotterdam there certainly were a number of examples of designs that were, in practical terms, difficult if not impossible to wear. Having mentioned this though, I can’t say that I am particularly bothered by such a detail. I am only too happy to walk through a painting exhibition without needing a function more than an aesthetic one or just intellectual stimulation, so why should clothing not also occasionally offer the same?

In this way I might say that the Future of Fashion is Now exhibition was actually closer to that areas of art and culture that I might usually engage with, yet looking back I feel that the display I saw of nineteenth century fashion actually drew my attention more. So why was this, what was it that the exhibition in The Hague had that wasn’t the case in Rotterdam?

What I am left contemplating is not only the historical perspective that the older clothes have, but also the sense of narrative. The clothes come from a period past, they connect with stories and lives that once occurred and are, to a small degree, captured in these items of clothes that have passed through time. They have a story to tell, a sort of historical authenticity. Maybe this is what I missed in Rotterdam. The clothing there was a look towards the future and so inevitably missed some historical baggage.  Maybe that as I get older I myself am more able to look back and appreciate and contextualize this more. I am able to link the nineteenth century clothing with what I know of the period through its art, form the photographs I’ve seen of distant relatives wearing similar clothing or from books that I have read.

Both exhibitions of course have their own merits, but in order to engage, appreciate and understand maybe I need a little more of a storyline (even if it is one I construct myself) to be able to find my way.

Is fashion becoming my thing?

Fashion design is not my specific area of specialization. I was trained as a painter and that remains my man focus of interest. Having said that, one of the great luxuries of my education job here in the Netherlands is that I get to teach the subject known as Culturele en kunstzinnige vorming (CKV), which roughly translates as artistic and cultural education. It is a fantastic subject that takes me and the fifteen and sixteen year olds that I teach into the broadest range of cultural disciplines such as film, theatre, dance, music, photography, architecture, applied art, design and visual arts. Over the fourteen years that I have now taught CKV it has lead me to widen my own cultural knowledge base into many new areas.

IMG_0423
It is with this process of continual self-education I travelled to The Boijmans van Beuningen museum in Rotterdam to see The Future of Fashion is Now exhibition. As I wrote earlier fashion design isn’t specifically my thing, although I have to admit to a growing interest and have just completed writing a module of lesson material for my CKV lessons that I’ll be working with after the Christmas break. The exhibition today was an opportunity to top up on ideas that I might be able to make use of in my lessons.

A particular challenge in this area is to break through the inherent conservatism in the pupils’ view of the world. So many of them in their approaches are anything but radical. IMG_0427 (1)They like what they know any they know what they like!  Forcing them to consider things outside of their normal range of experience is the challenge here. I want them to think creatively and experimentally, the idea will ultimately to produce a design idea, although I should add, not and actual item of clothing.

Partly inspired by another recent exhibition in the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague entitled Romantic Fashions my idea is set the challenge of producing a hybrid item of clothing that combines the clothes of today with elements of fashion from the nineteenth century. There are examples of designers who have done just that already, people such a, Vivian Westwood and Jan Taminiau. But in taking these frames of fashion reference I am attempting to reduce the over whelming range of references that are potentially on offer to the pupils.  They will learn a little about the cultural world of 150 years ago and they will relate it to the world that they know today.

It is at this point that the exhibition in Rotterdam today will be useful. Pupils know what to expect in the high street in 2014 generally, they might even know a little about what appears on the catwalks of Paris and Milan, but much of what was visible today was altogether more experimental and will challenge them to think further and hopefully creatively when combining the designs of the past with the sensibilities and materials on offer today.