Cooperative and collaborative learning – lessons from the artroom

Arguing, discussing, instructing, squabbling…..call it what you will, it is all communication.  And communication is a crucial and live part of any classroom and in particular the bilingual classroom.  Here we are encouraging the pupils to practice and use the second language (English in my case) as they participate in my art lessons.

A well-constructed group/collaborative project forces communication, discussion, and consideration with others.  I often find myself saying to the Dutch teenagers I teach how much I love when I hear them arguing in English, it underlines how far that they have come in their mastery of a new language.

A well-constructed collaborative project may have relatively modest artistic aims but could have a very significant goal in the use of clear and concise communication within the group.

A class reworking of Guernica using collage of war related images and text

Such projects are a work-form that I have made a lot of use of over the years, I found myself hanging one up on the walls in school only last week.  But beyond the communication issue there are several other educationally sound reasons to be making use of such projects.

  • The result is ‘greater than the sum of the parts’ argument and a chance to produce something big with a wow effect!

There are many reasons why in art lessons we often find ourselves working on a relatively small scale.  Storage limitations, costs of materials, time pressures, large classes, the necessity for pupils being able to take work home with them, they all play a part.  A group project allows the pupils to see something different.  A large-scale project spreads across the classroom floor at the end of each lesson, slowly taking form and seeing how their own section of it contributes to the big visual statement that is developing.

  • It seems to force the underperformed in the group to up their game

Every class has them, the pupils who are content to do just enough in their work to gain a (just) sufficient grade.  It continues to surprise me how working within a group project, where their contribution is visually so obvious, the result is often that these very pupils feel the pressure to up their game.  There is, it seems, nowhere to hide, rather different perhaps than with a written group project. 

  • It shows pupils that often very complex and ambitious work is possible if it is broken down into smaller parts…..rather than feeling overwhelmed by the challenges ahead

This is perhaps most a benefit to those who are the more interested in art and want to produce the best possible results in their own visual work.  They suddenly realize that given time, and perhaps a slightly more systemic approach than they might usually use, could lead them too towards making more impressive and resolved individual work.

Tim Rollins and KOS

And on a personal note, it allows me to borrow from an important art educational influence, one who is responsible in part for me making the step into working with young people, Tim Rollins and KOS.

While I was still studying for my fine art degree, I watched a documentary about Tim Rollins and the Kids of Survival.  At the time I didn’t really have any plans to enter education, but the film gave me a glance into what might be possible.  I found it fascinating and inspiring.

About a decade later I was lucky enough, while doing my teacher training course in Utrecht, to observe a guest workshop given by Rollins to other students.  If there was ever anyone able to demonstrate the power of the group project it is Rollins, and a fantastic example of the “result is greater than the sum of the parts” argument I mentioned earlier.  Fantastic to see, and for a teacher in bilingual education, all the more inspiring for the way in which language, text and literature found its way into the work.

Tim Rollins and KOS on Artsy

Can’t see the trees for the drawings – the start of the school year

All the work was actually done at the end of the previous school year.  In fact, a significant part was put in place during the tail end of the last lockdown that we had in schools here in the Netherlands back in the spring as this previous post documents:

Preparatory tree project work

But once back in school, with whole classes back together, what started as a walk in the countryside and photographic assignment, could take on a more ambitious drawing and painting character.

The idea was relatively simple. I wanted, after months of disruption and children following my lessons on their laptops and iPads at home to do a fairly loose group project that would deliver a result that was significantly bigger than the individual parts.  It was also obliquely connected to the Surrealist’s Exquisite Corpse drawing game where elements of drawing connect vertically without one part actually being made with the intention that it should seamlessly connect.

Our ‘corpses’ weren’t to me figures, but trees. Linked together by a vertical trunk that ran through the drawing.  The pupils had spent time outside looking at trees and photographing them.  We had made small digital collages connecting various sections of diverse trees into an arrangement that hinted at where we were going.

But still, the greatest challenge was to get the pupils (14-15 years old) to loosen up a bit and dare to start on the relatively large-scale drawings I was asking them to make.  To help reach the point where we got quite high contrast drawings there was really only one material to use and that was charcoal.

After a few nervous minutes at the beginning the class soon got into it.  I kept hammering on about daring to draw and being a bit aggressive in their mark-making.  Also, I kept again and again repeating to make sure that they got different scales of mark in the drawings, from the thick and lumpy trunks to the lace-like finest twigs and everything in-between.  We used the photographs made earlier as a reference point to make sure that nobody slipped into the ways of drawing trees that they may have used when they were at primary school.

Charcoal delivers fast results, and it was very quickly clear that the drawings that were being made have qualities that were going to mean that my hopes to make a larger group display of them was likely to be a possibility. 

The speed of the drawing process meant that in subsequent lessons we moved onto similar work, but this time drawn out in paint.  The pupils were working with a freedom that I rarely see, not just from the ‘artists’ of the class, but pretty much right across the room.

The resulting work now hangs in the hall at the main entrance to the school, backlit from the light outside and against a backdrop of real trees.

2020 – Looking back on some creative online group projects

I coach a group of enthusiastic part-time painters.  We have been meeting up one evening a week for years, except of course in 2020.  In mid-March this year our painting sessions, like so many other things came to an abrupt halt.  We were temporarily able to restart for a period of four weeks in the autumn, before once again having to stop again.

I’ve done what has been possible to keep the group active (at least for those who wish to carry on at home), and the group themselves have retained contact via our app group, sharing what they are up to in the area of creativity and artistic interests.  It has, all-in all, worked well.  The group does still feel like a group and the stream of creative output certainly hasn’t dried up. 

In terms of “going online”, like my other area of work in mainstream education, it hasn’t been quite the same.  The commitment to an online lesson at a specific time didn’t feel like the way to go.  Instead, what seems to have worked best has been a series of group paintings/projects.  Anyone who wanted to, could easily contribute, and I worked on grouping things together.  Some have been very loose, and in a way, not much more than a collection of paintings and drawings around a theme, while others have been quite structured in their approach.

Looking back complete 2020 set, it is surprising just how productive the group has been, and how well this loose online approach has worked.  We are all of course hoping for better things in 2021, but as a record of 2020 it certainly shouldn’t be a year best forgotten by the group as the results below show.

A simple online group visual art project

Since the start of the Covid 19 induced lockdowns around the world I have seen quite a few musical and choir related projects come by on my Facebook feed.  Groups of musicians or singers all contributing their bit to the carefully mixed and arranged compositions that those with the digital know how have been able to mix and balance into impressive unity despite the geographical spread of the participants.  A classic case of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.

I too work with groups of creative enthusiasts, both children and adults and these musically combined performances set me thinking about trying something similar in my field of the visual arts.  The group of adults that I support with assignments and ideas seemed to be the most obvious place to give my own fairly modest ideas a try.

They are a very social group of people who miss their chance to paint and share life once a week.  The club’s app group has been very active during the lockdown and the project I had in mind would work well using that platform.

The initial idea was quite simple, using the reference point of a seventeenth century Dutch still life we would try and compose our own still life with everyone contributing something that could be digitally added to the group composition. The only guidelines I gave were that the objects could be modern or older if they wished and they had to make a simple shaded drawing using just a pencil.

The drawings started to roll in via the app group and I set about contructing an arrangement that gave them all a chance to be seen. Gradually the enthusiasm for the working together nature of our little project grew, with me posting regular progress up dates.

I’d seen enough to see another, perhaps better possibility, we could move on to a Dutch flower painting as inspiration.

Opnamedatum: 2010-11-11

This time I’d provide the vase and the rest of the group the flowers.  The drawings streamed in, again just in pencil to help with the overall unity of the image.  For the digital assemblage the flower arrangement gave more scope for adjustments and moving things round and in the end it was possible to fill the vase with a huge number of diverse flowers.

A this stage I’m not quite sure what the follow up will be. But I think there has to be one.

The power of the crowd (and small technical steps)

Many of my colleagues in school have something of a strained relationship with pupils working together in groups. It is probably also fair to say that many of the pupils themselves have an equally troubled experience with this educational approach. The main reason for this is the tendency for there to be children in almost any group who are just in there for the ride, benefitting from the efforts of others, without putting the effort in themselves.

I understand this problem and realize for many pupils and teachers that it is a thorny problem, but in the art department I have to admit to being a huge fan of group work. I certainly don’t continually pursue this route, but it is an approach that I regularly return to.

Maybe one of the biggest differences in the art department and a large-scale shared piece of work is everyone has to contribute, in a sense there is no place to hide! Failure to do your part is hugely visible and my experience is that very few pupils want to put themselves in that position.  It could be argued perhaps that working like this does put the less able pupils in a bit of a spot, the pressure is on, to perform to the level of the rest of the group.  My experience here though is that with careful teacher judgement and support even the most uncertain child gets the positive effect of having contributed to an in the end impressive whole.

But beyond that, there are several very positive reasons for my love of a group project:

  • It gives a chance to produce something really big, an artwork with a wow factor!
  • Pupils leave the project with a feeling of having played their part in producing something where the result often feels greater than the sum of the parts
  • It creates an energy and curiosity in the classroom, especially at the end of a lesson where the whole group are hungry to see the progress and how the total art is coming together
  • ‘Are our individual pieces going to be graded?’ is often a cry I hear after a while, ‘no’ I say, wondering the first time whether that would make a difference. My experience is that it certainly doesn’t, somewhat dispelling the thought that pupils only work when there is a grade in it for them.  The reward in this case clearly lies elsewhere, and not a grade that contributes to the next report.
  • Socially within the cohesion of the group involved there is undoubtedly a positive effect. On a small scale there are often discussions within the group about the connections with ‘neighbours’ in the group work.  These are often interesting to see as the contact takes an individual to all corners of the classroom group and not just their most familiar friends.  But beyond this and most importantly there is a total bond in the group, a completely shared activity to which they can all contribute, a true team performance.

With the case documented here, and its small scale individual sections, I have been given the chance to explore in a relatively controlled and defined way a small but important technical skill.  In this case it has all been about mixing colours and combining colours on the painted surface to get a more complex and interesting end result.  The twelve-year-olds with which the group was made are used to using colours direct from the pot, but a little less used to mixing colours and even less familiar with the idea of painting a single area with a multitude of different hues and shades. Certainly a very useful insight to give for future projects.

Click on the links below for related posts:

Larger than the sum of the parts

Tim Rollins and K.O.S.

A simple exercise in tonal/value work

Teaching the basics of drawing and what a simple pencil is capable of is one of the first things I like to get to grips with my first years (aged 12) at the start of the year. They are familiar with the idea of line, the setting up of an arrangement, but tonal work is often limited to shading an area in gently with a shade of grey. I want to deal with the extremes of shading, going from the whitest white to the darkest grey and everything in between that a 3B or 4B pencil can offer. I want to cover the gradations in shading and how you can achieve sensitivity in your results. Building on this I like to lead onto the modelling of form that can be achieved.

fullsizerender

fullsizerender-7There are numerous ways of doing this, from shading in boxes, drawing cylinders and imaginary balls. The ‘how to draw’ books are full of such exercises. Technically they cover the same ground, but they hardly catch a twelve year old’s imagination and leave them with a feeling of ‘wow’ as they leave the art room.

Yesterday I had the chance to cover some of this ground when I visited a neighbouring school to lead two, two hour workshops. I decided to cover these same areas with the two classes of 23 twelve year olds.

Working with a gridded up version of one of my favourite subjects, Chuck Close I was also able to bring in a little art historical context that was completely new to the pupils. After discussing his work for a while I was able to set them loose on trying to produce high contrast fragments of a large scale group drawing.

Four hours later I had a reworking of the first Close self-portrait and his image of a young looking Philip Glass and a classes full of children wanting to photograph the result to share what they had achieved as a class working together. In terms of creativity the assignment might not be the most experimental. But as an exercise in an important technical skill it does lay a basis that can be built on later.

For a more challenging variation see:

Tonal drawing and a favourite resourch