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.

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Larger than the sum of the parts….in the classroom

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Most of the classes that I teach are relatively large. Mostly they are between twenty five and thirty pupils, more often than not, closer to the thirty.  That presents plenty of problems at times, mostly relating to the basic practicalities of working with large groups and messy materials or difficult to use tools. Also, simply getting around a class of thirty a offering some individual guidance in a lesson of sixty minutes is challenging to say the least.

There are however also advantages, and as far as I’m concerned, working on large scale group works are one of the them. There are so many good reasons for doing it once in a while with any class or group of people you might be working with. Consider the following points:

  • The strength of building on the group identity, a team working together as a number of ‘social’ advantages
  • The lower achievers share a chance to participate and have a place in a greater whole, my experience is that this works particularly well
  • Pupils like to help and support each other for the benefit of the group work
  • Large artworks do simply have a ‘wow’ factor. In the first instance that can be fantastic in the classroom as pupils realize that something a bit special is coming together, there can be a quite tangible buzz of success. Outside of the classroom larger works do tend to put the activities of the art department very much in public view, and that can only be a good thing!
  • It can also have the positive spin off that the more able pupils realize for themselves that they too might actually be able to try some more ambitious scale work.

Distorted faces group projects

Group work certainly isn’t something to use very week, but it does offer some great possibilities. I once watched a Tim Rollins workshop with some art students, it was one of the key moments that moved me towards working in art education and at the same time was a fantastic demonstration of what can be achieved in group work in the arts.

The film below is pretty old but for any one interested in art or education it is certainly an interesting watch.

Tim Rollins and K.O.S.