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.

Peer Instruction, a first experiment

After writing enthusiastically last week about the presentation by Eric Mazur that I had attended in Utrecht I thought a follow up was necessary. I couldn’t possibly leave it at just an interesting and new bit to the selection of ‘activating lesson forms’ that I and every teacher walks round with. It was an idea to be used and experimented with.

Mazur is a physics professor and the example he used last week in his presentation was a real physics one, with hard and definite answer.  That was my first slight concern, would this peer instruction approach work so well in the more subjective and opinion based nature of my arts subject area? With this in mind I set about earlier in the week trying to formulate a series of questions that generate discussion in my class and initially at least not simply lead all the pupils to pick the same answer.

What I came up with was a lesson plan for my third years (14-15 year olds) that was intended to launch a series of lessons with theoretical and practical assignments all based around the central theme of war and conflict as it is presented in art and the media.

The basic approach was as follows; I would start by showing an image of conflict from the history of art and ask the pupils to consider the following question, “what is the most significant aspect of this artwork?”

They could choose one of five possible answers:

a)  To document an incident or event from history

b)  To show the dangers of war

c)  To show technical skill

d)  To make us feel sympathy for the victims of war

e)  To show the participation in war as a kind of heroic act

Using the pupils’ smartphones and the Socrative app they were able to vote for their chosen answer. Thereafter I gave three or four minutes for discussion and persuasion of each other, before allowing a second round of voting.

This process was repeated for three images, the Bayeux Tapestry, David’s painting of Napoleon and Goya’s Third of May, all three are shown here below.

war and conflict

The basic idea of the lesson was to illustrate to the pupils that both the motivation for making the artworks and what they actually show us has changed during the course of history. In the five answers they could choose from there are no definite right or wrong answers, it is all a little softer than that. However I think that it is fair to say that there are perhaps more prevalent and active answers from our 21st century perspective, and it was those that I was hoping the pupils would move towards after discussion.

I was generally relatively satisfied about the way the lesson proceeded, the technology worked well in recording the voting and I really only had to add extra instruction to one small group who seemed to think that winning a discussion was simply about shouting “answer c is the best answer”, “no, answer d is the best answer”!

The results

The three ‘dominant’ answers I was hoping beforehand to see coming out were the following:

Bayeux tapestry – answer (a) to document an event or incident from history

David’s Napoleon – answer (e) to show the participation in war as a kind of heroic act

Goya’s 3rd May – answer (d) to make us feel sympathy for the victims of war

As I said earlier I see these as the ‘dominant’ answers, not the only possible answers, but nonetheless I was extremely curious as the conclusions my class would come to.  As it turned out, after the first vote (with absolutely no discussion beforehand), all three of my dominant answers were the most selected, although it should be said that for the Bayeux tapestry there were three answers that all gained a similar number of votes.

The results of the initial vote were kept secret, and a second vote was conducted after the pupils had discussed amongst themselves their own answers (and without me, the teacher, giving any further input).

Mazur’s theory is that the pupils with the strongest insight, understanding and backup ideas to support the right or dominant choice will win out in the discussion phase and lead to an increased support for the best answer. What did I see?  Well I saw exactly that, a strengthening of the support for the perspectives I outlined above. The instruction the pupils had given one another had focussed attention and paved the way towards a discussion around the differences in motivation for making artworks about conflict through the centuries, but also artistic developments and our emotional involvement with what is shown.  Mazur’s other point, and that is the most important one, is that pupils will be more engaged in learning if they are being challenged to think about their own position in relation to material, rather than simply ‘receiving’ material in lecture form.

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.

A museum in place of the last lesson of the week

Friday afternoon and what better way to end the week than a quick trip with sixteen of my fourth years (15-16 year olds) to the local museum to see a little art first hand. The town where I work, Oss in the south of the Netherlands, is not that big, but it is lucky to have an excellent small museum, the Jan Cunen museum to give it it’s full name. At least is lucky to still have one for the time being, as the council are busy with plans that is likely to end with the museum being a significantly less interesting and educational place to visit. But for now though on this sunny Friday afternoon I have been able to visit a fantastic exhibition of photographs by the Dutch photographer Gerco de Ruijter. De Ruijter is a landscape photographer although not really in the usual sense. First of all most of his work is made using a camera that is attached to a kite that is being flown above his subject. We are of course more than a little used to the idea of viewing the world from above, be that from a plane or by using Google Earth. What makes the work more interesting is the choice of the specific sorts of landscapes he chooses. They are most often landscapes where the effects of man are quite evident and have resulted in an exposure of geometric quality in the composition of the photographs. The results are often stunningly close to the appearance to certain kinds of abstract geometric painting, a fact that the photographer is more than happy to acknowledge.

blog Gerco de Ruijter Untitled 2009 Dubai  (l. de Ruijter, r. Mangold)blog imageshandler  (l. de Ruijter, r.Marden)

It’s interesting to watch the pupils respond to the work. They see the abstract qualities in the design, a circle carefully positioned in a square in a fashion that to me is clearly reminiscent to the paintings of Robert Mangold, but in de Ruijter’s case a roundabout framed sharply be the edges of the photograph. Or perhaps it’s Brice Marden, Sean Scully or Agnes Martin that comes to mind when seeing a composition of rectangular geometry. Such references are of course lost on my fifteen year olds (although it will certainly be a subject in a forthcoming lesson). However they do often get to an appreciation of the abstract qualities via a different route. The photographs offer a high level of fine detail and you find yourself drawn into looking ever closer in an effort to decipher exactly what it is that you are seeing.  That might be irrigation systems in the U.S., a frozen lake that has been ice skated over or countless rows of small trees or saplings in a plant nursery. The pupils found themselves searching and enquiring as to what each photograph was showing. Once it became clear what exactly they were looking at, the next question was, ‘how do these small details come to combine to form such a pattern or design?’ and one that dominates the photographic composition. This in turn leads to a greater appreciation of the order (imposed or not) that we encounter in the world around us. It was a short but very good visit, the pupils left having had a break from regular lessons, but they also left with a new enthusiasm for a photographic form of art that probably quite surprised them.  I head for home with the feeling that eyes have been culturally opened just that little bit more.

Three films, three classes and three reactions

My art and cultural education course that I teach to my groups of 15 and 16 year olds normally begins with a module about film and filmmaking.  This year has been no different. Film as a cultural experience is close to the world of the teenagers and easily accessible to them. With three large groups to teach and a total of 90 one thousand word essays to mark at the end, I chose, for my own sanity to use three different films. This way I would at least have some variety in the resulting report reading.

I like to select films that are just outside the pupils own film going experience and ones that challenge the to consider certain choices made by the film makers concerned.

The first class are now half way through watching the Schulman brothers’ and Henry Joost’s film Catfish and are absolutely loving it. It’s a film I’ve used before and knew that I was on fairly safe ground. The Facebook relationship story with its documentary style and tense moments works tremendously well.  It is a scenario that they can easily identify with.

The second class are now half way through Asif Kapadia’s documentary Senna. The initial reaction of the class to watching a documentary film for two hours was fairly sceptical. They want a good story…..they said.  I asked them to be patient with the movie and after fifteen minutes of watching it was clear to all that a good story is exactly what the film delivers. I explained before the start that I had thought long and hard about whether I should show this film. The film uses only genuine footage to tell the story of the life and death of the formula one driver Ayrton Senna.  The car crashes in the movie are a crucial part of the narrative.  A genuine death on film is course different to the countless deaths that teenagers observe in the more normal film fodder that they consume. I discussed this with the class before the film and offered an alternative to anyone who really didn’t want to watch. We are at the moment half way through watching the film, it hasn’t reached its climax yet, although the film is being watched in a focused silence….not always easy to achieve in a classroom of 32 watching a film together. They seem to realize that this is something different and that from my perspective is exactly the point. Senna is an excellent movie when it comes to throwing a new light on the sort of detached sense of realism with which we approach most films. Normally we have to give ourselves over to suspending our disbelief, but here we are living and thinking along with real people, their conflicts, their relationships and the risks they take. I’m curious to see how the second half is experienced.

In many ways, my third choice was the one aimed most specifically at my teenage audience. I wanted to make use of a film where music played a strong part. Sometimes I look a little bit further back into film history to find films that nobody in the class is likely to have seen. This is what I did and chose Alan Parker’s 1991 film The Commitments, a film about a struggling and ultimately, failing, bunch of teenagers trying to form a band in Dublin. The movie is packed with music, has a lot of humour and the leading roles are almost exclusively filled by teenagers. On the face of it you would think a highly appropriate film for one of my classes. Here too, after one lesson we are about half way through the movie, but I find myself perplexed by the reaction of the class to watching it.  It is a film that is heading towards being 25 years old, but I certainly feel that that isn’t the problem, it has aged relatively well. When a class is watching a film I often find myself watching the class, gauging their enjoyment.  The problem we are having is that they aren’t getting the humour. I can see that there are one or two in the class who are getting it, but the majority are watching in something of a stony silence. So why is this……? At the end of the lesson I had no time to quiz them; it could be a language issue, the strong Irish accents aren’t always easy, but then I have subtitles on to make it more accessible (they are after all watching in their second languages – Dutch being their first). Or is it that the Irish/British humour is so different to that of the Dutch? This is a regular topic of discussion with my Dutch colleagues at school. In our bilingual department we use so much British or American material to support our educational programmes, and humour, particularly British humour, is so often problematic. How can sensibilities in this area be so different? A point of discussion for another blog post perhaps, but for now I am spending the weekend wondering whether to scrap the second half of The Commitments and try something else!

Is iTunes U the future?


It is couple of months since I was given an iPad by the school where I work as preparation for the new school year in late August when we will be switching to a digitally driven form of education. Initially it will be all our first years (12 year olds) who will all have an iPad in their school bag, but then, year on year it will spread through the school. I, like others at school, have been following courses and familiarizing myself with some of the possibilities.

There are a huge amount of possibilities and some fantastic apps out there that are going to offer some very creative and new directions to what I do in my art and cultural awareness lessons. I really am quite enthusiastic about the project, if perhaps a little daunted by the shear amount of work involved. All changes in education cost teachers and educators time and effort, but this feels like a real ground shift.

One of the recent courses I attended was for iTunes U. In short iTunes U is a project, with an accompanying app, that is aimed at teachers world-wide at all levels of education. The philosophy is that great education material is being developed everywhere and too often doesn’t get shared and passed around.  Huge numbers of educational institutions are becoming involved from the likes of Oxford and Harvard universities right down to primary schools. Apple are putting a huge amount of resources into facilitating the education of teaching staff to make use of iTunes U, for me there was a two day, free of charge course at the icentre in Amsterdam on offer.

I am new to this all, and am having to learn and pick things up as I go along, but I am at the moment a little perplexed by what iTunes U seems to offer and in particular how it relates to the arts, cultural and design areas of education.

I am more than happy if there is someone out there who can tell me that I am perhaps mistaken, or not seeing all the possibilities that are actually on offer.  However at the moment a couple of points seem to be particularly problematic, at least from my own arts related direction.

Firstly, from my art teacher’s perspective there is the copyright issue. My understanding from the iTunes U course that I followed was that Apple are only too aware of the potential copyright minefield that the idea of a sort of open source library of education material might become. As a result they only what original material, and supporting material that comes from a sort of Creative Commons perspective. This is all fine and well, but try writing a piece of art education material without making use of examples of the work of others. Art teachers the world over are used to, normally for just their own usage and certainly not on a commercial level, playing quite fast and loose with the work of others. They want to illustrate a particular point or inspire in a particular way, so they insert appropriate examples into their lesson material.

They would probably normally defend their position, rightly or wrongly, behind a sort of fair use argument. They are simply trying to place an activity in a cultural context or guide an activity in a particular way.  If, as Apple seem to be saying, this sort of referencing of cultural context places the material outside the remit of iTunes U, then the resulting material is likely to end up being a rather dry and unstimulating sort of experience, which brings brings me nicely onto my second point.

When I was at teacher training college it was hammered into me regularly that you should make your lesson material visually interesting to look at. Publishers of lesson material know this to be important and spend great deal of time and effort designing their products to attract and lead the attention of the reader. As a visual artist, and someone with an interest in design, I have always worked hard to make sure that the material I produce for my pupils looks well-made and engaging. With all this in mind I am bewildered by iTunes U, a system where as far as I have seen so far, everything ends up looking the same. A sort of list structure that folds out to reveal text, links, film, routes to apps and so on. The content in the end might be fantastic, but the entrance route to it seems dull to say the least.

If anyone knows a different perspective on these two reservations I would be only too happy to hear it and be corrected, but for now I see myself continuing to produce eye-catching PDF files with all the links I need embedded into them and then directly mailed to the pupils who need them.