Cooking as an educational metaphor

I’m an art teacher, but I think this educational metaphor works pretty well across all subject areas, certainly within secondary education where I work, although I’m guessing also in higher education.

frozen pizza

Firstly, there are the ‘frozen pizza eaters’, they do anything and everything for convenience. The frozen pizza is a meal of sorts, it fits on a plate, it has appropriate shapes and colours, some pupils would say that it fits the requirements. But from my perspective it’s two dimensional and kind of always tastes the same. And these are just the sorts of school assignments that these pupils hand in, it looks like a report, it has the right superficial appearance, but it lacks depth. It is in all regards the easy route and one that as a teacher I want to get beyond.

Then there is a second group, those who rely on the book, the recipe book. They follow it with enormous care. Measuring carefully, working through the step by step instructions and often in the end they have a beautiful produced result/meal, or in the educational scenario, a piece of work. However, there is an important detail that they forget, they never taste their cooking as they go along.

A third group follow exactly the same route as the second, however, they do taste the cooking, make adjustments and add seasoning as required. It’s a small but oh so important detail, for this makes it a reflective process, they are remaining critical throughout the process, alert to what they are doing, aware that fine tuning Is important and that they have an important part to play themselves. In terms of education processes self-reflection and critical evaluation are vital, as is reacting to these sorts of observation.  This is how an assignment can be made their own, and operate as part of an engaged process of learning.

cookerybook

There is a fourth group too. Perhaps not the easiest group for the teacher, but ultimately the most exciting. They are the ones who take a look at the recipe book, read the instructions, close the book and go and go and look what they have in the cupboard. They are the risk takers; they are the creative spirits. They can produce truly surprising, unexpected delights, they can also fail dreadfully. In culinary terms they are the ones who ultimately leave the instructions of the recipe books behind. They are interested in flavours and ingredients and what they can do with them. They too, like the third group, are engaged with the process. They have truly made it their own.

A class full of the creative radicals that are the fourth group would be an extreme and exciting place to teach. But these pupils are very much the exception to the rule. Although the third group does seem to be quite different to the last, maybe it is actually not a bad second choice to hope for. Engaged and critical are characteristics in our students that need to be nurtured and encouraged.

In an educational system dominated by testing, there would seem to be an inherent risk of an over-reliance on the book and simple reproduction skills are perhaps too heavily rewarded. Reproduction is perhaps a first step, but it’s insight and understanding that are the crucial steps further.  In my kitchen metaphor it is important that pupils and students are given the encouragement to taste their own products and the confidence to make the necessary adjustments. Such a critical edge is an important stage towards the creative attitudes that we need to be developing across the board in education to fit into our modern and ever changing world.

 

It’s about the idea – a start-up lesson with thanks to Rauschenberg!

Regularly I use a start-up lesson with my third years (age 14-15) that I know leaves them actually discussing the content of the lesson beyond the moment that they have left the room.

I’ve used the lesson twice this week and it has already served its purpose. I suppose that purpose breaks down into a number of parts:

  • To leave them curious about the future content of the lessons and hopefully feeling that they can expect the unexpected
  • To counter the feeling in most young teenagers minds that art has to always be beautiful or skilfully made
  • To introduce the fact that the ‘idea’ behind the work might actually be the most important thing
  • To open the door on a little art history

pencil stilllifeThe lesson plan could hardly be simpler.  Hand out a piece of paper to each pupil and make sure that everyone has got a pencil and a rubber. Next, ask the pupils to take a collection of small items out of their bags or pencil cases and arrange a still life on the table in front of them.

We then spend the next thirty minutes producing first a line drawing and then adding shading on and around the objects, I encourage them to try and make it the ‘best drawing that they have ever made’!

After thirty minutes I ask them to switch drawings with the person sitting next to them. I think most of them expect to be asked to carry on working on their partner’s drawing. But then comes the twist, I ask them to rub out the drawing, completely erase it, or at least as much as is possible.

It’s so interesting to watch how different classes react to this. Occasionally I get one where they just shrug their shoulders and get on with it. With most though it is a mixture disbelief and uproar, with some it almost becomes disobedience with some of them refusing to be so destructive! But in the end I persuade them to all pick up the eraser and get on with it.

In order to explain this rather unusual practical lesson at the start of the year and link up with the learning targets listed above I explain how this all connects up with what Robert Rauschenberg did to a Willem de Kooning drawing back in 1953. Rauschenberg spent two months gradually erasing the valuable de Kooning drawing before framing it and exhibiting it as his own work with the title ‘Erased Willem de Kooning Drawing’.

erased_dekooning_sfmoma

For a more extensive explanation to the story click here.

Below you can see one of my pupil’s pieces of work.

rubbed out

As I said at the start, this is a fantastic way to grab everyone’s attention during that first lesson back after the holiday, but more importantly it shows that:

  • An artwork can be a kind of documentation of a performance or occurrence, indeed the performance itself can also become the artwork
  • An artwork can be humorous and aimed at making us rethink our preconceptions
  • An artwork can be more about an idea and less about how it looks

Added to this I can underline the fact that artworks don’t necessarily have to

  • Look aesthetically beautiful
  • Be skilfully made

In the end it is quite a lot to take in, but a series of themes have been established that can be returned to during other lessons and lesson modules.

I normally end with a promise never to ask them to erase their work again!

So what was it a again that cultural life gives us?

On my way backwards and forwards to my work I pass through the Dutch town of Nijmegen. On this journey I don’t normally see much of the town, it is simply the place where I normally change trains, each time having just five to ten minutes to make my way from one platform to the other.

A couple of weeks ago a piano was positioned in an open space on one of the platforms where there is a high roof above. An invitation was placed next to the piano inviting anyone who wants to, to take a seat and play for the passers-by. It is an approach to public performance that I have seen elsewhere, but here in Nijmegen it has certainly been an instant hit. Even when I pass through the station at 6.50am there is almost always someone playing, and in the afternoon it is often a lot more than just the piano, just now it was piano, double bass, guitar and accordion all playing together.  And it was also plenty more just passer-by that they were entertaining, they had a whole audience.

blog-nijmegen

What is it that culture gives us is a question I often enough have to field from pupils at school. A quick look across the platform in Nijmegen certainly gives one answer, joy, pleasure and a tangible lift in emotion, that is certainly what I experience as I move by. There’s not even an open guitar case on the floor for loose change to be thrown into, this is about sharing and coming together, be that the players themselves or the ever changing audience.

Others have certainly also been noticing the performances in Nijmegen as this film shows: