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.

 

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Rewarding creativity and technical skill ‐ a pupil’s choice

vermeerThere are plenty of art teachers who will recognize the following situation, it’s one that I see particularly in the younger pupils (aged 12–‐14) that I teach. A painting assignment is finally finished and is being handed in after several lessons work. There are a number of immaculately made paintings, extremely neatly and carefully completed. However the works lack imagination and creativity. Pupils have relied very much on the approaches they know well and haven’t explored other possibilities as well as they could have done. There are also other works made by different pupils that are rather untidy and perhaps carelessly made in terms of technical execution. However this second group shows great evidence of creativity and invention. The pupils have thought hard about the assignment in relation to content, but the technical facility of the pupil has let them down in the final finished quality of the work.

The problem I face as teacher is one of where to I lay the emphasis and weighting when I mark the work? Is technical ability to be rewarded the most or creativity and imagination? The truth is, as a teacher, you would probably like to have both in a piece of work. I have often designed marking rubrics that give a sliding scale of grades for both qualities. This way you can at least make clear to the pupils that you are interested in both areas.

But a recent workshop on differentiation in the class has set me thinking in a different direction. The workshop focussed on the fact that within any given class you have pupils both with a range of abilities but also with a variety talents or skills. This would certainly seem to be the case in the example I have described above. My own feelings are that pupils who lack a certain dexterity in the way they use their materials (even if their ideas are imaginative and ambitious) generally get short changed during this early stage of secondary education.

Greater emphasis on specific judgment criteria in a marking rubric certainly goes some way to helping in this area, but in a way I would like pupils to look even more critically at the work themselves and in doing so identify for themselves their own strengths and weaknesses. In order to try and reach this goal I am considering adjusting my marking for a couple of forthcoming assignments. My plan is to continue using a marking rubric to produce say, two grades that are marks out of ten, one for technical skill and one for creativity and imagination. These two scales will be accompanied by the normal descriptors explaining the sorts of standards in both areas I am looking for.

The difference though would come in allowing the pupils themselves to decide what the overall weighting between the two grades should be. They could decide for 50–‐50, or 30–‐70 for example, anything up to a maximum or perhaps 20–‐80 or 80–‐20. Obviously I would ask them to make the decision for the weighting before they get to hear the grades that I have given the work. The whole point of the exercise is to get them to look critically at the strengths and weaknesses in their own work and to help them to identify areas where they could improve and to give them the feeling that they are able to be rewarded for areas that they are successful in.

I’m not sure how often I might use this approach to marking, at this stage it is very much an interesting experiment. However, I would be very interested to hear from anyone who has experimented in similar ways. I am of course also interested to know and see for myself if it has any effect on the qualities of the work pupils produce.

Struggling to extend the teenage world view

The teenagers that I teach grow up in a relatively small provincial Dutch town or the villages in the fields around it. It is essentially, and for most, a very secure and familiar background. The task of showing these young people that they have a place in a bigger picture, a global village if you like, is at times a difficult challenge. A colleague put it something like…”it’s difficult to take our school into the big wide world, but maybe we can bring the world into the school”.

I would definitely connect with such an aim. As a visual arts teacher I see my function to stimulate the pupils’ enthusiasm for art, develop their practical abilities and to show how art and culture has a contribution to make in helping us to engage with important issues around us.

20110427-immigrationIt is with these sorts of thoughts in mind that I have been designing and teaching a series of lessons to my 15 and 16 year olds about how the subject of how illegal immigration has been dealt in the arts. I make use of the work of two Dutch visual artists, the excellent huge scale drawings called Faith, Fear, Face by Carlijn Mens and the photographs Henk Wildschut. I have written about the relevance of their work before on my blog.

For more about Mens and Wildschut click here:

https://petersansom.wordpress.com/2014/05/15/illegal-immigration-and-art/

This year though I have also added the film The Visitor, written and directed by Thomas McCarthy

All three in their various forms give us insight into the lives of illegal immigrants in European or American contexts. All three are fine examples of how various cultural disciplines can engage us with important social and political issues of our time.

I feel very confident of the quality of my examples and indeed of my lesson material. Yet somehow, this year perhaps more than in previous years, I don’t quite feel like the message is getting through. When I reflect a little on this situation my conclusion is that perhaps for too many in my current groups the intellectual and emotional step that they must make to reach an appreciation of the plight of illegal immigrants is just too big.  They’re aware of the problem, they’ve heard it mentioned in the news, but it’s just not their issue. It all seems a million miles away from their daily bike ride to school, the hockey club and shelf stacking in the local supermarket.  I am asking them to be ready to make that conceptual leap and to tune in to the bigger picture. There are a few in the groups I teach who are ready and willing to try to do this, but I have to be honest, I feel with plenty of others I am struggling to help them make this switch. At times there almost seems to be a pride in some in choosing to not engage. They simply don’t feel it is a world that has anything at all to do with their existence.

The truth is, that in some ways they are right. At the moment the connection is slight, an article on the news, a film in a lesson at school. And yet, for some the possible moment when they are confronted with the laws and issues of immigration could be closer than they think, as I’ve been trying to make clear this week. Most of the same pupils out of my classes will, in three or four years time be safely embedded in University life. Many are likely to find themselves doing courses that offer the chance to do placements or work experience in some pretty exotic places. I also know, from my own experience, that such trips can also, from time to time, result in meeting new people and forming emotional relationships that will take them to areas where the state might start to have something to say about the way they want to live their personal lives.  My own story of immigration from England to the Netherlands grew out of exactly this sort of scenario and had its own moments of difficulties and frustration, but these were not nearly so complex as those experiences encountered by a friend who met his wife whilst on a visit to Peru and ultimately wanted to return to the Netherlands with his new partner. Their situation turned out to be a much longer and complicated affair.

As a teacher you dip into all these sorts of personal resources to try and make your point when teaching. But the simple truth is that so much can happen, and so much has to be learnt as an adolescent becomes an adult. Mainstream education has a part to play, you try to lodge some useful baggage in the back of the minds of your learners, to give them some perspectives and insight that might be useful to them in the future. But as a teacher, you also have to accept that it is often a case of planting acorns and hoping for oak trees, you might, but perhaps more likely, you might not be there to see it happen.

Two months later I wrote the following post reflecting on what I wrote above:

Immigration – Pupil work and feedback