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Flywheel of productivity and process

This is a crack at articulating my teaching philosophy which I think can be summed up as the flywheel of productivity and process. Inspiration is not something that can be waited for, it requires a fertile ground, a nexus of stimuli, but inspiration is not required to generate output. Output can throw off work of value when there’s enough of it and when it’s curated and distilled with appropriate levels of guidance.

Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. — Chuck Close

To avoid blank-page-anxiety, a flywheel of productivity and process must be initiated. In practical terms this looks like the following. The first 15 minutes of each class, regardless of age (KS3 upwards) is spent by students working on their Research Workbooks (term borrowed from Marshall (2011, p.14)). A Research Workbook is a cross between a scrapbook and a sketchbook. Ongoing homework throughout the year consists of students bringing in visual stimuli they have gathered during the week in the form of drawings, marks, photographs, cut-outs, or printouts. Students must bring in at least 3-4 images (10-15 is better) they have accumulated, and spend the first 15 minutes of the Art lesson sticking their visual stimuli into their books, drawing and colouring in areas where they see fit, emphasising perhaps where they see connections or interesting juxtapositions. The most effective Research Workbooks will also contain material gathered from students’ other classes during the week to encourage cross-curricular knowledge and thinking: tables and graphs from physics and chemistry; diagrams and annotated illustrations from biology; maps and charts from history and geography; poems, quotes and letters from English; grids, number systems, shapes and concepts from maths; etc., …

The over-riding theme to this is that of developing pro-active thinkers, thinkers with a doing habit, a habit of research, investigation, curiosity, probing and formulating meaningful and powerful questions. Bernstein (1974, p.24) speaks of understanding the ‘matrix of relationships’ between objects, concepts, and codes as a distinct and valuable way of seeing the world. But this matrix of relationships can only be leveraged if enough raw material is available in the first place. The Research Workbook is a method, a tool, to enable the tenets of critical thinking: observation, analysis, inference, and problem solving.

How would this fit into and inform a Scheme of Work already in place?

In a KS3 Art class, where the SoW emphasises formalism, students might be required to, for instance, draw an object—a tea pot let’s say. This is an important skill in Art but tends to turn into a rather dry form of pedagogy: the production of a pencil drawing of a tea pot. In terms of cognition, such an activity stops short of encouraging students to delve into more conceptual realms, more creative areas, and provide their own interpretation of such an object. What I would like to see more of in a classroom setup is students, off the back of doing their 15 minutes Research Workbook work, drawing the tea pot in a formalist manner for the first lesson, but then, again off the back of another 15 minutes of Research Workbook work, revisiting the same object—the tea pot—but gradually, in the words of Woolner, colouring it in with their own subjectivity, perhaps as a response to stimuli generated in their Research Workbooks. This moves the student on from the activity of simply drawing an object in the same manner again and again and encouraging them to explore aspects of the object that strike them as important or stimulating through different media, treatments, lenses, and perspectives. Woolner (Ross, 1978, pp.131-134) shows how to cover the bases of, say, formalism, whilst moving students into more conceptual realms, where symbols and codes are exposed for what they are, and can, perhaps from an idealistic perspective, be leveraged by lots more people, not just a few.

We perceive with feeling. Perception is coloured by subjectivity — Woolner

Calculated risk-taking

I hope this approach encourages failure—a hugely important aspect of Art, of making. The ability to bounce back from apparent ‘failure’ and build something better with lessons learned is a life skill, in my opinion. I want students to fail fast and often at appropriate moments during the course (i.e., not for exams and summative assessments), not just for the sake of failing, but for the sake of learning, and in a bid to help them understand the evolutionary process behind doing great work, be that in the art studio, on the sports field, in the classroom, or eventually, in the workplace. There needs to be a balance between caring deeply about a project, and being able to lose attachment with it in the knowledge that everything is a process, that nothing is beyond improvement, and that enjoyment and fulfilment come from the journey itself rather than just the result.

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