Creating creative lessons and happy, independent students

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Creating Creative lessons and happy, independent students

by Paul Carney


                      When PLANNING AND PREPARING for creative lessons consider:

The creativity you want to tap into
Is it a new experience or a new way of seeing, is it relative to their interests or does it feed into their imagination? Is it to discover new forms of expression with new or familiar materials? Will they express opinions about the world they live in? How will they do that? How can you maximise the criteria of success so that the maximum number of students succeed? Make CREATIVITY your focal point NOT quality of outcomes.

You are restricting creativity if you write projects based on copying artists or movements
Whenever you deliver a project through a single artist or art movement you are narrowing the range of outcomes so that they all resemble each other. Nor should you begin a project by studying an artists work. The study of an artist should be purely to help solve a problem or look for possibilities. You may think the artist you have chosen for them to look at is very relevant to their learning needs, but they are bombarded with images every day. Chances are they will think your great artist is at best ok, but more often than not dull.  

Art isn’t a production line there shouldn’t be only one style of outcome
If all of the outcomes of your project look similar then it is likely that your students have merely followed a step-by-step learning route carefully laid down by you. You may have a high standard of outcomes and the students may have improved their skill, but this has come at great cost to you. Your students now feel that they need you to show them what to do and that they cannot learn things by themselves. They wait for you to show them what to do next. If you define the outcomes of the project too clearly you remove possibilities because the students will merely imitate what you have shown them. 

Teach skills for life not just learning in parrot fashion
If you only teach skills and techniques by teacher demonstration then the students feel that if they cannot mimic you they have failed. The internet is awash with web sites and videos on art techniques. So why not Flip the Classroom? If you show them how to teach themselves and they fail they will accept help more readily and feel less of a failure. Teach them that their failed efforts are important to learning.

Don’t do displays of grades or show samples of completed work, encourage possibilities
If you show samples of successful outcomes or exemplar project material on walls, then most students will copy what you have shown them and do no more. These lovely outcomes and displays actually restrict creativity and limit possibilities. The unknown may be daunting but this uncertainty is what will lead to creative outcomes. Don’t be frightened of it!

Encouraging enthusiasm is more important than insisting on quality
By holding your students back to complete each stage of a project to a high standard then you might as well destroy the project now, because your students will lose all of their enthusiasm. There is a balance here that the teacher needs to gauge using formative assessment. Not too fast that they haven’t thought it through, not too slow that the idea dies. You may lose this battle in terms of high outcomes, but with enthusiasm you will win the war. 

You’re not in a race, so there isn’t a single starting line
Good assessment involves knowing individual starting points. So if you don’t allow for different starting points then you are selling your students short. What do they know about this project before you begin? Where do the less able begin and is it the same place as the most able? Should they all be doing the same tasks at the same speed if the ability is so different? 

Grades are gross
Research has shown that teaching to grades means all you do is label and categorise your students. They see the grade then they stop wanting to learn. You may motivate the competitive, determined minority but you demotivate and kill the enthusiasm of the majority. By stipulating: ‘this is what you need to do to be successful’ or a get higher grade you risk turning them off with ‘I can’t do that!’ By reminding your students of their strengths and clearly identifying their starting point and a goal, they are free to enjoy their learning experience and focus on tangible goals not grades. E.g. “My goal is to create a detailed drawing and apply shading” not “I have to do a good drawing to get a good grade.” In the exam world you have to play a game of providing the grade targets the managers insist you give out whilst undermining their importance and relevance in the classroom. This sounds controversial, but labelling children like this leads to student anxiety, stress and demoralisation, rarely to aspirational ambition. Having a focus and set of standards is one thing, but you can do all of that more effectively without branding young people with a grade before they’ve even started.

Don’t use your student’s ability as an excuse for limiting creativity
You might feel that tightly controlling the outcomes is the best way for your student’s to make art and perhaps it is. You may feel that your students aren’t the sort of students who can work more freely and need structure. This is often true but you don’t have to spoon feed them either. How will they learn anything? Less able students often prefer to work in smaller, easily achievable stages. Short learning stages don’t necessarily mean being short changed on choice. More able students should be learning the techniques of the very highest standards. Questions can be easy or hard, therefor they can be differentiated. You may ask one student: ‘How can you make your shading appear more smooth and even?’ yet ask another ‘How can you shade large areas quickly and more easily without having to use a pencil point?’ These questions require very different skills sets and they take the teacher time to develop, but they are worth their weight in gold.

                                  When DELIVERING projects you should:

Remind your students of the creative thought process:

1. I’m excited about my idea

2. My idea isn’t going well

3. I hate my work

4. I’m proud of my work, I did ok.

5. Next time I need to….

1. Begin lessons and projects with questions
Good questions are very hard to write, but unlike schemes of work, once written they never get stale. They also remove the need for you to provide lots of reference material. No more printing out thirty copies of an artists work. Write questions that strike a chord with your audience, relate them to the interests of the group or issues that affect them. Pitch your questions just right, not too easy, not too difficult but ones that can’t be answered easily. Raise curiosity, allow thinking time, support the question with visual prompts and discussion. Give further questions that expand on the original, that provide focus and platforms for further development. Encourage diversity of response, show them that success can be attained in different ways, using a range of skills and outcomes. Eliminate the ‘do as I show you’ path to success. Teach your students that success can have many faces.

2. Open minds
Foster opportunities, encourage possibilities, germinate the seeds of interest whilst steering the group into recording their ideas and trains of thought as sketches, observations, photos or words. Don’t kill their excitement by demanding fully resolved ideas at this stage. If you make your students spend ages creating beautiful ideas pages they will almost certainly be bored with the idea. However do insist on ideas being fully thought out. Encourage identification of personal strengths and working to those strengths, developing on what they can do, rather than trying to learn things they can’t do. Students will develop if and when they have confidence to try something new. But give them that confidence first.
Student questions: how will I make it, what colour will it be, what materials will I need? what size will it be, do I need to find things for it? 

3. Get them to scrutinise the quality of the idea
Use peer assessment or circle time to challenge the ideas. Build confidence whilst ensuring the students have realistic expectations. 
Student questions: How original is it? How feasible is it to make? What is good, what could be improved? Should I revise my idea? What problems am I likely to encounter and how can I overcome them? Will this idea be too easy or too hard? 

4. Teach them where to find a helping hand
The primary focus of this stage is to get the students looking for ways to help them realise their idea more successfully. By focussing them into identifying what materials they want to work in, they can then find others who are experts using this material so that they can learn from them. This isn’t a single process, it can be revisited if the student is struggling at any stage.
Encourage the students to find artists that can support and strengthen their idea and do not to provide solutions for them. Be wary of providing the artists names because you are doing the thinking for your students and removing the ownership. Instead, direct them to a bank of sources, a place where you keep lots of relative source material. Only use this as a back up when you see failure to identify supporting sources or where you want them to expand on what they have. Don’t spend too long making your students create beautiful pages of artist study. Focus purely on what they need to support and develop their idea and no more. Anything less means your students won’t have learned what they need, anything more and it is counter productive to creativity.
Student questions: Who has done similar ideas before? Are there artists who work in a style or material I want to learn from? What sources or images do I need and where can I get them from? 

5. Give them a bank of skills and techniques to access whenever they need it
Have they correctly identified what they need to realise their idea? Do they know what they need to develop? Have they found the most effective and creative materials to realise their ideas?  Place the emphasis on the student looking for places where skills and techniques can be learned rather than providing them. There is a huge web of resources where students can learn new skills, share this knowledge with the group.
Student Questions: What skills and techniques will I need to realise this idea? Do I have the ability to realise the idea successfully? What will I need to learn or develop? Where can I learn these skills and techniques from? Is the teacher the only source for learning these skills? 

6. Let them get on with it
Don’t hold them back any longer or the idea will die. It is better to keep the idea alive and let them get on with it than holding them back with process that will destroy their enthusiasm. Agree to begin a first draft, trial maquette, test piece, or experimental section. 
Student questions: Evaluate. What is working, what problems need to be overcome? Do I need to revise the idea in light of the test piece? Do I need more source material or to develop my skills more?

7. Make it on your own
Each session should begin with 5 minutes planning and prep time. They must write down what they need for the lesson. You get what they need then after that the shop is shut, you will not provide them with anything else. They must not ask you for help in the making session either. No shouting out, no tugging at your clothes. If they want help they write their name on the board and wait until you can get to them. You will find making a lot less stressful! You will be freed up to give quality advice and support. .
Student questions: what is working well? What do three people in class think of my work? What advice have they given me to improve it?

8. Consider my success, learn to improve
What worked well in my final piece? What do others think of it? What can I learn from this to take into my next piece? Why should I be proud of what I’ve done? 

Hang on mate, there’s one thing you’ve glossed over here. You’ve told my students that they don’t have to have fully resolved ideas or neat pages of artists work. They won’t get the grade with this standard of work!
Well, your coursework only has to show samples of work doesn’t it? Can’t you do an artists study piece in isolation of this project? Couldn’t the student select an artist they admire at random and make a personal investigation into their work? As for ideas pages, I’m not a fan of working over completed work so you may need to prepare for this beforehand. Make some pages of prepared grounds such as spattered watercolour, coffee or charcoal. This will make weaker ideas look stronger. If you must work back into things then I suppose you must, you can always get your students to glue photographs or extra source material near the half drawn ideas.


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