From: Michelle Ridlen
Asking students provocative questions had led us down a path of inquiry that truly worked well for our students. So much so, that when it came time to re-write our curriculum, we pushed forward with adopting the newly revised National Core Arts Standards and an inquiry-based format for our model lessons.
What does it mean to teach through inquiry?
We would begin by developing unit themes and big ideas driven by essential questions to frame the unit investigation. These had to be broad enough that students could enter into the theme from multiple perspectives and explore multiple variations of their own choosing. So for example, one of our elementary units is Story with some of our questions being, “How do pictures tell stories?” “How do artists show a feeling or mood in a visual image?” “How do we use art to tell stories about people?” where as one of our advanced studio classes has a unit called State of Mind with the essential questions: “How can we see emotions?” “How do we make something internal, external?” “How do we show thoughts, ideas, or feelings without depicting recognizable objects?” “How can we depict a state of mind through art?”
We pushed ourselves to go beyond a media driven curriculum. Especially because more and more artists today are making art that defy traditional art categories. Artists make art with the media that will best execute their idea or meaning, so how do we teach our students about the expressive qualities that lie within each media choice? We promote play and experimentation, collaboration and creative explorations. We encourage students to think about ideas in multiple ways and to try them out in multiple media. We want them to gain experience and familiarity with multiple ways of expressing and representing concepts.
We avoided lessons that mimicked or copied one artist’s style or way of working. Instead, we tried to provide a variety of artists that explored a theme or similar idea in multiple ways to encourage students to explore how they would approach a theme or concept. What unique perspective do they bring to the table? We wanted students from elementary to high school to know that we valued their voice and that as their teacher, we would help them learn how to be heard. We would give them choices (sometimes limited) in their media use or in the subject matter. The balance was knowing how much or how little choice they were developmentally ready for in connection with our learning objectives. We purposefully try to expose students to a combination of artists, both traditional and contemporary, and with a variety of perspectives from diverse cultures and world views.
We are transitioning to a focus on process over product. This is sometimes the most difficult to do because it is hard to let go of the pressure to have many “wall worthy” works of art to display in the hall or in a gallery. We feel an immense pressure to put work on display that will make adults ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ at the cuteness or the skill. However, as an audience we tend to judge student artists on the level of an adult or professional. Is that truly fair to children and adolescents who are just starting out? How can we as teachers shine a light on the stages of development that go into becoming an artist? What can we add to the display of artwork that illuminates the thinking behind the hard work? How can this practice encourage ownership of student learning? How might this promote a healthier growth mindset in our young artists and future artizens?
We decided we needed to think and talk more about art. We needed to help students learn about where to get ideas and how to nurture idea seeds to get them to grow. How do we brainstorm? How can we collaborate and offer feedback to strengthen ideas? What kind of suggestive examples, compelling role models, and diverse methods can we provide that will help students engage in meaningful art making? We are teaching students about the practice of keeping a sketchbook from the earliest grades and promoting its use to track our process from idea to fully executed work and to include the documentation of revisions. How can we use sketchbooks to talk about our ideas and the development of our work with peers and mentors?
Our lessons focused on an inquiry process that roughly followed this outline:
- Engage - Hook students with juicy questions, examples of artwork, or conversations about art. Get their wheels turning in conjunction with the theme.
- Explore - We asked “Can acts of engagement and exploration be works of art in themselves?” “How do artists push beyond what they already know and readily see?” “When do exploration and experimentation become art?” This is where we encourage students to experiment with media or explore different interpretations of an idea or concept. We expose students to artists and artworks that work within a connected theme.
- Explain - This is where we may revisit individual student questions or learning needs, giving more explicit instruction. Researchers Housen & Yenawine argue that when you teach information - whether it is a concept, process, or technique – that is a genuine question of the learner, then it is more likely to be retained. Also, a summary of research on learning and cognition shows that learning for meaning leads to greater retention and use of information and ideas according to Bransford, Brown, & Cocking (2000). Students tend to be much more receptive when they saw an immediate need and use for the instruction.
- Expand - Students would then choose how they wanted to create an artwork that showed their own thought development within the unit theme. For elementary grades this may be more limited while as they advanced into high school, more leeway was given to explore broad connections. Feedback and revisions may also occur.
- Extend - Students would present their artwork to peers and others through physical displays or virtual galleries, sharing artist statements and documentation of their process along the way. Reflections may also be encouraged to be mined at a later date for further art exploration.
While we started on our curriculum revisions back in 2014, and are continuing to work our way through all of our grade levels, we are beginning to see the positive impact it is having on our students. Students are more enthusiastic and take more pride in their work because it is truly the expression of their own ideas. We are seeing more authentic student art that is developmentally appropriate where we can witness the improvement of their skill and talents. And we are seeing a return of critical and creative thinking. Students are shedding the “just tell me what you want from me” look in their eye and instead we see a spark that holds future possibilities. We see students emboldened to try something new or to see “what might happen if…”. It is remarkable to see this change in our students and as teachers we are eager and excited to see them continue to grow.
How do you use inquiry in your art room? What kind of questions do you use to engage your students and provoke exploration? How has using inquiry changed the way your artists grow or your studio runs?
Tell me more...I’d love to hear about it in the comments or through Twitter. Catch me at @mridlen.
As this is my last post for the NAEA Monthly Mentor blog, I wanted to thank NAEA and Linda Scott for this opportunity. Blogging is certainly a way to rethink how you see your work and your place within students’ lives. This was a great means of stretching myself and pushing myself to grow. Thank you and I can’t wait to read next month’s mentor!