What is the artist’s process, what do we learn from it, and how do we teach it?
From: Jen Childress
In the art education pre-service course, Curriculum and Assessment in Art, my students had to select a work by an artist from a non-Western culture and design a two-hour lesson around it. The lesson would roughly equal a short, extended lesson that could take place over three or four 40-minute class periods, but it would be carried out in an after-school program at our lab school. Students were encouraged (though not required) to sidestep the most obvious examples and look at works by artists who combined long-standing cultural traditions with contemporary life. I wanted them to expand their thinking about other art forms beyond the past, especially when those forms were no longer practiced, and beyond the usual suspects. In this way, they learned to have a primary experience with an unfamiliar work, rather than teach a “canned” or pre-made lesson that so often loses resonance after too much thoughtless repetition.
The Teacher Thinking Process – Building Up
I designed the following process for investigating any work of art that would become the basis of a lesson, but the non-Western lesson was the first time these students practiced the steps.
1. The first thing that my students had to do to make a deeper connection with the artwork they were investigating, was to simply respond to the artwork and be with it.
2. The next step was to “from the gut” identify 5 or so big ideas they felt were connected to the work, or that the artist seemed to be exploring through the work. The theoretical background for this step came out of Sydney Walker’s Teaching Meaning in Artmaking (Davis, 2001) and Wiggins and McTighe’s Understanding by Design (ASCD, 2005). To supplement, I created a handout on big ideas early on, and later added an article I wrote for the NYSATA News in 2010. After research, these big ideas would be revised and narrowed down to one or two, to guide the curriculum and working process in the lesson.
3. The third step was RESEARCH. Students needed to find multiple sources of information on that particular artist (when possible), style, culture, and time period; that particular artwork and its content; and what we called lateral research – any special media or techniques, location/geography, things featured in the work that raised questions and provided supporting context. Sources were found, read or listened to, highlighted, and then documented.
4. The fourth step was to analyze the artwork’s structure, starting with a graphic movement analysis and then – after narrowing down to 1 or 2 big ideas – selecting particular content, elements, and principles that seemed essential to the impression of the chosen big idea(s). In this way, the resulting lesson was sure to focus on how form creates meaning, rather than using an artwork to teach form or technique alone. And because I wanted students to reach beyond the traditional “7+7” commercialized list of e’s and p’s, I created a list for them to work with that referenced Walker and Gude; and summarized lists of design principles culled from multiple sources, which differ according to time period, author, publication, and/or institution. This list has undergone quite a few edits over many years of its use. You can find our 2015 Analysis Cheat Sheet version here. I first created this list many years ago when I noticed that my students lacked a rich vocabulary to describe the visual aspects of works of art.
5. Next, the students filled in a matrix with the analysis terms, that required them to build from simple to complex based roughly on Bloom’s Taxonomy. The matrix included a cell for special artistic working and/or media techniques; which should have arisen from the research. Later, as students designed their lessons, they would need to write questions utilizing a selection of these terms; the Bloom’s matrix would help them think about scaffolding the critical thinking process for their own students.
6. The next step in the teacher thinking process was for the students to write statements that explained how the chosen analysis terms supported the chosen big idea(s) and were supported by research when possible. Research, however, could not be substituted for these statements. It was important that my lab teachers processed these connections on their own. Though guidance from their readings could help focus their thinking, without this step, students tended to substitute their art history/contextual research for having a direct and deep personal experience with the art; and in fact, at times did not even understand what they read. (Our program’s art historians also found a majority of our undergraduates and sometimes graduate students struggled with critical thinking; indeed, this seemed to be a college-wide issue in liberal arts courses).
The Teacher Thinking Process – Narrowing Down
7. At this point, my students had to stop and consider which understandings – and therefore which terms – were appropriate for the age level they would teach and the amount of time their students would have with the lesson. “Less is more!” and “Break it down, then break it down again, then break it down some more!” were common refrains as they narrowed the concepts down to an essential core, that would allow students time to develop an essential understanding, and plenty of processing and practice time. They also had to select appropriate contextual/historical information.
8. Finally, they made a teacher example (or two) that investigated the big idea chosen, utilized the selected design terms, and integrated a few key aspects of the artistic thinking/working processes employed by the featured artist(s). This step was essential in many ways; most significantly it forced the lab teachers to think about scaffolding and sequencing of the key concepts over time, given their class’s age level capacities. But other aspects also had to be considered. We did not want “cookie-cutter” teacher examples any more than we wanted “cookie-cutter” student artwork. By emphasizing the artistic process of work, the lab teachers had to move away from making simpler copies of the featured artwork. This was also a difficult step for many beginning lab teachers; it was not unusual for them to work through multiple teacher examples in order to get one that honored the process, embodied the chosen concepts, and explored the same big idea(s); yet had a unique quality that signaled their own personal mental processing. Thinking about the choices made along the way would help them open up choices for their own students.
- An intuitively produced artwork (ex: Kngwarreye) needed a supporting lesson that provided a large working space requiring whole body use (no desks! Use the floor!) quick exercises followed increasing periods of time to work, a background of repetitive rhythmic music, and other strategies that would help students turn off their need to control outcomes and inhibit teacher-example copying; such as working in teams or moving around the large “canvas” every so often to work from different angles.
- A very controlled artwork (ex: Mondrian) would need a supporting lesson that emphasized planning, careful measuring, multiple steps, brush control, and an increasing sense of visual balance through exercises in looking and making small scale works with just a few shapes.
The Process in Action: A lesson based on the intuitive, nature-inspired work of Emily Kame Kngwarreye