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Planning more meaningful art projects

I often see websites and facebook resources of artists grouped by style or theme with little or no underlying explanation of the meaning behind the work. It’s so shallow and fickle and it robs the student of the true value of the learning. The student may use these high quality sources in their own research and it could be argued that they are learning visually. This may be true but wouldnt it be far more effective if the pupils were taught the deeper understanding as well as just the aesthetics?

For example, if you stop simply providing students with pictures of ‘artists who painted ‘reflections’ and start asking the students to identify what it is about ‘reflections’ that they want to portray then use this as your artist focus, you get higher quality understanding and in turn, much more diverse outcomes. Instead of simply focussing on pictures of reflections they might concentrate on the use of colour, geometry, symmetry or light for example. For me this gets at the heart of what I dislike about the GCSE exam in the UK. It isn’t the exam boards fault, nor the teacher’s I suppose. It’s the relentless pressure teachers are under to get good results and this takes precedence over good learning. Too often it’s; ‘fill in the blanks’ style education and it is poor. It shouldn’t and doesn’t have to be like this.

Artist themes

Teachers usually focus on artists who produce work in relation to the theme they’re working in but this teaches the student very little. The real skill of the teacher is to support the deeper learning that they wish to bring out in the pupil. But too often what the teacher actually does is to provide their pupils with artists on a theme. So the teacher plans a project based on Day of the Dead for example and everyone studies artists who have depicted skulls in their work (God help me) usually Mexican, Tattoo or graphic artists etc. This methodology is repeated over and over with different themes and different artists but they principle is the same; teacher decides the theme and researches the artists who worked in this theme. But it’s just wrong! By doing this the teacher is removing all of the thinking and killing the creativity, because personal interpretation is lost. What happens when pupils don’t like the theme? They are stuck for ages (usually a whole term) studying skulls, they get bored and often cause trouble for the teacher.

The teacher could save themselves a whole lot of research time, printing costs and preparation by working a little smarter. If they simply investigated what Day of the Dead was; ‘a holiday celebrated throughout Mexico and in other cultures around the world that focuses on the spiritual journey of people who have died.’

This could lead to activities of a very personal nature; ‘In what ways have artists through time tried to represent the spirit world or afterlife and how might the ways in which they tackled the theme of death inspire you to make art?’

The emphasis now is on a much broader theme; students are free to use any of the previous Mexican influences but now they are free to discover art from a much broader, more exciting and personal range. What’s more you aren’t restricting the style of outcomes to graphic, skull drawing you can open it up to abstract, semi-abstract (Picasso’s final painting is hauntingly spiritual, as is L. S. Lowry’s Obelisk Self Portrait done at the end of his life) digital, film, painting, drawing, print, pattern, the list is endless.

So by working in this way pupils find their own influences and they should relate these influences to the aspect of art that they want to learn or improve. If Pupil A is interested in graphic drawing then they might study graphic interpretations to try to learn their methods and approaches but they might also learn a great deal by studying the way in which the great masters used colour. If Pupil B favours pattern then they might study the spiritual nature of Islamic pattern but they might also study the spiritual aspect of mathematical geometry and try to relate this to their own work etc. In this way, teachers use artists to develop students own technique, the pupil’s own use of the media or the meaning behind the work in order to improve their own personal skills and interests. Good practice comes from the development of planning that opens minds.

Less able?

Those of you who teach a cohort of pupils with lower academic ability may be quite cynical about much of what I’ve written. You know that pupils with less ability need tighter margins in which to work, they need greater direction and support and too much freedom and choice can have disastrous consequences, especially in exam. I agree with all of that, but that does not mean you have to limit choice entirely, nor does it give you permission to deliver those ‘Day of the Dead – colour in a skull picture’ type projects. Less able pupils have just as much opinion about key issues as more able ones, they just may need platforms and scaffolding of skills to express them as well as they’d like to. Providing literacy frameworks can help enormously, as will a ‘road map’ of possible routes in to the topic, support and guidance at each stage without doing everything for them, pointing them to places of support after they have been allowed to struggle a wee while. I’m not advocating everyone is plummeted straight into a world of autonomous, self-directed learning, but i am saying that levels of ability and intelligence should not be an excuse for delivering lazy, straight-jacketed teaching that limits artistic freedom.

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