Please don't jump to the conclusion that this is a "bashing" of the follow-along mode of teaching art. It is a conversation about how these kinds of lessons have opportunities to become more choice-based with small adjustments. As teachers become more familiar with a choice-based approach, they may be more willing to dig deeper because they will see the benefits, possibly going so far as to move to a TAB model of art education. For me, Choice-based lessons are my comfort zone and help me connect curriculum/state/National requirements to my lessons.
This cartoon below is based on a totally different conversation that sent us into one of those dialogues.
"...but isn't it part of our job to pick subjects relevant and interesting to our students, or to create assignments open enough for them to make choices within parameters?"
I know some teachers feel very strongly that younger students need directed, step by step lessons, or they may feel children are incapable of making good visual/artistic choices at that age. (Or maybe it just fits well into their comfort zone.)
These Monet bridges for example...
Anna Nichols adds "Another possible reason for this majority focus on fine motor skills, with creative play and media exploration secondary, is that our educational system is so focused on testing. It occurred to me recently that there might be a really good reason for hanging up a set of "cookie cutter" art pieces from a class. These demonstrate concrete learning in a way that would be much harder for a non-art person to see if all the pieces were really different. Measurement, quantitative learning, and demonstration of knowledge is a heavy focus in most schools. You can't blame an elementary art teacher for being pressured to show quantitative data. "
I understand this point of view, and I feel it's important to balance this idea of showing off skills with doing what we know is best for our children's experience. I have always pointed out that most "cookie-cutter" projects can become more choice-based, expressive art experiences with a tiny push or alteration. Overlap the methods to step-up the lesson.
As an example, there is a fairly common one of paper plate fish for the pre-school age group. Kids cut a pie slice from a paper plate, re-attach it to the opposite side of the plate, and you have a fish. Paint, decorate, etc. If you limit paint to a few choices, which you should anyway for the very young, you end up with a hallway full of delightful, but vapid fish. Each like the other, little distinction or expression.
How would I incorporate choice? Have students reflect on their personality. Are they loud or quiet? Are they active, still, or lazy? Cut the mouth of your fish to show what a big mouth you have. Make a tail to show how active you are. This tiny alteration has changed the cookie-cutter fish into an expressive, albeit simple, work of art.
Anna's reply to my idea is this: Anna Nichols: thank you for consistently emphasizing the value of creative expression, no matter how old the student. I agree that this is central to any art program. Do you think that, developmentally, very young children have the capability to express their ideas visually? I am not sure they do. They can tell me all about their picture and what it means to them, but the artwork itself is kind of like nonsense baby talk, especially if they are still in the scribble stage. This is a really interesting question to me as a new PK-12 teacher. I am thinking about my priorities in developing curriculum for all of them - it is a tremendous opportunity. What do I really want to focus on for my littlest students? My art teacher brain understands scaffolding instruction for older students after teaching middle school for so long. Teaching such young students involves a pretty significant paradigm shift!
So I replied with an example lesson that is differentiated for age groups from K through 12th grade. (Here are 2)
We can ask children to draw based on open-ended prompts. The more they do it, the more we add nuggets of knowledge, the better they get. A strong use of reference images can be very helpful. When drawing fish, have lots of images of real fish to speak about. The more exposure, the better. Personally, I think the little ones need daily art class, but that does not generally happen.
Another example of a lesson for little ones would be to read Harold and the Purple Crayon... Give them a giant piece of paper and see what THEY want to draw and imagine. What's wrong with that? We can talk about line as an art element before and/or after. We can even use the word "illustration" for vocabulary. If the work looks like a scribble, have them label it with a single word you write on a post-it note, they then re-write on their art so viewers know what they may be looking at. All of these offer educational value beyond the image making which may take them more time to grow into.
There are ways to find a balance in the "follow-along" and Choice-Based programs. For example when I do a skill-based-image like portraits, I show a scale for face, where features generally belong, but then we personalize it with expressive touches: A crown to show off your kingdom, hair that is as wild as you are, a tattoo on your face to show your hidden secret power or connection to your heritage, a background that illustrates the wildest dream you ever had. With very little "extra" work, "follow-along" lessons can become expressive art experiences and still be rooted in "fine motor skill development," and curriculum-rooted concepts.
There are two interesting articles on this topic of creativity from BigThink and Forbes. I'd encourage you to explore these. The NASA Study showed that 93% of 4 to 5 years old scored genius level on their creativity test, where only 2% of adults showed genius level on the same test. (10 year olds showed 30% and 15 year olds showed 12%.) The roots of these results are tied to a battle between divergent and convergent thinking. Divergent (choice) with many possible "right" answers, and convergent with one correct and acceptable answer, pitted against each other with judgement, negative criticism, and self censorship.
I believe some art teachers are fearful of letting children have choices. It may be a new concept to some. Maybe they do not believe those choices reflect well upon themselves. We get praise for uniform "cute" paper plate fish or Monet bridges, but we balk at the idea of showing off age-appropriate scribbles. Could this be tied to worry that funding can be cut if a program is seen as "less than" others with uniform results?
Another reason may be that this idea of allowing choice at lower grades is so different. Follow-along may be the only mode some have been exposed to. It's fairly easy to do, assess, and the results are pleasing, so why try something else? (If it works, why "fix" it?) It is rare that this approach will be challenged in school. Most administrators have no idea about the inner workings of art education or to evaluate the differences between approaches like TAB, Choice, or DBAE.
Anna commented, "I think it is a distinct possibility that so many elementary folks lean toward step by steps because of advocacy.... they are sincerely trying to prove to their community that art programs are valuable. One of the best ways to do that is to have really good looking children's art pieces on display throughout the school and community."
I agree and also feel we should worry less about what others may think about how good we are as art teachers based on the products we produce, and live by the motto...
The process is more important than the product.
For a blog post about how I design a choice-based lesson, visit HERE. Thank you Anna for our chat and discussion that inspired this post.