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On Creativity & Inquiry

Photo: http://peterharrisonphotography.smugmug.com/
” The beginning of adolescence seems to mark the abrupt end of artistic development in terms of drawing skills for many adults. As children, they confronted an artistic crisis, a conflict between their increasingly complex perceptions of the world around them and their current level of art skill.”    Betty Edwards

I have a confession, for most of the 15 years I spent as a classroom teacher I was a less than effective teacher of the arts. I had two coping strategies that served me and, I rationalized, my students well:
– As a grade 4-6 teacher; find a colleague who would swap with me  (usually and stereotypically my art for their physical education)
-As a grade 1 teacher; find a colleague who would ‘share’ her arts plans with me in exchange for housework (the ‘colleague’ being my wife)
Either way the solution was ideal for me. In spite of the fact that the chorus of Harry Chapin’s Flowers are Red echoed around my head, chastising me, I forged on. It met my needs and allowed me to focus on the things I really valued and was passionate about as a teacher. It’s not that I didn’t care about the arts, it’s just that I didn’t care to invest much time into learning how to teach the arts.
I left the classroom to work as a consultant for a few years and worked with some incredible people and learned a great deal about the importance of ‘personalized and precise’ teaching (credit to my friend @CarmelCrevola). My time as a consultant was brief and 3 years later I found myself teaching a grade 7/8 class at Jersey Public School in Keswick…teaching the arts…to my own class…with no grade partner (or wife) to rescue me.
The first few weeks of my arts teaching are summed up with this quote from one of the students; “Mr. H, for a teacher who is so good at every other subject, you just suck as an art teacher.” The sharper the truth, the cleaner the cut. I decided to face, head on this challenge by reflecting upon a few key insights:
-There was a pretty good chance that along with the talented artists in the class, there were a whole lot of kids in our class who were just like me. That being given…
-I didn’t need to be an artist to teach it well, I just needed to foster a climate where we could inquire and learn together the many ways we could learn how to create art. And I wasn’t that isolated…
-There were, actually, thousands of teachers who were eager and willing to share and collaborate with me (online) but I would have to mediate these collaborations to ensure that the work we did was personal and precise to our classroom.
These pre-Twitter collaborations occurred through emails and downloads from various forums, web hosts and blogs. And they opened me up to the diversity of ways we can use tools to create art. As a group of learners we talked about things we wanted to learn more about, or things we wanted to learn how to create and then we set off on the web to find ways we could accomplish these goals. Along with paint and paper and glue, we made use of media tools;  photography, film shorts, graphic tessellations accompanied by music using word processing applications, we made art!
I now know that, just as is the case in mathematics, we do a great disservice to our students when we teach the arts as a set of steps to be demonstrated and followed, like a procedure. The arts afford us an opportunity to incorporate two essential habits of mind, the habits of  inquiry and creativity. In classes and schools where these habits are fostered, the students, and their teachers,  develop both the development of the skills of art and life. I also know that student well-being, in the social, emotional and cognitive domains improves when students engage in learning tasks that foster creativity and involve  inquiry.
I’m grateful to the teachers who put their ideas out there for me to learn and I’m grateful to the amazing content that museums from around the world have archived for us to draw upon. Mostly, I’m grateful to that group of students who, rightly, demanded that I apply the same level of professional practice to my arts classes, as I did to my history, math and English classes.
  1. Royan Lee
    July 11, 2011 at 9:30 pm


    I learn so much from your honesty and modelling as a learner. Don’t be isolated and focus on the climate and process – thanks for the reminder!

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