I have some concerns about something I’ve learned from a few of the emails and comments I receive on this blog. The issue has to do with teachers, at all grade levels, assigning art projects to be done at home without teaching the students any of the skills they’ll need to successfully complete the assignments. This bothers me for several reasons, which I’ll go into below, but I’d really like to hear your opinion on the subject. What am I missing?
Here’s just two examples of what I’m hearing from readers (and I admit I have no way of knowing how common this is):
1. A high school student is studying medieval European culture in social studies class. Her assignment is to create a full-sized paper mache sculpture of a charging light draft horse, to be completed on her own time. Another student will create the armored knight to go on top of the horse. The student has never made anything with paper mache before, so she contacts me for some help.
2. A first-grader comes home and tells his mom that he needs to take a paper mache owl to school next Wednesday, and mom starts searching the web to find out how to do it.
I think you can guess from the general subject matter of this blog that I am very much in favor of art being taught in schools. In fact, I wish every student could learn art, music and dance at every grade, not only so they can have a well-rounded education, but because various art forms excite different parts of the brain than mathematics and language arts and history. Arts are important – no question about it.
However, there are two things the assignments I listed above have in common:
1. The student is assigned a project without being taught how to do the work; and,
2. When the assignment is completed, the teacher won’t be able to tell from looking at the finished work what the student really learned about the subject that’s being taught in class.
I’m thinking about this issue a lot right now because I’m in the middle of reading Doug Lemov’s book Teach Like a Champion. The author stresses the importance of being able to tell how well a child is learning the material. For example, if a question on a test is too ambiguous or too easy to guess right, the teacher won’t know if the student is really “getting it.” He also stresses the importance of using every minute of learning time, in a very well-structured way, to help move students towards mastery, and he stresses the need to prepare for success, not failure.
When the high school student brings her horse sculpture to class, she will have demonstrated that she can learn complex procedures on her own. She will have demonstrated that she can think through a very complicated engineering problem, and use her knowledge of balance and fulcrums and weight, etc., to complete a sculpture that stands up on it’s own. She’ll have demonstrated that she can look at a horse or a photo of a horse, and reproduce it’s shape with paper and cardboard. And she’ll have demonstrated that she knows someone who owns a pickup truck to transport the horse to school.
But has she learned anything at all about medieval European culture? Maybe. Or maybe not.
When I was a kid I would have jumped at the chance to do a project like this for a school assignment, simply because it seems so impossible. The challenge would have been extremely exciting, and I would have put all my waking hours into planning how to build my horse, how to make it stand up, how to transport it to school, etc. But here’s the rub — I wouldn’t have been able to think about anything else. Now, I realize I tend to be a bit more focused on things like that than most people are, but it seems to me that assigning an art project like this for a social studies class automatically diverts the student’s attention away from social studies.
I suspect that if the student spent the same amount of time reading good historic novels, she would have learned far more about medieval culture.
In the second example, let’s imagine the teacher looking out over a room with 25 paper mache owls sitting on the students’ desks. What information will the teacher gain from looking at those owls? Remember, she didn’t teach the kids how to make them.
She’ll know which parents know how to make an owl out of paper mache. She’ll know which parents have time to learn how to make sculptures out of paper mache, if they don’t already know. And she’ll know which parents “help” their kids by doing the homework assignments for them, and which student has a mom who works two jobs to pay the mortgage so she doesn’t have time to help her child with his art projects.
But what did the students learn about owls? The students will know that owls have two big eyes and a beak in the front of their face. But couldn’t the students learn that faster by drawing an owl during class?
As an artist and a sculptor, I have another objection to the idea of assigning art projects without teaching the skills needed to complete those projects. It says to me that the teacher believes that no skill is needed to make a paper mache sculpture. You don’t need any skill to look at an animal and see which characteristics are most important from an artistic point of view, and you don’t need any instruction in forming materials like crumpled paper and masking tape and paper strips and paste into a recognizable form.
Since I’m not a teacher, (and I know it’s a very hard job that I would never be able to do myself), I realize that there may be something that I’m totally missing. Perhaps there really is something very important that the teacher can see when she looks at all those owls, and I just can’t figure out what it is. If you’re a teacher yourself, I hope you’ll explain it to me.
Here’s how I can imagine that high school horse project actually “working” within the context of a social studies unit. In my fantasy, four teachers get together at the beginning of the term: the social studies teacher, the art teacher, the math teacher, and the shop teacher (do they still teach woodworking or metalworking in high school?)
The teachers decide that the best art project to compliment the social studies unit on medieval European culture will be two full-sized charging horses, complete with riders and lances. The art students will break into four teams, and will work on the projects together. They’ll also work very closely with the math and shop students to come up with workable armature designs for the horses. (Research questions – when a horse gallops, how many feet will be on the ground at one time? When was this question finally answered, and by whom? What piece of equipment needed to be invented before this question could be answered? Who invented it? If only two feet are on the ground, what kind of support will be needed to hold the sculpture upright, and what materials should be used to build it? )
At each stage of the project, there would be measurable results — except in the case of the social studies students. You still wouldn’t be able to look at the completed sculptures and know how much the students learned about medieval culture, because the sculptures could be based on just one drawing or painting of jousting knights. Finding that drawing would take one student about 3 minutes on Google.
So, after this long-winded rant, here are a few specific questions that I would very much like you to answer for me. You won’t be graded on your answers. 🙂
1. When is it appropriate to assign an art project without teaching the skills that are needed to complete the project? Is it ever appropriate if the teacher would be unable to do the project himself? (Would you be able to successfully create a sculpture of a full-sized charging draft horse? I’m not sure I could.)
2. If a teacher in a non-art subject assigns an after-school art project, how can the teacher judge the success or failure of the project, as it relates to the subject they’re learning in class? In other words, how will the assignment help the student master the non-art related subject matter? How will the teacher look at the finished artwork and determine how much the student learned about history or culture or…?
3. When parents complete assignments for their kids, or do all the research needed to learn how to do the assignment because it wasn’t taught in class, how does that benefit the kids or help them become competent scholars?
If every second of learning time is precious, as Doug Lemov believes, this is actually an important question.
So, tell me what I’m missing? What do you know about the benefit of this type of assignment that I haven’t figured out? How would you do it differently? Does it matter? Let’s talk about it.