An Opinion & Some Questions | Nick Jaffe

In the From the Editor section of most recent Teaching Artist Journal, 9.4 (2011), Chief Editor Nick Jaffe shares his thoughts and poses some questions about art making and art learning.  I am posting it here because I thought you might be interested in reading it and also to provide this space for feedback, if you are so inclined. — Malke, TAJ ALT/space Editor

An Opinion

As a field we are understandably appalled at the trend toward superficial, algorithmic, and just plain boring curricula in many public and charter schools. I think our response sometimes poses a false dichotomy between the “creative thinking” and “whole child”/”right brain” emphasis of “progressive pedagogy” in the arts and humanities, and the supposedly “linear,” “quantitative,” “fact-based,” uncritical approach that is supposed to characterize older teaching styles especially in math and science.  We even sometimes allow our rhetoric to suggest that “creativity” and “critical thinking” are present in unique ways in arts learning or in particular teaching methodologies.

In fact brain research increasingly confirms that the functional implications of “left/right brain thinking” are a myth, and deep study and work in any discipline is creative, integrative and potentially liberating.  Learning through art making is no more or less “creative” than studying chemistry, troubleshooting a car’s ignition system or learning to throw a fastball really well.

The real opposition is between learning and teaching something, and simply going through the motions.  The difference has less to do with teaching methodology or pedagogical philosophy than with the oppressive conditions in which teachers and students in impoverished and segregated schools are made to work.  Such conditions include the often-meager preparation many elementary teachers receive in their subjects, and the narrow and empty curricula (in all subjects) that they are increasingly forced to adhere to—curricula that more and more center on test prep or learning to follow directions and complete algorithmic tasks; curricula that are degradingly termed “teacher-proof,” but are better described as “content-free.”

Art making and art learning should be in all schools because all students should have the right to learn to make their art, and make it better, and because one can learn and teach many things in depth through art making.  This is the same reason that dynamic, interesting and in-depth work in math, science, history, literature, and athletic and shop and auto mechanics classes should be in schools.  Teaching artists and arts educators should see their work, and art making itself, as contributing to and drawing on a larger educational and cultural whole.  We should not just advocate for the arts, we should advocate for culture and learning in the broadest sense.  We’ll be better artists, teachers and reformers for it.

Some Questions

Someone recently asked me what sorts of things I consider when setting out to do a project as a teaching artist.  Here’s a partial list.  I’d love to see yours:

What will students make?

What will I teach?

What will they learn?

Is it OK if what they make isn’t what I expect or want?

What physical and figurative space will I create for students to work in?

How will I organize time?

I have a range available to me: one that extends from projects where I define the creative problem, to projects where the students define the problem themselves.  Which part(s) of this range will I engage with my students?

I have another range available to me: one that extends from art making that is explicitly about a theme, subject or academic content area, to one where the art making is not defined or framed in those terms at all.  Which part(s) of this range will I engage with my students?

If I am working with a specific theme or integrating content from other disciplines, are the connections real? Do they serve the art making?

How will I collaborate with teacher(s) or staff?

What do I want to learn?

Is there enough time and space for students to do their work?

How will I stay out of the way?

How will I know what happened?

How will I know if it was what I wanted to have happen?

Will this be fun and interesting for me?  What will I do if it isn’t?

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