Good Teachers Copy, Great Teachers Steal

I thought about defending my title, but appropriating Picasso seemed justification enough–at least to make my point. Picasso’s words inspired me. They gave me a point of departure to develop my own ideas about their meaning and their relevance to my own interests. Indeed, for teachers, as for artists, entrepreneurs, scientists, and anyone who thinks creatively, this process is essential. We take what’s been done, then make it our own by synthesizing it with our thoughts and expanding it toward a new purpose. So, why do we still try to do it all ourselves?

Learning From Others

I’ve walked a line between museum education and academic art history throughout my career. Recently a museum educator commented, “Wow. That must be hard.” Her question surprised me because I’ve always valued this dual perspective as an asset to my work in both fields. My academic background is useful in my work with curators and scholars; my experience in museum ed. helps me to make complex topics accessible to people with varied levels of knowledge.

In March, I attended the conference of the National Art Education Association, where I was reminded of the importance of breaking out of our professional silos. I went to a number of sessions devoted to museum education. These were great because mostly everyone was interested in questions similar to my own. It is wonderful for those of us at small institutions, or working independently as I do now, to feel part of a larger community that provides support and resources specific to our interests.

But, the idea that really inspired me, and that I plan to use in my modern art class next semester was a session about using art to help 1st and 2nd graders with reading comprehension. Taken from a recent book by Elizabeth Stewart and Jennifer Klein, the session demonstrated a visualization activity where students work in pairs. One describes the object; the other creates a sketch based solely on their peer’s verbal description.

This exercise suggested to me a way to deepen upper level students’ awareness of the relationship of art and language. The speaker gets to practice their skills by describing works using appropriate terminology, and by analyzing how different elements work together in the composition. The sketcher realizes how words dramatically shape (and limit) her visual understanding, and how they can be used more, or less, effectively to communicate information to others.

I’ve sometimes had students sketch objects in museums as part of a class writing assignment. It forces them to look more closely and pushes them out of their comfort zones to think about the process of making art. The visualization activity takes students to the next level by introducing language as a mediating factor, which must also be considered. Moreover, working collaboratively, the students get immediate feedback to help them refine their use of language, which further validates their ability to help each other with the assignment.

Creativity, Collaboration, and Reinventing the Wheel

To return to my earlier point, why do we try to do it all ourselves? Sharing resources and teaching strategies makes sense. We should learn from the failures of others and build on their successes. The increasing interest in technology-enhanced learning has reminded art history faculty of the importance of instructional designers and visual resource librarians. As we continue to explore new strategies to encourage more active learning among undergraduates, art historians might do well to look also to the practices of educators in museums and K-12, as well as those specializing in studio art for inspiration.

Generally, the move toward Open Access Education and Creative Commons Licensing is helping to facilitate the practice of exchange. On-line communities and websites encourage educators to post materials, and others to take and tailor them to meet their specific needs. The result is a growing databank of useful assignments, tested and refined in the field, that save us time and increase our effectiveness.

Such communities are great. They offer support, ideas, and comfort in that sense of being a part of something bigger than ourselves. But, it’s through difference that we might grow, expand, innovate, and create. As we continue to invest time in developing resources for educators, we must include a diverse range of experiences, ideas, and disciplinary perspectives. In a world where our social and professional networks are becoming more tailored to common interests, we need to be sure and seek out those who think differently from ourselves.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s