Thursday, March 27, 2008

Exploring the real world

Students who have been 'taught' to observe, draw and reflect are able to produce work of personal excellence.(Year six)

'Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.' Rachel Carson author of 'The Silent Spring' a book that sparked the need for environmental protection.

If we wish to develop citizens who have an understanding of the need for sustainability then we ought to see as basic the need to help students respond to and interpret the world around them.

That this exploration leads into environmental studies, creative writing, language and artistic development is an added bonus but to take full advantage of such experiences students need to be 'taught' appropriate skills and attitudes.

Drawing is one such basic skill but unfortunately after about the age of 7 or 8 many children have developed the belief that they can't draw. Before this age children will cheerfully draw anything asked of them.

To overcome this 'can't do' attitude teachers need to give structured support to refuel children's curiosity by encouraging slower observation ( 'look- draw- look -draw'). If a stuffed pheasant, such things as, feather patterns, beak and eyes, legs and then, with the chosen medium, experimenting how to represent them.

Such intense observational drawing ( with associated growing skill in the chosen medium) ought not to result in a perfect realisation. Every student needs to capture their own personal interpretation of the pheasant - and each students piece of work needs to be valued and not judged by demeaning realist criteria.

In such an intense reflective process as drawing students will be thinking of many things and a sensitive teachers can, at a later time, develop such thoughts into study questions and poetic writing.

Ideally teachers might have introduced this bird study with a display to attract the students attention. Jerome Bruner wisely said that , 'intellectual temptation is the canny art of the teacher'. Such a display , spreading to the walls, will have added to it students questions, research, poetic language, and creative art work.

Exploring the visual environment ought not be left to chance particularly in this age of virtual reality. Through exploration of everyday things , all too often taken for granted, students will become aware of the language of visual exploration. Once this visual awareness is realised there is a wealth of natural and man made possibilities to explore in every school environment: buildings, bikes, plants, trees, gates, cars, kinds of sky and clouds, rain....

There is no need to go far and, armed with digital cameras, visual ideas can be bought back to the class for further explore and interpret.

Teachers need to keep a 'weather eye' for possibilities for students to explore and objects can be bought for home as well.

There are all sorts of ways to develop this environmental and visual awareness. Students can lie down, shut their eyes, stand on things to get a different view, and each of the senses can be explored separately.

Themes such as patterns, shapes, decoration, reflections, life cycles, can be explored, along with such things as, life in long grass, patches of bush, parks, car parks, stones, shells, fossils, historical artifacts, historical buildings, marae, local small businesses ( bike shops), backs of shops... each school can draw up their own list.

The key to it all is to focus the students on an area of interest, to provide experiences and resources to encourage first hand experiences in depth, and then , by working alongside the learner, to help students produce personal interpretations using whatever medium has been chosen.

Simple stuff but, when done well, amazing. It is about doing fewer things well.

And it all for free - the curriculum is to be found in within the students curiosity and the immediate environment. Best of all it takes advantage of the natural way students learn. Such an approach helps students make sense of their environment and their experiences.

Using such an approach the student is centre of his, or her, own learning
rather than imposed 'unrealistic' curriculums.

This approach does, however, depend on the enthusiasm of each teacher and the relationship between the 'teacher' ( 'co-explorer') and the learner.

It was the 'progressive approach' before overwhelmed by imposed Ministry curriculums - well up until now it seems.


Bruce Hammonds said...

Rachel Carson, in a book 'A Sense of Wonder' written for her nephew, said that she hoped every child would have at least one adult to share with them the wonders of the natural world.

For every hour transfixed in front of a screen a 'modern' child needs another hour just sitting by a river, or under a tree, to make up for the sensory deprivation.

Anonymous said...

Observational drawing used to be a strong feature of Taranaki classrooms. Also there are some good resources around written by some teachers and advisers from that time that may need to be made available again. The art of teaching and using the environmemt to promote learning seems sadly lacking these days.

Anonymous said...

Traditional literacy needs to make room for visual literacy and aesthetics - so many teachers fail to understand this locked, as they are, in the wrong century!

Bruce Hammonds said...

When I visit classrooms and see intense examples of observation, often reinterpreted through creative media, I know the real world of the students is being explored. When observation evokes curiosity, leading to personal research, then that is exciting -and rare.