Being an Atelierista; the role of direct instruction

Sometimes I get the idea that people think I never teach any skills or art techniques to children in the studio. That isn't true, but there is a particular focus to the way we use media and materials, and it doesn't always have much to do with technique or beauty, in a traditional art sense.

I think of the representations made in the studio more like conceptual art than more traditional kinds. Conceptual art is the hardest for some people to understand because it is about ideas (or concepts, see?)

In the arts, good technique in the use of media and materials has often been seen as important for good results. Studio work can be very beautiful, but since we are using art media to process ideas or demonstrate thinking, technique is only important where it serves a conceptual or communicative purpose. So, if a child needs to be able to use clay in order to create a symbol for an idea or to test a theory about bridge building, then they will first need some time to mess about with clay. Often, when messing about, children discover basic techniques themselves. However, if not, or if a more sophisticated use of the material is important, then some instruction of basic technique or skills is necessary. I try to keep the teaching within the context of messing about, because I want the knowledge to authentically serve the childrens purposes.

check out Dr Gregory Minissale's short description of conceptual art here: conceptual-neuroaesthetics...
"1. Conceptual art is puzzling, and its appreciation relies on reasoning, categorisation, memory, and maybe even problem solving.
2. Conceptual art relies on the interplay between the visible and invisible, and thus allows the spectator to shift among different kinds of representation and levels of explanation, inviting imagination and self-reflection."
 (this is an excerpt the whole paper is here:
The interplay between the invisible and the visible, imagination and self reflection! It seems like children already live in a world where ideas like that are important, and I am hoping they'll use studio materials to give me a peek into it.

Another place where direct instruction is often necessary is in the use and care of materials and tools. So I usually show children how to use a drill safely or to clean paint brushes during the introduction of those tools. However, sometimes children devise uses for materials that are not in line with adult expectations, but never the less serve the child. Sticking things together is a good example of this. I have been in schools where a
teacher uses a lesson to teach ‘gluing in small amounts’. I have found that children develop strong personal preferences and their own techniques with glues and tape, so I try to provide very gentle guidance and let the children figure out what works best to make things stick together. It never seems to convince children who don't like glue or only like duct tape to try other ways of sticking things, and they usually figure out what works best eventually without me.

Along those same lines, teachers should be careful not to use direct instruction where it may shut down the construction of knowledge. For instance, a child-drawn map may not look like an adult’s conception of a map because the child has drawn it from the earth’s point of view or using an unorthodox sense, like a map of smells or a map of the movement of sound. Teachers should think very, very carefully about the child’s point of view when responding to children’s representations.

This year I'm going to try to pay attention to the
times and places where I am teaching a specific skill or technique, rather than guiding a habit of mind. I wonder what I'll notice?


  1. Process.... Process.... Process.

  2. I wonder what advice you have about children who use so much of one thing when they genuinely do not need it. I want to allow them total freedom to use those materials, as per the philosophy, but sometimes they use so much tape, for example, and cut off a really, really long line of it and then do not use it and ask for more. I don't want to hamper their creativity but is there any better method of discouraging waste and still encouraging their process? I have been trying to redirect their attention to what they are using and trying to encourage thoughtfulness of our materials, but do you have any better suggestions?
    Thank you, your blog is very inspiring

  3. I think I do two things in that situation- either limit what is available (oops! no more tape) to force children to think about new solutions, or try to keep the focus on a question or knotty problem and just ignore the wasteful behavior. Over the years I have put a lot of effort into a study of what materials are really useful and what questions to ask to focus children in thinking deeply. We still have waste, but it seems to be way worse when children are just messing around with materials. Oh, and sometimes they are using tape for a good reason of their own, like to represent skin or fur.
    Long answer..I hope it helps a little!

  4. I am very interested to read your further explorations on this topic. My kids will often ask me "how do I draw a horse?" or "how can I make this lego tower taller?" and because I am not trained in the constructivist approach, I feel like my two options are to say "well how do YOU think you should draw a horse?" (which, presumably, they don't know or they wouldn't be asking), or to show them how to draw a horse, which feels like cheating and/or robbing them of their process. So I'm very interested in the notion of how to teach specific art skills (shading, perspective, body shapes, diminesion) using a constructivist approach. How do you do that? What do you do when a kid asks you "how do you draw a horse?" or "how do I make this ball look real instead of flat?"


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