Second Grade: Thoughts on Art as Research

As I was showing the second graders' work during a meeting, our pedagogista asked me a very provocative question; "Why can't the children just write a kind of museum card to explain (what tree's roots do under the ground)? It was a great question which caused me to rethink my motivation. Why was it important to have children show their thinking visually rather than write it down? It was a chance for me to revisit my teacher-research intention to show the rigor of learning in art making.

As an artist, I see art practise as "giving ideas form."* Artists communicate important ideas and work out complex cultural puzzles and problems with media and materials. Helping people use art practice to give form to ideas draws me to the Reggio approach.
In creating their sculpture, (see second-grade knotty-problemsScarlett, Cal, Charlie, Penelope, Layla and Caroline are re-membering, re-thinking and representing what they've done in this project since September. Bruner puts it this way: "How can I know what I think until I represent what I do?" He calls representation "a going back over experience, a listening to oneself."
This is a more complicated definition of metacognition than just 'thinking about thinking'. The children are thinking about doing and thinking about knowing and how they got to this knowing. By trying to visually represent their knowing, they are forced to go back over the project and make choices about what were important moments and then decide how to represent them. That might also happen if they were writing a description. But I believe that in trying to show what they know in clay and paint, the choices are more difficult and the reflection is deeper.
Here is the introduction to the book they are making:

"First we learned a lot about trees, and then we split up into groups. Then we brainstormed something to do in our groups. And some people really wanted to do clay, and two people really wanted to do engineering. So we decided to make a background with a table in front to stand the clay trees up. And then we made roots, and connected them. And we made a book about how we did the project and what about trees we learned."
The artwork itself shows so much more than this, with it's intertwined roots and fungus below, animals, insects and lichen above. The sculpture tells the story of the learning and also of the metacognition and intersubjectivity that occured in the creation process. 

When I asked the group if they thought making the sculpture was important, they said "It's important to us to show what we learned, but it's also really important for other people. So they can learn too."


*see more at:

*Graeme Sullivan, Art Practice as Research p. 72. 2006
In creating or looking at art, "..explanations are revealed, connections are made and new forms of understanding are revealed. These kinds of theorizing processes are at the heart of what it is we do when we create and respond to art and serve as the basis upon which the visual arts can be seen as a research practise."