Hello! It’s been a while! Sorry about that. How about a quick update?
It’s May 2020. I was supposed to be analyzing data and working on finishing my dissertation. Now I’m not. We all had other plans.
The vast majority of art teachers never planned on teaching online either. 2020 has been full of surprises so far. For now, much of the world congregates mainly online instead of in public, ‘social distancing’ and ‘flattening the curve’ as we wait for the day when we can launch ourselves from our burrows like hyperactive meerkats getting shot out of cannons. But who knows what life will be like even after the COVID-19 storm passes? Will we be back to school in the Fall? Will we still have our jobs in a few months or another year from now? Will there be a zombie apocalypse or an alien invasion this year? Despite our everyday lives becoming mostly virtual, it feels somehow even less futuristic than Neuromancer, Snow Fall, or the Matrix might’ve led us to believe.
I missed blogging since I’ve been away. It’s great to have a place for more recreational writing. But I had been forgivably absorbed in my dissertating. Now because of our current circumstances, it looks like I might need to figure out how to completely redesign my study since there may or may not be classes to visit and make art with in the immediate future. What form exactly my study design will take is still yet to be seen. For the time being, I’ve shifted my focus to designing a course on teaching K12 art online for art teachers. My ulterior motive is that this slight detour will help me get back on course.
We’re all trying to figure out distance learning right now, among other things. Around the globe art teachers are rethinking the role of art and technology and doing it post haste. Many art teachers are struggling, having received little to no training or preparation, while others feel disconnected and unsupported as their schools go all in on their classroom or ‘more important’ subjects. Yet there are also many ‘American Ninja-ing’ up that steep technology learning curve and flourishing online in unexpected ways. Many more are somewhere in the middle just trying to, in the immortal words of Tim Gunn, make it work.
As teachers, we’re all used to ‘building the plane and flying it too’, but this is more like building the plane 50,000 feet up while desperately flipping through the pages of Baby’s First Flight Manual to find the Table of Contents. It’s been rough is what I’m trying to say. Many of these teachers are not only trying to teach other people’s children, but doing all this simultaneously while supervising their own children. The situation is less than ideal. Our students could be anywhere, anytime, if they show up at all, and might have no art materials. It might feel like teaching art via message in a bottle.
All our daily lives have been turned upside-down. Coping with fear, anxiety, and stress can be difficult as we hunker down through this uncertain crisis with an invisible threat. We depend on the Internet for so much of our lives right now. I can’t help but be grateful at least to be trapped indoors in a time where so many have unprecedented access to a near endless stream of entertainment and information online. Video chat is something commonplace. You can download most any video game you want or if you don’t feel like playing, watch a live-streamer play it for you. We can waste infinite hours and kilowatts scrolling through memes and shopping at Amazon. With all this time indoors, I can’t help but reflect on the current state of the world and how we got here. Where the heck are we going?
How did I end up designing and teaching art teachers how to teach online?
I’m far from some tech guru or the end-all-be-all of distance learning. I had grown up with names like Atari, Nintendo, and Sega at home and the irradiated green pixels of Oregon Trail or Number Muncher on the single classroom computer relegated to the corner of the room. In high school I loaded Doom from a floppy disk of shareware and sent instant messages to kids my age across the country on America Online. I created my first digital artworks in MS Paint. The height of our hacking capabilities was figuring out how to use our graphing calculators to play Snake.
It was 2002 when I built my first website as an art project in Dr. Craig Roland’s Art Education & Technology course at the University of Florida. I still remember every project and what I made for each. We created funny animated gifs using famous artwork, self-portraits in Adobe PhotoShop 6.0 & 7.0 with real-world objects and images on flatbed scanners, tried some basic html coding, built a creative website using Macromedia Dreamweaver, and made a collaborative art ed webquest for our future students. The artwork we made was alive, interactive, and out there for the whole world wide web to see. My old college website is still floating out there, a relic of a more DIY Internet, bravely refusing to be deleted after all these years. I built more than a dozen or two creative and professional websites since then, along with a number of digital and web-based projects. Why don’t I make neat, weird things online like that anymore?
It was my experience in Craig’s class and the skills that I learned there that allowed me to get a job working at the Center for Instructional Training & Technology (CITT) on campus. I remember the office was on the second story just past the potato and above the french fries. If you went to UF you’ll know these landmarks. It was exciting that folks thought my background in art and education was a plus, and that even though I may not have been technically advanced, they believed they could work with the skills I had and that I could learn the technology as necessary. But they couldn’t teach me to think like an artist and a teacher. This point would be echoed 15 years later by a local business leader speaking about why he prefers to hire art majors and creative thinkers to work at his tech startup rather than people with only a technical background.
My job was fairly straightforward and often boring. But it was also a pretty relaxed and fun place to work as a young person in college while also gaining a ton of marketable skills. It was my job to edit and sync Microsoft PowerPoint slides with audio for a distance learning program in the Gerontology department. I should’ve walked away with a minor in gerontology after all those hours of listening to lectures from professors and healthcare professionals and guest speakers. It did nevertheless instill a very long-term perspective of learning into me during my pre-service teaching career. Maybe that’s partly what influenced me to emphasize art and creativity for a person’s entire life. Similarly, partially because it was a university using public funds and grants, there was a keen awareness of digital accessibility. I had never considered accessibility really before that job and the kinds of questions we would have to answer and the diversity of user experiences we would consider is something that I’ve tried to retain to this day. Craig's class expanded my own expressive abilities, while CITT expanded my awareness of audience and difference.
Looking back, there were lots of other bits of discrete knowledge I picked up while at CITT. For example, I was also implicitly learning how to chunk learning in ways ideally suited to the structure of online courses. That was the first time I saw those alien words “module” (aka unit) and “course shell” (aka classroom) that online teachers know so well. The format is as old as formal education. Basically, the gerontology courses were closer to online textbooks brought to life through timed slides and recorded audio. Including video was well beyond our capabilities back then and YouTube didn’t really exist yet. I wasn’t involved in the class discussions or grading or anything once the classes went live. The behind the scenes content development was interesting but also rather mechanical. It wasn’t anything like the experimental, artistic creations from Craig’s class. I wanted more of that and would spend my down-time tinkering with creative websites and animations destined to become flotsam on hard drives and servers. But it was fun and today I don’t come across a lot of unusual websites like you did back in the early 00s and before. I know they’re still out there, but maybe we’re less likely to wander from the well-tread path now.
I remember how I constantly experienced imposter syndrome while I worked at CITT. I was ‘faking it until I made it’ constantly and to be honest, I never felt like I ever ‘made it’. I wasn’t an especially competent html coder, could barely ActionScript in Flash, I didn’t know how to program much more than some Excel functions and Word macros, could hardly cobble together a style sheet, the latest web innovation becoming standardized, and I didn’t know any other programming languages. I had taken a Business Computing course a couple years before where we built a faux company with a complete faux employee database and wrestled with formulas in Excel until our eyes bled. That had also been a tremendous learning experience, but mostly in troubleshooting, resilience, and brute force. My strengths at work was software, amateur art & design, novice pedagogy, and not a whole lot else. I was constantly afraid I’d be exposed as the charlatan I was but somehow I managed to get away with the whole charade by learning things. And also looking busy. I always recommend that students ‘punch above their weight’ meaning they should go for the jobs and apply for the opportunities that they feel at least a little underqualified for. You’ll grow more; stretch more, I think. Everyone feels like an imposter at some point anyway when taking on a new role. Might as well mean it. I imagine some of the art teachers I’ll be working with in the distance learning class might feel similarly these days.
It was a nice setup at CITT. They hired folks with the understanding that the job was also a learning opportunity and we were able to teach ourselves on an as-needed basis for projects. It was cool working at a place that respected independence and actively encouraged their employees to improve themselves. Surprisingly, I worked at several schools much less concerned with giving teachers the time, money, space, and yes, trust, to learn on their own. I read a lot of Flash for Dummies, Dreamweaver for Dummies, and HTML for Dummies. There were LOTS of tutorials online. All the time I was there I kept making artistic little websites, watching tutorials, and grinding Runescape in the background. I eventually learned some Flash animation. I collaborated on the storyboarding and writing, character and background design, animation, and game design for a neat public health project intended for children with PKU condition that you might find on the Wayback Machine but otherwise is gone from online. It was about a boy meeting an alien from outer space, ensuing hijinks, etc. I’m not sure if the project ever came to fruition, but I did revisit it later and found a lot of my work intact and a lot discarded and re-designed. Such is the cut-throat world of public health cartooning. I save everything though and maybe I'll post some of the animations but just for now here is the background art I created.
When I was at UF I also became involved in our local NAEA student chapter where I became president and not coincidentally webmaster, again putting to use my skills from Craig’s class. Eventually I went on to become a national student chapter president, where I redesigned that website. The other student presidents and I held honorary board seats and in that role we were able to show off our website to the rest of the leadership, many of whom were impressed by our outreach and tech savvy, would eventually insist on a long-overdue update to the NAEA website. An ad hoc committee was organized to provide recommendations on which I served with Craig. There I was, helping shape the digital face of art education in America.
All of that happened directly because of the opportunities I had in Craig’s class. This is the epitome of relevance. Ever since then, I’ve tried to dedicate myself to ensuring students can take what they do in my class directly out into the world afterward. How can I set them up for success outside of class, immediately, as a result of our time together? I was able to thrive AND survive because I gained expressive AND professional skills. In other words:
Ask not what you can do for Art, ask what your art can do for YOU!
How can I provide my students with their own Ruby Slipper moments, where there is no telling where they might go with the skills and abilities they acquire?
My mirror experiences in Craig’s Art Ed Technology class and working at CITT is the perfect example of the “Adapt versus Adopt” dichotomy Craig talks about in his essay Art Ed 2.0 Manifesto (reprinted below with author’s permission) which can be traced back to Presnky (2005) and is echoed in Delacruz (2009). In Craig’s class, he invited us to adopt new approaches resulting in new processes and products - something unexpected and unique with a global audience and unlimited potential. At work at CITT, I manufactured content on a digital assembly line where I adapted old approaches and products like slide lectures to a new format, an automated slide lecture online, that was nevertheless extending the reach of the university and therefore extending opportunity and making higher learning more inclusive and accessible.
Five years after I graduated from UF, I was in my fourth year of teaching art and at the NAEA conference in 2009 when he presented this foundational piece. Now the world is very different than it was two months ago, let alone 10 years ago when this was originally presented. And yet the ideas are even more relevant now. Like it or not, whether you’re a technophile or neophyte, the distance between art teaching and technology has collapsed for better or worse. As I contemplate where we will go from here as art teachers and as a field, I find myself returning to Roland’s vision for the future of art education.
I’m fortunate to have been able to work under a digital art education pioneer. He asked us to figure out what we could do with the tools we were handed. He asked us to not stare into screens and punch keys alone but to play and blend the digital and analog by using our hands and objects and processes, like a dolphin jumping between air and water but between virtual and actual, engaged in new ways of thinking and making, like an artist. From drawing to scan to screen to print to film and back again ad infinitum. That is what I think of when I think of an art education that, as Craig puts it, is “High Tech & High Touch”. This, I believe, is what the future demands of artists and is what I hope my students will also take away from their time with me as well.
I fully appreciate now how rare of a treat Craig’s class was and how far ahead of the curve he put his students. I tried multiple times to replicate elements of that class but never to the same level of success. For one reason or another, I myself never managed to create my own stand-alone art and technology course. For what it’s worth, I felt like in most of my teaching tenures after, both K12 and Higher Ed, it was always a fight just to get my Ss access to technology labs and devices. I knew of colleagues in art education doing really cool stuff online with their students or creating maker spaces, but I had $900 to start an entire K5 art program from scratch, for example, and didn’t have much high tech work to showcase myself. I’m sure a lot of my students feel the same way, saying things like “I wish” or “if only”. At my first teaching job, ironically on a technology magnet campus, I couldn’t get a digital projector but instead had to use an overhead projector and a sheet of dry erase board hooked over a chalkboard with a broken wheel with some crude wire hooks. The principal, an excellent example of the Adapt mindset, thought simply typing using word processor software was being a digital content creator. Smh. I remember how the mostly white, mostly well-off minority of bussed in academy students learned to build websites and edit photos while our mostly black local students only used computers for typing and testing drills - no longer the Digital Gap but the Digital Divide, where class and race determines not just what technology you have access to but also dictates your technical aspirations. I understood how frustrating it was for many students to feel like they had to unplug as they entered the school building and felt like they were stepping back in time. Now teaching this class online, I will finally have a fully-integrated art ed and technology class, so to speak, just not the way I had originally imagined. That’s life. How can I create a space where creativity and equity are centered rather than marginalized?
Speaking of life, we like to think we’re more immersed in technology now than ever before in the history of humankind. But as I like to remind my students, a pencil is technology. A simple graphite pencil was a cutting-edge innovation for hundreds of years. But just like the apps in smartphones that older generations assume young people wield like adept magicians, most folks simply pick it up and use it without sophistication or awareness of the creative possibilities. Yet every art teacher has taught their students how to hold a pencil and how to manipulate it to achieve desired effects. It’s the same with a mouse, a finger-swipe, and whatever comes after. Now it’s vectors and pixels. In the past it was pigment and clay. In the past the technology was vastly different but our dependence was not. This has been true since we discovered fire and its ability to cook our food, warm our bodies, light the darkness, harm our enemies, and produce drawing supplies, ie charcoal. Technology has been fundamental to our evolution as humans and art has always been there. Since the beginning, our tendency towards innovation has provided us with the means to not only survive but also thrive creatively. Technology is the very mechanism of our evolution. While some fear that with each step embracing technology more, that we lose a bit of our humanity, but with each incremental advancement, it is the inescapable presence of art that at the same time retains what makes us human. We cannot have one without the other.
Art teachers have always been tech teachers. While the latest advancements may frustrate us momentarily, that too shall pass. Our tech legacy is as old as our species, and while it is important to pause and take stock of where we have been and what we already know, it is even more important to ask where are we going? I very much want to help my students to successfully adapt to this new normal and whatever follows. Times of disruption are also times of possibility. So the silver-lining may be that we have been given the opportunity to rethink the way we do things. Our collective relocation to the Internet temporarily might provoke us to re-imagine what art education looks like. What does art do for people in their daily lives, especially during tense times? What can we do with our students online that isn’t possible in the classroom? What will post-Internet art education become? Will we just go back to the way things were or will there be some new artistic path laid out before us?
Now that I have the privilege of designing and teaching a distance learning class for art teachers starting this week, these questions have been at the forefront of my thoughts these last few weeks. So I’m back here at my blog, thinking out loud with you as I try to guide art teachers navigating this new online frontier we’ve all suddenly found ourselves in. As I’ve stressed over and over again, I believe vulnerability is a fundamental but too little acknowledged component of creativity, teaching, and learning. Many of my students, I imagine, are probably feeling vulnerable as well. Naturally, if you are doing something you don’t know how to do, that you haven’t necessarily been trained to do, you too would probably feel off-balance. Remember back to your Maslow’s Hierarchy and pretend it’s that “You Are Here” map from the mall. Where is that arrow pointing right now? The old self-actualization summit can seem like it might as well be in space compared to what a lot of folks are worrying about right now - safety and security. Belonging can feel tough too as we distance ourselves physically and our communities are dispersed. In many cases our very identities feel threatened - we’re all first year teachers again. There are lots of folks looking for advice and support these days. I hope I can help. Nothing is normal.
What will that mean for my students? What will that mean for their students? What will that mean for any of us? Fecho’s concept of wobbling, introduced to me by Dr. Brian Edmiston at OSU, is an appropriate analogy. We’re all feeling wobbly these days. That wobble can be productive, though it may not necessarily feel that way in the moment as it signals the presence of a possible new path - a chance for change. Like a sailor or a skateboarder, we can become more comfortable with wobble, even becoming at home in it. In a classroom, we want our wobbling to develop into swaying, where we mindfully bring together our cognitive and emotional sides, our elephants and riders, as Edmiston would remind us. Will a 3 week long class be long enough for my students and I to learn how to sway together with our elephants?
This will be my first time teaching a distance learning course about distance learning. I always enjoy a good meta. The first time you do anything is not going to be your best performance possible, I tell myself. And that’s fine, especially now. But at the same time, I feel such a tremendous responsibility to my teachers, for helping them feel more confident and successful. I need to find my own balance between these extremes, allowing the pressure to productively push me without letting it punish. Accept that we are in survival mode, but perhaps acknowledging that we can survive in style. We can keep an eye on the horizon and an eye out for gopher holes. As I approach this new experience, I have to remember my “why” just as I do in any class and as I always tell my students to do.
How can we make the most meaning possible?
It’s easy to lose sight of meaning in chaos and turmoil. But meaning is purpose. Meaning is hope. Meaning is beauty. Artmaking is meaning making, regardless of whether you’re a professional artist or amateur. When we make meaning in the world, that is art. And boy, do we need meaning - in our daily lives, in our relationships, and for the future of our society. We MUST have art. Why are we here? Other than to kick ass and chew bubblegum.? We are here to make meaning. How do we make meaning? Have you tried making art?
Join me as I embark on this virtual adventure into teaching K12 art teachers online and possibly even, one day, a completed dissertation. More on that last part soon - hopefully. For now, it seems like a good time to revisit Craig’s seminal essay, Art Ed 2.0 Manifesto. I want to comb through his writing in a little more depth having only briefly touched on some of its ideas here. I’ll discuss how this foundational reading has influenced my teaching and continues to inspire me in my next post and update you about how the class progresses. Until then, we’ll be together, apart. Thank you for reading.
NEXT POST: Art Ed 2.0 2020
Read Art Ed 2.0 Manifesto (2009)
*Since I’m publishing this post coincidentally during Teacher Appreciation Week - thanks, Craig!*
As students enter class, they see a prompt written on the board:
If creativity were an animal, what would it look like? Draw it.
“If you captured creativity under a bell jar, what would you see when you looked inside? Would you know creativity if you saw it? Have you ever wondered what exactly creativity is? What do we mean when we say 'creative'?"
“My goal today is for you to leave here knowing less about creativity than when you walked in,“ I tell my students at the beginning of our third class. They are undergraduate early-childhood majors in my Art & Curriculum Concepts for Teachers class, a 2 credit course that meets once a week for a semester. They are required to take two out of the three choices between visual art, music, and drama.
Is creativity the act of creation? Does it happen whenever anything is made? Or are only some creations creative? How do you tell the difference? Does it matter if it’s Paint-By-Number? Does it matter who is doing the creating? Can a painting be creative if it’s made by a paintbrush being held by a long, grey trunk?
Is creativity a kind of thinking, more about ideas than about things? Is it thinking that is divergent; the more ideas the better? Can the thinking be convergent too; an idea honed to a sharp point? Do creative thoughts move vertically, laterally, randomonly, or even transdimensional? Does it move it swim or scuttle or skip? Can it crawl and climb and fly?
Does creativity have to be original? Something that’s never existed before? Is each of us therefore creative, even if we’re remixed versions of what came before? Can it be a reference so obscure that most no one has heard it? Does a drop of unoriginality change an otherwise original whole? Is there anything anywhere that hasn’t built on what’s come before?
Does creativity move gradually, imperceptibly slow like a glacier remaking a whole landscape? Does it increase incrementally as we toil and sweat like the ants in hidden hallways beneath our feet? Can it be ordered into a system like our entire solar system? Or does it strike like a bolt of lightning and disappear in a flash? On a long enough timeline entire civilizations become more like fruit flies, does it matter how long our creations last?
Can it be creative even if you don’t have a reason or know what to do with it? Robots and AI and billionaire space colonies; tiny computers and black holes and quantum thingamajigs. As more and more “What if?” becomes what is, I often wonder to myself can we perpetually do whatever we muse or is there a ceiling on what can be done? I’d like to ask Jules Verne.
Is creativity innovation? Can it be imitation? Iteration? Incremental? Sometimes imperceptible? Can creativity be pointless, another novelty or fad? Or must it change the world and the way everyone thinks? Does it matter if that thinking is good or bad? Can creativity be judged? Can creativity be in the wrong place at the wrong time? Is the Baghdad Battery as creative as a phone in someone’s pocket?
Does it spend its time solving our problems or does it appear daydreamy or even lazy and tired? Does it conjure images of a Bart Simpson or a gifted over-achiever? Is it poorly behaved or just bored out of its mind? Is it more interested in problem-finding? And what does it feel like if we feel it inside? Is it cursed to be moody like the myth of the “tortured artist?” Or can something more appealing, like a rollercoaster ride?
Is creativity like a yin and yang, existing in tension between what is and what could be? Does creativity need to make sense to us? Can it be so many different things all at once? Is creativity as indefinable as you or me?
1. Creativity: Asset or Burden in the Classroom? Westby, Erik L and Dawson, V L. 1, 1995, Creativity Research Journal, Vol. 8, pp. 1-10. 2. Predicting Creative Behavior: A Reexamination of the Divergence Between Traditional and Teacher-Defined Concepts of Creativity. Dawson, V L, et al. 1, 1999, Creativity Research Journal, Vol. 12, pp. 57-66.
When creativity experts describe creativity, they describe it differently than teachers. Are experts and teachers describing the same thing? Can they both be right?
If creativity walks into our classroom, do we welcome it? Or is it more like a double-edged sword that seems scary; that we were never taught how to wield? Is creativity something special, that only special people really feel? Or is it as common as the nose on our face? Do we make space for creativity, as a matter of inclusion?
If we thought of creativity like a wagon wheel, what skills and abilities might the hub of the wheel unite? Or if we took creativity apart - if we looked inside - what characteristics might we identify
If creativity is a skill, something anyone can learn, would we know when to use it? And would we be inclined to do so?
Is what’s most important about creativity is what it means to you? And to know what it means, mustn’t one experience it? To see it in ourselves and others and especially to feel it? If so, then shouldn’t we as teachers be able to describe it and provide evidence of our sighting it in the wild? And after thinking about all this, do you still think it’s fair to grade “creativity” so generally? Would I ever find “intelligence” in a rubric from your class?
Is creativity inherent in the arts, the domain of the art teacher, or does it belong to most any field? Does creativity live in the human heart? Does it inhabit moreso the mind? Does creativity occupy my physical body? Are its origins spiritual or supernatural? Or is creativity everyday, as common as carbon? Is it as natural as gravity - a constraint humans intuitively felt inspired to defeat? Necessity is the mother of invention. Shouldn’t we also consider creativity a necessity for our very survival? Our imagination finds ways to pass the second-hand of the school clock as it ticks sadistically slowly. Our dreams can take us away from tedium and trauma alike, transporting us to places of infinite possibility.
But can creativity wither like a raisin in the sun? Are my students still creative if I don’t try to see it? Am I still creative if I say I’m not? Does it disappear if I deny it? "I'm not creative," declare 1/5 of my students. After our conversation, are they still so sure?
At the end of class, my took turns sharing our drawings of creativity as an animal. It was fantastic listening to the reasoning behind their artistic choices and learn the many ‘whys’ behind their images. They were all so meaningful. Originally, I thought of these drawings as just an entry point into our discussion of creativity. A primer. But since then, I’ve decided that I’ll invite my students to to revisit these drawings several times as a way to develop artistic skills, refine their artwork, and think like artists. I see a lot of potential here. But I don’t know for sure, and that is indicative of creativity for me - you have to trust the process. It’s a risk with no guarantee. But rather than another ‘one-and-done,’ let’s try to build something here. There is creative and intellectual juice left unsqueezed.
To make things memorable and meaningful, I think that it is helpful to continually build upon and revisit ideas and skills. Sharpen the saw. I suspect that these early-childhood majors can develop some sophistication in their drawing while simultaneously encouraging them to consider their conceptions of creativity. At the end of this semester, I will post before and after pics with the final versions of these drawings. I’m excited to see how they turn out!
What would creativity look like if it were an animal to YOU? I’d love to see you draw it and share!
Hello! For those of you that are new here, welcome! Thank you for visiting and I hope you enjoy your time here! And for returning readers, a very special welcome back! I don’t know about you all but this seemed like the summer that never was to me! It flew by so quickly, I can hardly believe that classes are right around the corner (and many of you heroes have already started back!)
The beginning of the year is a great time to revisit your values and reaffirm your beliefs to prepare and get energized for the work ahead. Since several of you are new Color Wheel Killers, I think it’s especially appropriate to share why I’m here and hopefully that will resonate with you and this community will be something you want to continue to be a part of. Together we can advance the field of visual art learning.
I started this blog a year ago as a challenge to myself to be more transparent in my teaching and therefore more vulnerable - to share what I was doing with others struggling with how to teach better and more creatively. I wanted a place where I could share my thoughts about teaching and the things going on in my classroom. It was a risk I’m glad I’ve taken and has since helped me to think more deeply and meaningfully about my teaching practice and research. I’ve taken (mischievous) pleasure knowing that my provocative title has connected with you and others as we think about how better to connect our students to their own creativity through encounters with contemporary art.
So why is my (in)famous logo, poor Carl the Color Wheel, getting dispatched in such gruesome fashion? Well, because blood is cool, obviously. But yes, I know it's not so much the gore but my call for eliminating color wheels that can elicit gasps among some of my colleagues, even accusations of blasphemy. ‘YOU MONSTER!! HOW COULD YOU?!? HOW ELSE CAN STUDENTS LEARN TO APPRECIATE COLOR?!? The color wheel is precious and every child must know it, use it, memorize it, and love it. Blue and red make purple! Yellow and purple complement each other! This is critical art stuff here!’ I worry how some of my colleagues seem to so strongly identify with this tool or see it somehow as endemic of all of art education. I'm not attacking anyone - just an idea.
What do I have against color wheels, the art teacher’s beloved class accessory? For the record, I like color and I think color theory is really interesting. like rainbows. I’m not opposed to circular rainbows.
I consider myself to be in good company in my disdain for the color wheel. Art educator Olivia Gude, whom I’ve followed for years, has likewise repeatedly called for an end to the antiquated practice of making color wheels:
And HS Art teacher Amelia Hernandez recalls an Olivia Gude anti-color wheel presentation from a recent NAEA convention in Chicago where Gude says, “If you still get the urge to teach a color wheel assignment, just lie down on the ground and wait until the feeling passes.”
While I might see similarities between my thinking and that of one of the top movers-and-shakers in our field, I’m definitely not trying to claim superiority by any means. How do I know color wheels are a waste of time? Because I’ve made classrooms full of students paint color wheels (but we made them into flowers, so that’s better right?!? No? No.) I deeply regret it. If you have done this too, I’m not judging you. But if you don’t have a darn good reason for doing it after reading this, then I might.
What is most important about art? This is a question my mentor Craig Roland would ask his students. What’s the one thing you want them to remember about their time in your art class?
Our time is so short with our students and therefore even more precious. Every student doesn’t take art, isn’t required or doesn’t have access to take visual art in school. Will they go throughout their lives with the secret shame of never having made a wheel of colors of their very own? Will they have some disadvantage in life which you could point to? In the typical visual art class, not every student is going to be an artist. In fact, this is most likely true for the vast majority of them. How does the color wheel improve the life of the dentist? The auto mechanic? The garbage person? The postal worker? How will the color wheel help them encounter a contemporary work of art or engage an object in an artful way.
Of course, I’m sure everyone thinks what they’re teaching is important. I didn’t think I was wasting my student’s time as they spent class after class filling in the colors. But why is the color wheel important? Is it important beyond itself? Some call it an important tool. But is the use of a tool in it’s form or in it’s purpose? Certainly, a pencil can be beautiful - but isn’t the beauty of the pencil found in the purpose in which it is employed? An elegant equation? A poignant sentence? An expressive line?
But surely the color wheel has some purpose! I grant you that. I see no doubt that the color wheel serves the painter better than most. It’s a little less useful already for other visual art forms however, say for example the sculptor that works in earthtones or the digital artist whose color palette is based on an entirely different wheel of color based on light rather than pigment. For every person that claims how useful the color wheel was to them, I wonder if I couldn’t find 100 that would say not a day has gone by that they have occupied their thoughts with wheels of color?
Understanding the color wheel will help students see better! They will appreciate color more! First, I’d like to see the evidence for this. Seriously. I’m unaware of any research that demonstrates that an intervention involving color wheel training is correlated with subsequent reports of significantly higher levels of aesthetic satisfaction. Secondly, do you really think the color wheel is the best, or only, way to produce that satisfaction?
Is there a right way to use color? Color wheels allegedly teach students “ideal” ways to choose colors. This must certainly refer to some of the so-called “rules” some art teachers must be referring to when they state that “you must first learn the rules before you can break the rules.” But color preference is personal, cultural, and contextual. The color wheel can tell you what colors might look “pretty” or “nice” together (according to a particular socio-cultural viewpoint) and encourages encourage a formulaic or prescriptive application of color. “Step 1: Follow directions; Step 2: Use at least 1 color and its complement; Step 3: Clean up after...” Sound familiar? Much like a disgruntled older woman in search of beef in the 80s, I can’t help but ask: “Where’s the meaing?”
Color is important to me when it is meaningful. Color is important when it helps us create and understand meaning around us. How do I perceive color? What colors create which effects? What colors might best portray a feeling I’m going for? How do certain colors make me feel? How can I use color to affect my mood or that of others? None of these questions are answered by the color wheel.
I see the color wheel in good company with the elements and principles of art. They are the grammar of art, but not the message. They are they HOW, not the WHY or even WHAT. Humans are naturally driven by meaning and purpose and that is not supplied by grammar but comes from the heart. Certainly not useless, but moreso overemphasized if anything. More sophistication does not necessarily imply more meaning. Greater sophistication comes with practice and practice comes with inclination. Interest can be sparked by a good teacher, but not if we are focusing on what isn’t meaningful. To privilege the mechanical aspects of art over the meaningful aspects is pointless to me. We must always begin with the meaning. We must engage ourselves with the purposes of art and go beyond the superficial aspects.
We are all attached to the past in one way or another. Call it tradition, nostalgia, or sentiment. We all have things we either don’t want or are afraid to let go. But when those things get in the way of learning, when those things reduce what we do in art to the lowest common denominator so it can become a multiple choice question on some irrelevant test, then we must challenge ourselves to abandon those things holding us back. If I was a writing teacher, my site might be called, “Kill Your Cursive.” It’s not the style so much as the substantive role art and creativity can have in the lives of everyday people today and have had throughout history.
If you came out of an art education without ever seeing a color wheel, I think it would still be possible for you to live a long and happy life. I believe you’d still be able to enjoy the colors of a sunset or a butterfly’s wing or a Van Gogh.
We live in an age where we can’t believe our eyes. The majority of young people and adults can’t tell the difference between a fake image or news story and a real one. How have we supposedly helped our students “see” if they cannot even see the difference between what is real and what’s fake? How does this prepare them for an unforeseen future as a fully-functional citizen? Will memorizing a color wheel somehow better aid them participate in the society of the future than critical thinking skills or the ability to consider multiple interpretations, build empathy, or make meaning? Because looking at art can help develop those skills. Reproducing colors in a circle don’t.
To grow, we must be prepared to abandon the old ways of doing things and leave behind the things we may once have found useful, even loved, but that no longer serve us. Kill Your Color Wheels is a reminder to focus on what's important: How can art make a real difference in our students’ lives? Plus, killing a color wheel is silly - and I like silly.
If you are as interested in answering that question as I am, then I hope you’ll continue to revisit my blog from time to time and refresh your own thinking with my writing and research. What old habits or ideas are YOU trying to let go?
Thanks so much for reading and I hope you’ll continue to practice and call for more meaningful, creative, contemporary visual art learning!
For more on my views on color wheels, as well some thoughts on art education and creativity, check out the following podcasts:
Art Class Curator Episode 09 Killing Your Color Wheels with Jim O’Donnell: https://artclasscurator.com/09-killing-your-color-wheels-with-jim-odonnell/
Art Ed Radio: Episode 105 Art Ed Should Thrive, Not Just Survive: https://www.theartofed.com/podcasts/art-ed-thrive-not-just-survive-ep-105/
For a similar take on the elements and principles and their role in art education, please check out Cindy Ingram’s excellent blog post at: https://artclasscurator.com/why-i-hate-the-elements-and-principles-of-art-but-teach-them-anyway/
For more interesting ways to think about color, and more picking on the color wheel, see Olivia Gude’s articles
“Color Coding”: http://www.academia.edu/7339685/Color_Coding
Want to learn more about color and perception? Check out this amazing TED Talk by neuroscientist Beau Lotto: https://www.ted.com/talks/beau_lotto_optical_illusions_show_how_we_see
Want to learn even more about color and perception? Check out “relative color”: http://colorisrelative.com/color/
Want to learn even more more about color and perception? More relative color at: http://purplepwny.com/blog/color_relativity_color_theory_beyond_the_wheel.html
“Especially as a beginner, it can be very tempting to look towards mathematical formulas and rigid step-by-step approaches to picking your colors. Unfortunately, there isn’t any one formula that will work for every situation.”
Note: Sorry once again for the delay of my post! Like I said before, this has been whirlwind of a summer! I can’t believe that a new school year is here already! There are so many things I want to share with you, like the wonderful time spent talking to Art Class Curator Cindy Ingram for her new podcast, my lovely first experience working with the Art of Ed creating my first video presentation for their summer conference, my phenomenal experience working with high school creatives during the 31st annual Art-All State Massachusetts as an Artist-Mentor, my trip to Wichita Kansas to present at the regional USSEA Conference where I shared insights gained examining the potential connections between burns, creativity, my classroom community, and finally the art projects I completed, such as a 90 page creative non-fiction novelette about growing up with a mother suffering severe mental illness, which took me 8 years off and on to complete, as well as some other pieces! Phew!!! Hopefully, I’ll have a chance to weave those experiences into future blog posts for you all! In the meantime I'll have classes to teach and a dissertation proposal that will need approving so please expect 1-2 posts a month for the immediate future! Thanks again for your continued support!
Assessment is not a bad word. Though it seems that way in art education sometimes. I can empathize with folks who find the term 'exhausting.' Saying the A-word might even trigger some kind of low-grade academic PTSD for some. I think it’s because we’re so used to being abused by it, both as students and then as teachers.
But remember that at its core, assessment is simply about value. What we assess is what we look for and what we look for is what we value. What values are you promoting in your classroom assessment? Are you valuing learning over grades? There is a difference. What about dialogue over monologue? Subjectivity vs false pretenses of objectivity? Vulnerability and risk-taking vs the formulaic and the path of least resistance?
Assessment is not the same as grades. Grades at best serve expediency, but expediency is not compatible with learning any more than it is with art. Galloping through a museum to see as much art as possible is not the way to have meaningful experiences with art. Art is slow. Art is demanding. It asks the viewer to notice something,even reflect on what you notice, as opposed to the rest of daily life when we simply go and do mindlessly.
Meeting with every single student to determine grades is also slow (at least compared to a computerized test or mechanically determined grade). Assessment, if it is to be authentic, is also slow. But I believe that we should have the courage to assess face-to-face and to do so through dialogue. In this fast-paced world, we must slow down for our students’ sakes if we want them to slow down as well. We ended my class this semester with final meetings where I met with all 30 pre-service teachers in my class to assess portfolios of writing and determine a grade together.
Even though we have been graded ad nauseam for the better part of 15 to 20 years of our lives, few and far between are the instances where we share responsibility for our own evaluation or even evaluate ourselves. This seems rather strange. These future teachers will go on to emphasize grading because that is what the system demands; that is what they have been subjected to as students and all they know. But shouldn’t they get to have experiences actually grading SOMEONE before they are in a classroom ACTUALLY grading someone before student teaching? Don’t we, as a field, think that, at the very least, self-assessment might build empathy for students and expand the thinking of these future teachers BEFORE they get into the classroom when they can still ask questions and experiment safely?
I told them it would feel weird and uncomfortable, maybe because evaluation is hard and maybe because they have so little practice self-evaluating in traditional settings. Step into that discomfort. It will be over before they knew it. This semester, I used an analogy that I liked quite a lot because I thought it would be very “sticky” – the tattoo artist. Sure, my students get the logic I explained above, but will they REMEMBER when they are the teacher in charge? My answer was the tattoo artist analogy. I told them that traditionally, a prospective tattoo artist would practice drawing for a long time and maybe practice tattooing a piece of meat from the supermarket. When they wanted to graduate to become a professional, they would tattoo themselves. This has two benefits. First, is your work good enough for you to be willing to wear it? Second, you know how it feels when you do it to someone else. It builds empathy. So it makes sense to give a future teacher the opportunity to share the steering wheel when it comes to their own evaluation so that they know how it feels. The problem is, this analogy may or may not be true, because I’ve heard conflicting accounts. I’ll keep looking for one because the truth matters to me but this one may work for a time.
Some students had to mull over very difficult questions that every teacher faces. Whatever they chose would have lasting consequences. Would they evaluate themselves fairly, as they are expected to evaluate their students? Or would they take advantage of the opportunity? It seemed like an obvious teachable moment to put the ball in their courts. I believe their decisions says a lot about who they will become as teachers, and I thought they all showed character as they practiced wrestling with the tough choices every teacher faces in a less risky environment.
Fortunately, the vast majority of them did very well so I was able to relax a bit. A few conversations were tough and awkward but teachable moments on how to move through disagreement. There was no point where I had to overrule anyone, though there were occasions where I and the student came to terms with final grades that were lower than the student hoped. But there were also occasions where perhaps overly-critical students and I came to terms with grades higher than they expected as well. Nevertheless, they seemed sincere in their understanding of how those grades seemed fair. Overall, I loved the experience and it seemed like they all responded well to it. And I have some evidence to back that up. While I’ll wait until my next post to get my exit survey data, I will share that before their experience with authentic assessment in my course, 39% of the pre-service teachers said they were interested in practicing authentic assessment in their own future classrooms, but by the end of the semester, that number had increased to 68% - an increase of nearly 30%!
On Effort & Assessment
Hearing what my students talk about and write about gives me insight into what they value. What I tried to do was listen. I give my students multiple opportunities to reflect on something and may ask them about something several different ways. I tell them this is because I do not want to use only one bucket to catch a waterfall, as I explain to them. I’m looking for the learning when I’m reading and listening to and observing what my students say and do. If I only look one time, that’s like using one bucket to catch all that information. If I look for something multiple ways, then I will use several buckets and increase my chances of finding what I’m looking for, if it is there. We must be sure we find what we are looking for and not what we are hoping for, and likewise, our students should have the opportunity to prove what they have and have not learned beyond a shadow of a doubt. That is justice, and at the end of the day, that above all else must drive our decision making in the classroom just as it must drive a civil society.
One nearly universal theme I heard in students’ self-evaluations was effort being highly prized, privileged in my opinion from accomplishment or acquiring specific skills or knowledge. I’m afraid that this is something of a lowest common denominator from my point of view. Is the person expending every last ounce of their strength and effort attempting to move a boulder more admirable than the clever person that uses a lever and actually moves the stone? Not to me.
Obviously we all need to put in effort! Obviously EVERY student IDEALLY would normally be operating at the edge of their potential in order for their limitations to expand. I have a hard time imagining a single teacher promoting a lack of effort in their classroom. But how do you begin to weigh or measure it and would that be useful at all? Would everyone be successful if they just put in effort? Sounds ridiculous to me. In my opinion, effort would be a quality of the classroom culture to be valued, modeled, and practiced, rather than something academic to be evaluated. Hasn’t it been our desire to REDUCE the amount of effort required for tasks that has driven our technology? Doesn’t evolution privilege the adaptation and not the effort expended? Surely, it is this emphasis on effort above all else that makes people think that, while learning is often hard, it can also be meaningful and fun. If we measure by effort alone, surely the most dismal learning tasks are then the most beneficial, right? If a teacher doesn't grade effort, that doesn't mean no effort suddenly becomes acceptable. It seems to me we grade their effort when students are being forced to do things.
I wonder if, in practice, prizing even effort leads to a deficit view. The student quit due to their flawed character and lack of effort, not because the system is unfair or irrelevant. “They’re lazy!” is the favorite attack upon the disenfranchised. Yet here at college, after so many years of school, is what is most prized? Not first improvement? Growth? Self-fulfillment? Achievement? Surely, all this represents the institutionalized view, as nearly every high achieving student (future teachers) in my class emphasized effort. To the contrary, the best studio art classes I ever taught were guided by the mantra of a familiar green puppet: Do or do not, there is not try.
I don't look for effort, I want engagement. And I was very pleased to hear many respond very positively to their Creative Growth Goals, which honestly I had wondered if having students choose CGGs would’ve worked. And it didn’t, completely, this first semester by any means (well, I started in the Fall but it was formalized in my Spring class). I was worried because I had to remind several students which goal they had chosen at their midpoint meetings. But they seemed truly engaged in their focus on developing a skill or ability such as idea generation or uncertainty or experimentation.
It’s hard, sometimes, to know with great certainty when you are conferencing with students and reviewing their portfolios that the risk of confirmation bias is extremely STRONG when you AND the students both have a horse in the race. I think we have to weigh our judgments carefully and this is why I seek transparency with my students. But what I took away from their positive responses was not so much the specifics of it but that they responded well to being able to choose a goal that was they then were prompted to weave throughout their coursework. Additionally, much like this assignment, they really benefited from prompts to reflect back on their decisions from the beginning of the semester which they could use as a point of reference to assess growth. Students like feeling like they’re making progress, but in many classes students are not given the opportunity to reflect. Comprehensive tests and papers do not serve this function. But I was happy that the students enjoyed exercising their agency in selecting something in the course they’d like to focus on. This is something I want to more deeply engrain through the core of future classes.
Assessment is rarely easy, but for me it is one of the most important things I do in the classroom. But grades, while attractive to bureaucrats and folks that don’t know much about learning, are not the answer. I told my students at their meetings was that the objective of our final meeting was to take all of the rich experiences we’ve had this semester, the story that you have created this semester, and do our best to fit all of that into one of these odd little shapes (as I point to the OSU grade scale). We lose a lot doing this, because it is nearly impossible to reverse engineer that story out of the funny little shape. But you and I will know that there is a lot of meaning in that shape, even if it is hidden. And most importantly, it is the dialogue, reflection and choice - the essential ingredients of authentic assessment - that my students found meaningful which they will carry with them well after they leave the classroom. Paradoxically, this means slowing down and focusing on those art and creativity values, skills, and dispositions that we will practice the rest of our lives. These are the things I value and so that is what I assess.
In my next post, I’ll share the results of the exit surveys my students completed. What did they think of our time together? Tune in next time and I'll discuss the result and reveal how their data will affect my planning for next year! The challenges of change!
Lastly, thanks for your patience in waiting for this post! It's been a few weeks as I had classes ending and beginning; several major deadlines; and some personal matters all coming at the same time. I appreciate your continued support!
I'm honored to have been asked recently to share my thoughts on teaching art & creativity by Tim Bogatz, host of Art Ed Radio, and to now be included among so many world-class and inspiring art educators and creativity leaders that I've looked up to for years! Art Ed Radio is a weekly podcast produced by The Art of Ed featuring "engaging discussions, covering the most important topics in art education." Thank you for giving the podcast a listen! #KYCW
Art Ed Should Thrive, Not Just Survive (Episode 105) with Jim O'Donnell
Art Ed Radio
The Art of Ed
I'll mostly be blogging about my experiences teaching. I teach a class online right now called Teaching K12 Art Online where I'll be exploring art online with art teachers. I also currently teach a (formerly?) face-to-face course called Visual Culture: Investigating Diversity & Social Justice which is an art, critical writing, and research course for undergrads. Before this, I taught a class called Art Curriculum & Concepts for Teachers where I was experimenting with cooperative & creative teaching integrating art and "going gradeless" with preservice early childhood education majors.