My teaching practice has changed so much over the past decade. In 2003, I was teaching Art & Design in a poorly equipped state school in Scotland. We never had any access to computers! No screen time at all! It seems crazy now, after working at AES where we are richly resourced and students have opportunities I could only dream of back then. I was teaching Graphic Design units without the benefits of computers, digital cameras, scanners, Wacom pens (graphics tablets) or Photoshop. Everything was done by hand. We did at least have plastic rulers to draw straight lines! Students were entirely reliant on me to show them techniques and to introduce them to relevant artists and designers. If they needed to find suitable images to work from, they had to source visuals from the only visual resource bank available: my collection of several thousand photographs, which I cut out of magazines I had to buy myself! This would be an unacceptable practice now that I’m aware of copyright laws and infamous examples like Shepard Fairey.
How different it is now… powerful computers in the Art room with laptops in reserve. Scanners to upload paper drawings. Students can create their own visual resources using digital cameras to record the complexities of the world. Thanks to the generosity of the worldwide Creative Commons community, students also have countless quality photographs to choose from on websites like Flickr. Google searches reveal a world of designers through their websites, giving students access to the range of possibilities and different solutions created by this profession. Photoshop enables them to execute astonishing manipulation of images, changing banal sketches into dazzling designs. Wacom pens allow natural delicate drawings and editing directly onto the hard-drive. Storage clouds, with instant retrieval save student artwork. This all makes the Graphic Design experience more realistic and gives students enormous freedom to bring their ideas to life. What a different picture from just ten years ago!
This is obviously only part of the Art experience. Most of the time, students are involved in the ancient physical media manipulation techniques used since the Neolithic artists decorated their caves and the Renaissance artists mastered the illusions of perspective and flesh. The reality of Art classes will probably always reflect the basic hand-eye co-ordination control of earth-based materials like clay, charcoal and paint. Our ability to manipulate these base elements and create meaning or narrative with the results is always going to be important. So this aspect of teaching will probably remain fairly constant. There will be changes…video tutorials from artists will be used more frequently by students as part of homework. Khan Academy started this format and I hope it will develop to include more about creative idea generation, visual literacy and critical thinking strategies. This will supplement the class instruction to the extent that students will be able to develop their skills at home.
So five years from now…I’ll be teaching in state schools in Scotland again. The Scottish Curriculum for Excellence emphasizes a cross-curricular approach to teaching. Students are encouraged to collaborate and use Art and Design as a communicative medium to relate their findings from a geography field trip or their opinions of a visit to the theater, for example. This is an exciting development, which will show the inter-connectedness of areas of study and life. The stated aim is to make students more able to compete in the global economy, an aim I applaud.
I hope they’ll have caught up with AES, my current school, in terms of technological sophistication, or else these aims of teamwork and cooperation will fall short. I presume lowering costs will allow for more powerful computers, scanners, cameras and more sensitive graphics tablets. Of course it’s unfair to compare the underfunded state system with the abundance of technological wealth, which makes our lives so easy at AES.
Ten years from now, The Scottish state schools will hopefully have benefited from even cheaper computers. Their administrators will hopefully be linked to a worldwide think-tank on the best ways to develop young minds. Pedagogical research will have focused on the key moments and corresponding combinations of tech and teaching styles to suit particular stages of student development. So all teachers will have the ability to scour the web for rich resources to feed the minds of their eager students. The massive divisions between the education systems of Scotland and England and USA, will hopefully have been overcome and be linked by a single system.
My hope for all this is that in fifteen years, when I’m near the end of my career, students will still be drawing with pencils on paper and building with clay to maintain connections with the long history of Art. Also, they will be able to photograph their efforts stage-by-stage to replay at home. If they are unhappy with their classwork, they can access my lessons via YouTube to refresh their memory of how they should have done the task. When they’re next in class, they should feel more confident to try again.
Beyond manual dexterity, I hope that critical and creative thinking will play a much greater role in the curriculum. I like Dan Pink’s references to Atlassian’s FedEx days – once each quarter, employees are given 24 hours of freedom to create whatever they like and present the results. Perhaps teachers will have the freedom to allocate one day per quarter to this autonomous activity in the hope that students will synthesize all they’ve learned to distill it into their own dream projects. How many world-changing ideas could come of this?Pink delivers a captivating description of Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose: the three main drives beyond our basic biological needs.
The top human motivator, he claims, is making progress. I see this in my students now as I always have. With or without technology, they become fixated on developing a particular skill until they feel that they’ve mastered it. This will never change. Our children’s children will still carry this burning ambition inside them. We, as educators, will still nurture their fledgling attempts at representational drawing, for example. Technology will play a small part in that: we’ll keep adding extra tutorial reinforcement to keep them on the right path until we can see maturation of artistic proficiency.
I am a big fan of the iPad Brushes app. My favorite feature of this wonderfully simplistic drawing tool is the playback function. I marvel at the sequential build-up of small lines that replay the order of my drawing technique. It never fails to teach me something about the way I draw. The touchscreen is the best aspect of the iPad, sensitive to the subtle gestures of the fingertips. Magical is a word, which seems fitting in the presence of such a powerful new technology, which brings so much aesthetic pleasure in ways never possible before!
So I certainly see a place for similar touch screen technology in my future classrooms. Perhaps, in fifteen years we’ll have 3D touch screen creativity? Virtual sculptures created through a sort of 3D iPad…. perhaps it’ll be called the iOrb? I can see this sort of device relating to 3D animation, sculpture and architecture.
Well that was my positive outlook…unfortunately, in the UK, funding cuts and the financial crisis may last for generations. Schools there have adopted Public Private Partnerships in order to fund essential buildings. The major cost in education is teachers’ pay. With less funding for real teachers, we may be forced to accept widespread adoption of the Khan Academy model. I can imagine students sitting in classrooms where they are linked to mass-broadcast video lessons. Unqualified and therefore inexpensive “minders” will supervise them as they consume endless lectures online and sit in silence writing essays without guidance. Even if the cost of tech tools continues to fall, students will struggle to afford them in a world where their parents earn less than those in Asia.
The rise of the Eastern giants of India and China will be complete once their education systems surpass our own. The predicted global shift of power is unstoppable. This presents a future where our students will have to be more adaptable than ever before. They may be forced back to the mindset of my youth, where lack of funds encouraged creative solutions to survive and prosper. We can see examples of this in many developing nations, where the idea of disposable products or built-in obsolescence is unthinkable. When my kids break a toy, they’ll throw it away and ask for another. When I was a kid, a broken toy was always mended or cannibalized together with other available parts to create something fun and useful. Perhaps we’ll come full circle. The combination of a tech savvy population and no money may force our students to create their way out of poverty.
Photography by John Oliver : cc some rights reserved.