Teaching for Independence: Empowering Learning in the Art Museum

Prefatory Note: Before ArtMuseumTeaching.com went public, there were several months when it was simply my own personal (private) online space to reflect on my practice as well as larger issues around teaching and learning in museums.  It was (and is) so valuable to write about what we do as educators and museum practitioners, even without publicly sharing that writing.  Since the site went public back in February 2012, these reflections (along with those of nearly 2 dozen other practitioners) have been openly shared via this unique online ‘bazaar’ that spotlights practice — from million-dollar cutting-edge initiatives and multi-year projects to simple, personal reflections and moments to add one more teaching tool to our belts.  And while conferences such as the NAEA, AAM, and Museums & the Web — among others — can surface some truly incredible, thoughtful work happening in museums today (some of which has been highlighted on this site), it is also important to provide a space for reflections and conversation around a more daily teaching practice.  This post is an attempt to maintain those types of reflections on this site, and to encourage others to share their teaching & learning experiences as we continue to build this online community of practice.

A couple weeks ago here at the Portland Art Museum, I had a unique opportunity to work with a group of students visiting from neighboring Portland State University as part of their Freshman Inquiry course entitled “The Work of Art,” led by artist/educator Sarah Wolf Newlands.  This multidisciplinary course examines the ‘work’ that goes into artistic production, but goes way beyond that to explore the role art plays in our lives.  As the course site describes:

“It looks at the work art does in the world — how it shapes, reflects, disguises, complicates, challenges, or brings reality to our assumptions about the world…. What are the artistic levers with which we can move our world forward? What can looking through the lens of ‘art’ at the products from a broad range of disciplines reveal about ourselves, our culture[s] and our society? How does the art we do and the art we experience shape our identity? How does it disguise or reveal our essence, heal our hearts, and enable our joy? How does art influence cultural change? How can we use the arts to build community?”

bradford1

One of my own goals when working with groups of college students and adults in the galleries (and in the classroom) is always to break down the often rigid expectations of “what we do” in front of a work of art — moving past the assumptions that we need to behave a certain way or know something specific before we can have an experience with art. I also aim to teach for independence — an approach to our ‘work’ with art that empowers a participatory, learner-centered process of making meaning and attempts to break down the constructed hierarchies between teacher and learner, professor and student, expert and novice, institution and audience.

“The visitor’s response and experience come first, before the museum’s, before the history of art.” —Rika Burnham

For me, at its heart, teaching for independence asks that educators (whether in the museum, K-12 classroom, or university lecture hall) strive to facilitate deep, collective experiences with art that leave participants and learners better equipped to look, explore, question, and engage deeply on their own without always relying on the museum or an ‘expert’ to lead that process.

Opening Up the Learning Experience: An Hour with Mark Bradford’s Scorched Earth

As the PSU students gathered in the gallery, we began with a quick discussion of “what does learning look like in an art museum” to establish an atmosphere of thinking and reflection.  Then, we dove head first into a 60-minute co-learning experience with a single work of art — Mark Bradford’s Scorched Earth (2006). The experience was intended to be multi-modal, involving various ways of thinking and openly responding to the artwork in front of us– a process similar to other experiences about which I have written.

bradford3Here is a quick outline of our experience with Bradford’s piece  (and I always want to be clear that these tips and strategies are not ones that I necessarily invent, but are inspired by some of the ‘Jedi knights’ of museum education like Rika Burnham, to whom I am greatly indebted. I also do use some of these strategies repeatedly when I am in the galleries, since some are just exceptional ways to open-up an experience of freedom, comfort, creative looking, and excitement):

  1. Looking: We began with 1 minute of quiet looking, then having students share their initial observations with a person sitting next to them.  We followed that with another minute of quiet looking, this time using a paper tube as a telescope to see the artwork differently — followed by more sharing with their neighbors about anything new they noticed.
  2. Question: Students were asked to write down one question or wondering they had for this work of art.
  3. 60-Second Sketch: Everyone spread out across the gallery and then had 60 seconds to make a quick sketch of the entire artwork, filling their paper from edge to edge.  Students were asked to lay all of the sketches in the center of the gallery, walk around and see what others drew, and then select a sketch that interested them (and was not their own).
  4. Sketching with Language: Students had several minutes to “finish” the sketch they had selected, but by using only language — adding words, phrases, thoughts, and reflective writing directly on top of the drawing. I call this “sketching with language,” something pulled from Jack Kerouac and his creative process.
  5. Reading: In small groups, students shared their writing by reading it aloud– really honoring their writing by reading it directly instead of simply summarizing or paraphrasing it (which is what we too often do).
  6. Conversation Extender: By this point, students have had some serious time to look at Bradford’s work, share and exchange ideas about what they see and what they think about it, and do some sketching and writing to deepen or even shift their interpretations.  To extend their conversations and spark further thought, each group received a small packet of historic photographs from the 1921 Tulsa race riots — an event that historians have called “the single worst incident of racial violence in American history,” and an event that has been strongly connected to this work by Bradford.  Each group of students was simply asked to continue their conversation about the Bradford piece, yet to see how this added layer of historic images (powerful in their own right) might build or shift that conversation in any way. In talking about his own work, Bradford once says: “It’s about … tracing the ghost of cities past. It’s the pulling off of a layer and finding another underneath.”
  7. Group Discussion: During this entire experience thus far, students have been building personal meaning or sharing their ideas in pairs or small groups. So to wrap up, each group brings their thoughts and insights to the full class as we spend the last 10-15 minutes in an open discussion about the artwork and our experience with it.

Learning to See Learning in the Art Museum

For me, much of the experience with this group of college students was about empowering them to learn to see learning in an art museum (and with a work of art) differently — to begin to see looking and learning with art in a more active, participatory way that also allows for shared authority around knowledge and interpretation.  To help me gain a better understanding of how (or whether) this happens, I invited students participating in the experience described above to send me an email with their reflections after their museum visit. Here are a few great insights from their reflections:

collection of student sketches, questions, and writing in response to Bradford's "Scorched Earth"

collection of student sketches, questions, and writing in response to Bradford’s “Scorched Earth”

“Usually when I go to an art museum, the experience isn’t as fun and exciting. It’s hard for me to look at a work of art and really dissect it…. I probably will never get to just sit down in front of a work of art and analyze it with that many people again, and it was an awesome experience. Thank you for taking the time to teach our class fun tools that we can use in an art museum to really get the most out of our time there.”

“It was really cool to spend a solid hour just looking into what the piece could be about, what it could mean. I’m glad that you opened up the learning experience by allowing us to interpret the painting in our own way, then discuss with one other person, and then discuss in small groups. I think this allowed each student to really get the most out of what other students were understanding and interpreting from the work.”

“This experience was very enlightening because we learned so much from so little. It was profound to get so much out of little more than looking, thinking, and discussing.”

“It’s crazy how observing a piece for just a little longer than a glance can change your perspective of a piece and your understanding of it…. If more people were to do what we did today and take time to observe art, they would see it in totally new ways.”

This type of learner-centered, participatory meaning-making is something I continue to explore in the museum context, but I think it also has significant implications for how we conceive of art history teaching outside of the museum.  What if we allowed for more active, open-ended looking and exploration with art, and hold back some on the passive transfer of information?  What if we used drawing, movement, or creative writing as another way of looking deeply at art?  What if we really focused our teaching more on creating and supporting independent learners who see and think for themselves?

————————————————————-

This post has also been published online at Art History Teaching Resources (AHTR), a streamlined, peer-populated teaching resources site sharing Art History Survey teaching materials between teachers and stimulating conversations around pedagogy in the arts. The site was initiated in 2011 by Michelle Jubin and Karen Shelby, products of the CUNY Graduate Teaching Fellows program.

About these ads

10 comments

  1. selina

    thank you for such an interesting post. I am a Senior gallery educator in NZ and this really resonates with what our team try and do. We are really moving towards encouraging students to ask their own questions – and i particularly like how you input historical content. i always find it an interesting tension between personal meaning making and interpretation and the role of content. I try and use content as fuel to ideas and discussion, asking them how does that new information change their understanding of the work? Never wanting content to put a lid on conversation and been seen as the ‘one’ reading of the work, that’s why i love point 6.The drawing and then language exercise really relates itself to cross curricular (guided reading, interpreting text). I’ll take this post back to our team and carry on the conversation. thanks again!

    • Yes, Selina, the role of content and information can be tricky, but you are so right to use it to fuel ideas. It’s always best when information is added to open up more meanings, and not to restrict the conversation toward the ‘one’ reading of the work. Thanks for sharing this with your team — I’d love to hear their thoughts, and how they might implement pieces of this in their own way.

  2. Thanks for sharing your outline, it’s a terrific sequence. I really like how you described the “sketching with language” section. It’s great that you didn’t use the word poem, but it’s of course an option. I’ve found that asking students to create a poem on the spot can be overwhelming. The same can be said for drawing. Having your students only sketch for 60 seconds is a great way to take the pressure off copying the image and making it look “right.”

  3. Claudia Joyce

    Mike, I just wrapped up my docent training by touring with 7th graders. Our last stop was a Meso American clay statue whose gender is ambiguous. Using the techniques you shared at your time at SLAM, the kids advanced a very sophisticated, thoughtful conversation. Where i thought we would spend 2 or 3 minutes talking, they were reluctant to leave after 15 minutes. Thank you for your insights and please continue to post your articles so i can gather tools to empower people to experience art on their terms. I miss you.

    • Claudia — so great to hear from you, and I am so excited that you’re graduating and will be an official docent (those who attend your tours in the upcoming years are so lucky!). Good luck with the expansion opening … it looks really gorgeous!

  4. Dylan Bumgardner

    I like that you have the process of deciphering a museum piece down to a set of steps. They really worked for our class, and I like that this outline can be applied endlessly with other groups or pieces.

    • There are certain ‘steps’ or ways of looking and engaging that do work with almost any artwork, but it is also good to match teaching/learning strategies and modes of thinking with an actual art object (I always research the piece in advance, and decide on some strategies that will help learners look deeply but also engage in a creative process that connects with that artist or artwork in some way. With Bradford, for me it was a bit about layers of meaning in connection with the way his work has been associated with archaeology of images, urban experience, and history. If we had had 2 hours with the piece, we could have really done some ‘excavating’ in a more meaningful way). Thanks for your comment, and I’m glad you enjoyed the experience. I hope you can take part of what we did as a group and bring it with you to other museum experiences you have.

  5. Pingback: Look, Think, Write! - Education Closet

  6. Pingback: Looking Back / Looking Ahead | Art Museum Teaching

Share Your Perspective & Add to the Conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,287 other followers

%d bloggers like this: