Self-Directed Art and Learning

About 17 years ago, now, I nervously went in to teach my very first class. I had been hired by a couple of parents to teach their young children art. I was 17. I was terrified. I don't remember what I asked the first girl I spoke to, but I will never forget her answer: "I can only draw angels." She pulled out a pen and paper and drew some patterned "angels" -- a whole row of them! I was heartbroken to hear her limit herself that way, and wanted nothing more than to show her that she could be free from her angels. It was at that moment that I became an art teacher. Thank you, Sarah.

I came to my views on open-ended art naturally. My mother is a music therapist and Reggio Emilia preschool teacher at Bowen Island Preschool and my father owns BC Playthings toy store, where he promotes child-centred activity and natural toys. In both this preschool and this toy store, colouring books are not allowed. And furthermore, every person I have taught or worked with has driven the idea that open-ended learning is essential deeper into my being.

Not only is open-endedness essential for creativity, but the ability to creatively explore is essential for learning anything! A teacher-directed activity implies that the teacher knows best, while self-directed learning implies that the learner's thoughts and actions are most valuable. As soon as those thoughts or actions lose perceived value, the learner loses interest, and the desire to explore and learn begins to slip away. Some people are very attached to following instructions, but I feel this is a result of lack of confidence, or even of failure to measure up. Then we have to remind ourselves: if we are only looking to measure up, then how can we ever reach our true potential, which may very well be higher than up, or simply in a different direction? We have to give ourselves the freedom to go in any direction, to go where our authentic selves will naturally go.

The importance of self-direction in learning also has little to do with age. This is why I often choose to use the term self-directed over child-directed or child-centred; I believe this applies to people of all ages. People of any age will learn more when they are inspired to explore; the only change that comes with age is that many of us have our independence squashed as we grow up. That doesn't mean it's gone. It's just in need of some nourishment. Give a born-and-raised Canadian adult a handful of mosaic squares, some glue and a piece of paper, and she will likely begin gluing the squares into some recognizable shape or pattern. Give them to my unschooled six-year-old, and she might fold them into tiny "origamis" and decorate herself with them. She would make a potion with the glue, and use the paper to wrap up her sorted stacks of coins, in case she might one day want to take them to the store, and then it might be handy to have them sorted (this happened, today). Maybe she'd just glue the squares one on top of the other, on the back of her own hand, and call it a wart. It's not a project; it's just what she's doing: exploring. I feel that one of my most important responsibilities as a parent and teacher is to avoid squashing that creativity with my own ideas and expectations.

So what if people ask for help to reach a specific end-result? With some things like origami I've created an example, following directions, and then experimented with it, to see how I could create my own unique product, thereby giving students the freedom to be unique, as well. I'm just like they are: experimenting with somebody else's technique. Often the outcomes of my experiments aren't what I've hoped for, and this is part of the journey. Other times I supply a range of alternatives, and suggest that perhaps a combination of these methods or materials might yield interesting results. Then we all get to experimenting, together.

It isn't ever up to me, as the teacher (or parent) to know the answers, because how could I possibly know everything? Then the best thing students could strive for is to know what I know, and really, that would be unfortunate. I'm just not that knowledgeable. I sincerely hope that every person I teach reaches his/her own personal goals that have nothing to do with me. My 8-year-old son already understands much more than I do about physics -- thank goodness! But that doesn't stop me from taking his journey with him. What I know is how to say "wow -- show me how that pneumatic thingy you designed works!" My role as a teacher (as I see it) is to help people find their own creativity and desire to learn. That's it! Sometimes it seems there will never be an end to the adults who come to my classes, wanting me to impart my artist-skills to them, and to whom I hope I have instead opened a door to finding their own skills. (Not to mention the many skills and much wisdom that I glean from them...)

Unschooling Outtake: Or what if, in her free reign of art-making, my 6-year-old decides to cut up my precious handmade clothing, paint books with jam, or decorate my furniture and dishes with acrylic paint or glued on "fairy-paintings"? Well, then... I cry. Oh well. Lesson in guarding/respecting personal property -- check!

More reading (because really, everybody should):
Robert Schirrmacher, Ph.D: Child-Centered Art vs. Teacher-Directed Projects

Susan Striker's book, Young at Art (I haven't read this, but it looks good)

Tom Anderson: Art Education for Life

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