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What's the Medium? What's the Message?

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"Ugh... I hate art."

"He never wants to do art."

"I can't draw."

"I'm not creative."

I've heard all of these words, and more, coming from teachers and students over my years in Arts Education.

It's often a self fulfilling prophecy, this dislike of art or the Arts, as the case may be.  If you tell yourself over and over you're not creative then you're not likely to develop much creativity.  I find it particularly distressing when a teacher says "I'm not creative." because I believe that teaching is a creative process.  All of the steps that creative people go through as they make Art, good teachers also go through as they try new techniques, experiment with ideas, and reflect on what to change.

What I've found over the years is that the negative self-perception of self-identified non-artists is largely shaped by the materials they've been exposed to.  Most of that exposure happens in schools and it's mostly paper-based.  Children paint, they draw, they might do some collage, but most of what they do is confined to the limited geography of a piece of paper. 

So why is paper-based art so priviledged in schools?

#1 - We have paper.  Many schools have very small Art supply budgets but there's always paper.  The paperless school is still a long way off.

#2 - Paper is easy to store.  It doesn't take up a lot of space, it fits in a portfolio, and it goes home in a child's backpack without too much fuss.

#3 - Bulletin boards.  Paper-based art is easy to display.  Anything 3-D requires a shelf or table and those are in short supply in many schools.

#4 - We teach what we know.  If you were never exposed to anything beyond paper-based art as a child, that's what you're most likely to feel comfortable with as a teacher.  It's cyclical.

The trouble is this: paper-based art, like writing, is just one language of expression.  Cutting off all other forms of Art (sculpture, carving, ceramics, environmental art, digital art, etc...) severely limits children's expressive capacities to the point that we may entirely miss a child's talent and passion in a particular area because we never give them the opportunity to demonstrate it.

This past Friday I was visiting a class of grade 5 and 6 students (ages 10 and 11).  Several of them, at the outset, declared that they didn't have any ideas and didn't like art. Arms crossed, head down, done.

The lesson was on mixed media sculpture and I had available for them plasticine, a bin of stones, pieces of copper wire, and their teacher provided a large container of mixed beans. 

"What are we supposed to make?" they wanted to know.  By this age, students are often very used to being directed towards a product and they may struggle to figure out how to approach any open-ended task.  The struggle is good... stay with it... it's supposed to be hard.

I let them stew in their juices as they played with the clay.  Slowly, things started to emerge.


The teacher sat down and started to work with her own piece of clay.  What a difference that makes: watching your teacher struggle with an idea is so validating for students.

I walked around with a piece of clay in my hands, making suggestions about technique and assisting with the development of some ideas, while creating my own little piece.

The creativity was astonishing.  Students who had been most vehement about not having any ideas and hating art were engaged, on task, and, clearly, very creative ideed.

Just changing the medium was enough to show them that they are creative, they can "do art" and that they have great ideas.  Plasticine is very forgiving; if you don't like what you've done, just smush it and start over.  There really aren't any mistakes and it's the medium itself that sends that message.  Teachers can speak about the value of mistakes until we're blue but if we're always doing it in a paper-and-pencil context, our speeches will have a limited impact.  You have to change the medium to change the message. 


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Emily Caruso Parnell is the K-12 Arts Education Consultant in the Rainbow District School Board in Northern Ontario. Since beginning her teaching career in 2001, she has taught all grades from Kindergarten to Grade 12. She has taught in public, private, and independent schools, including teaching the IB Primary Years Programme and as the Arts-lead member of the local leadership team for Ontario's Early Learning Kindergarten Program. Emily is a Dance educator who holds an MA in Dance from the University of North Carolina Greensboro as well as a Bachelor of Education from the University of New Brunswick, an HBA from York University and is a Registered Teacher of the Royal Academy of Dance. Her writing is regularly featured in the PHE Canada Journal and she sits on the Program Advisory Committee for Dance Education of Physical and Health Education Canada. Emily is passionate about education in, about, and through the Arts as well as experiential learning, parent engagement, play, and as much time spent outdoors as possible. She strives to bring the same enthusiasm and energy to parenting her own young children.
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Guest Tuesday, 25 October 2016