Knowledge AND skills??!

Can we have our cake and eat it?! As a hungry art and design teacher with a sweet tooth, I really hope so.

There has been much debate about the idea of knowledge or skills, of knowledge preceding skills and whether a skill is simply procedural knowledge. This week a brilliant conversation took place on EdClub (I missed it because I fell asleep fully dressed putting little one to bed and woke up at 3.30am!). However Pritesh Raichura @Mr_Raichura captured his thoughts and summarised the nuanced debate brilliantly here. I won’t even attempt to compete with Pritesh’s knowledgeable and fascinating read (he’s far more experienced than I am on this) but I do think it’s interesting to consider how this impacts me as an art and design teacher.

Firstly, I don’t think it it has to be one or the other. I’m learning that so many things in life are a strange dichotomy of extremes. But they can exist in harmony. I’m anxious about the return to school next week, but I’m also hugely excited to welcome back our young people. I’m extremely passionate about learning and teaching, but at the same time I hugely value relationships and nurture. And so it is with knowledge and skills. In my opinion, we need both.

Secondly, I’ve not always thought this. At fact at one point I was very against the notion of a practical subject being about knowledge. My thinking on this has most definitely been challenged. But the more I read and learn, the more my thinking evolves. And this is based on my experience in the classroom. It’s ok for our practice to adapt as our understanding increases.

Ten years ago I might have been sceptical of the part knowledge would play in Art and design. After all, we are a practical subject. Hands on, often hugely subjective and very skills-based. Much of the learning which takes place within an art and design department features at the top of Blooms Taxonomy – high order thinking skills such as creating, evaluating and analysing artworks and design. And in my opinion, that is exactly how it should be. So I’m not about to suggest removing all creativity within the subject and making pupils spend periods writing and memorising facts instead of drawing and designing. Our subject will always be practical.

However, back then, my inexperience and lack of understanding might have caused me to write off the need for strong subject knowledge. Perhaps this was because I worried it would distract learners from developing creativity or experiential learning. But having done lots of reading and seen the benefits firsthand for learners in both my Art and design and photography classes, I’m now convinced that to achieve success in the high order skills, learners need the strong foundational knowledge and understanding to support their explorations. Knowledge plays an important part in improving learners’ ability to successfully recall knowledge and in doing so, aid their creativity.

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard young people tell me ‘Miss I can’t paint.’ It’s always a challenge to me to show them that everyone can learn to draw and paint. But I understand that young people come to us with different skills and for some, drawing and painting does come far more easily. For the young people who struggle with painting, breaking the skill down and giving them chunked knowledge to help, is absolutely vital for them to experience success.

The knowledge that when we add water to watercolour paint, the colour lightens, is so vital to being able to use this art material. By explicitly teaching this, young people can use this to improve their practical skill. I think this has always been the way I’ve taught, and in fact I’m sure many other art teachers do. But it’s not been until recently that I have really considered the explicit knowledge I was teaching young people in order for them to build a skill. And I think this is more important than ever to give all young people the chance to succeed. It’s our job!!! After all we are the experts.

This has been amplified during home learning. And something all tired teachers at the moment should take comfort in. Yes we are vital for the connection and the relationships we build, but also in skilful way we can break down learning and knowledge in ways that young people can make use of in their practical work. Consider the confident, skilled artists who have coped well regardless of whether we are in the physical classroom beside them. Then consider those already facing challenge, who find drawing difficult, who lack confidence, can’t simply experiment to become a better drawer. They need the expert knowledge which their teacher imparts. They need the foundational knowledge of how to measure, how to see, and how to record. They need taught this and then for it to be modelled. Yes, there is the argument that this is not creativity but I would argue that by giving the young person a step up the ladder, their confidence and motivation to experiment creatively is enhanced and leads to a greater chance of them wanting to experiment. Young people are often very reluctant to explore artistic freedom if they already lack confidence in their ability. I see this as the way to foster creativity by giving them the tools and knowledge to have the best chance to succeed. The desirable difficulty concept is highlighted here. Once confidence and knowledge is established, they are best placed to move into the realms of creativity and often

It’s important to point out I am all for creativity, expression and individuality. But I do think learners find that increasingly challenging. If we are able to give them the building blocks of knowledge about seeing, observing, measuring and recording early on, in my opinion they are far better placed use that knowledge to develop their own skills.

Maybe I’m too easily influenced, maybe I need to have more conviction in one theory or evidence base, rather than sit mid way between two differing viewpoints. But I’m not sure that having such a fixed mindset that one or other is best, really benefits our young people. Surely we should be tapping into all evidence out there to provide the very best experience and learning for all young people? I’m always learning. And happy to be challenged in any of my thoughts. Because ultimately it will help me to get better. And that is what we should all be striving towards.

Thanks for reading. Have a great week ahead, especially all the practical subject teachers in Scotland returning to our classrooms.

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