Dr Peter Gregory FRSA FCollT NLG
Principal Lecturer in Education (Creative Arts)
President-Elect National Society for Education in Art and Design (NSEAD)
In today’s educational landscape it is sometimes easy to forget that the richness of human experience is made up of more than the ability to attain particular grades in English and maths. I would like to outline what else can be overlooked as part of the current obsession and tease out some thoughts about what needs further attention. I’m writing as someone fully convinced of the importance of art and design but I’d like to explain my personal story and how it has shaped and affected my whole career – now spanning over four decades.
I don’t know whether you’ve ever stopped to think why some people are so enthusiastic about children and young people making art, savouring the artworks created by others or enhancing their learning about new materials, technologies or techniques? Have they always been like that? Or are there other explanations?
For me personally I enjoyed drawing, painting and making from a very young age – but it wasn’t until an enthusiastic young student teacher came to my school when I was 8 years old that I really began to see the value of art for myself. Many decades later I can still vividly recall the images that I encountered at a local art exhibition when that student teacher took us on an outing. It was the very first time that I had visited an exhibition and it was like walking into another dimension! I had never imagined such simple and stylistic designs as I then encountered – especially of birds and fish. The impact of the visit has never left me – and it still has a major influence on my career.
By the time I left primary school I had experienced a range of art-making materials thanks to the willingness of my teachers. One in particular developed a new interest in creating models and artefacts from papier-mâché. This was a messy, slow, laborious process but I absolutely embraced it and continued to make, mould and create new objects at home and at school, because an adult had enthused, encouraged and supported me.
My secondary school experiences continued to build on those I’d already had. Art had value and its contribution to learning was prized in the boy’s grammar school I attended. My art teacher was most interested in painting but I recognise how many other materials he was prepared to allow us with which to experiment, adapt and explore. I also learnt a great deal about art history from him. Bearing in mind my earlier experiences in visiting a single exhibition, you might begin to imagine my delight in discovering works of art in other galleries on many visits during this time. But these weren’t ad hoc and unplanned. I recall many lessons at school using a very large technological ancestor of today’s visualiser (it was called an epidiascope) to study large scale projected representations of the images from books of the works I would experience ‘for real’ in subsequent visits. These included the works by Impressionist and Postimpressionist artists at the Tate and Courtauld Institute as well as more contemporary works at the Haywood Gallery.
At college I studied ceramics. You may have noticed I have not mentioned clay so far, so quite understandably may be puzzled how this entered my experience bank. It also began when I was 8, soon after I’d been to the first exhibition I mentioned and I had to spend some time in hospital. During my stay I encountered a well-meaning teacher who tried to ‘teach’ me how to reproduce line drawings of fish and birds using incredibly simple devices – an elongated ‘m’ as a flying bird for example. I was not impressed and felt cheated by her approach. I was already spoiled in that I’d seen, experienced and delighted in a dimension of art-making which was way beyond this. In desperation, the teacher allowed me to play with some clay instead. The endless possibilities now flowed from my imagination: Viking long boats, dogs, human figures and even super-heroes. Even at that age I sensed the anxiety emanating from the teacher – although I clearly enjoyed the activities, was I really learning anything which she could mark?
It wasn’t until secondary school that I was actually taught the rudiments of clay work beginning with sculptural forms, additive and subtractive processes and then the ‘magic’ science of firing and decorating. It was this springboard which took me into my study of ceramics at college. There I learnt so much more, about the qualities of different clay bodies, processes and particularly the importance of good aesthetic design. (If you have the misfortune of ever accompanying me when I’m buying even basic household objects like mugs or plates, you’ll discover that deep investment my college tutor made is still there!)
I then became a teacher…. I found myself applying my interests, enthusiasm and guidance in a range of schools – primary, secondary and special across London and the South East. I observed the transformation of reluctant students into willing risk-takers, those who grew in confidence and embraced new possibilities and those that excelled beyond my own skill level. Lots of professional pride and stories from others here but I’ll gloss over these aspects in order to get to the one crucial point I must make.
I entered higher education. Today I work in a university, teaching the subject which has shaped, influenced and defined my being as I’ve set out here. I train student teachers.
This is a growing challenge as more and more student teachers arrive at the start of their studies having been denied the kinds of rich experiences I still draw on from my youth. Those that were particularly poorly taught are very unsure what the value or purpose of art is: those who have natural talents may have been groomed to gain academic results but too often in narrow (or worse, prescriptive) ways.
My challenge then today with student teachers is often to deconstruct previous learning and experience before trying to reconstruct and widen their understanding in a comparatively short period of time. My hope is that they too will ignite the interest of their own pupils and cause a disruption in learning which allows an alternative dimension to open for them. My joy is that some do exactly that and I delight in the work of students returning from placements in school or who stay in touch as their teaching career develops.
The importance of art education is therefore in the learning, understanding and recognised value of art gained through the experiences undertaken. The future will be shaped by what is given to those that will inhabit that time and space.
I would like to end with a simple challenge for each of us, whether parents, teachers, gallery educators, artists or young people to consider. In our own time, how many opportunities will we have to aid artistic development? What can we do to support and encourage (rather than limit or hinder) human development in others?
Florence Mackley, ‘Treasure’d Box’
Schools’ workshop, Quay Arts
‘Dad’ in progress
Below we offer an example of a thoughtful reflective essay that effectively and substantively capture the author's growth over time at California State University Channel Islands (CI). We suggest that you write your own essay before reading either of these models-then, having completed your first draft, read these over to consider areas in your own background that you have not yet addressed and which may be relevant to your growth as a reader, writer, or thinker.
Any reference to either of these essays must be correctly cited and attributed; failure to do so constitutes plagiarism and will result in a failing grade on the portfolio and possible other serious consequences as stated in the CI Code of Conduct.
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Sample Reflective Essay #2
Author: Nekisa Mahzad
I have been a student at California State University Channel Islands (CI) for 5 semesters, and over the course of my stay I have grown and learned more that I thought possible. I came to this school from Moorpark Community College already knowing that I wanted to be an English teacher; I had taken numerous English courses and though I knew exactly what I was headed for-was I ever wrong. Going through the English program has taught me so much more than stuff about literature and language, it has taught me how to be me. I have learned here how to write and express myself, how to think for myself, and how to find the answers to the things that I don't know. Most importantly I have learned how important literature and language are.
When I started at CI, I thought I was going to spend the next 3 years reading classics, discussing them and then writing about them. That was what I did in community college English courses, so I didn't think it would be much different here. On the surface, to an outsider, I am sure that this is what it appears that C.I. English majors do. In most all my classes I did read, discuss, and write papers; however, I quickly found out that that there was so much more to it. One specific experience I had while at C.I. really shows how integrated this learning is. Instead of writing a paper for my final project in Perspectives of Multicultural Literature (ENGL 449), I decided with a friend to venture to an Indian reservation and compare it to a book we read by Sherman Alexie. We had a great time and we learned so much more that we ever could have done from writing a paper. The opportunity to do that showed me that there are so many ways that one can learn that are both fun and educational.
The English courses also taught me how powerful the written word and language can be. Words tell so much more than a story. Stories tell about life and the human condition, they bring up the past and people and cultures that are long gone. Literature teaches about the self and the world surrounding the self. From these classes I learned about the world, its people and its history; through literature I learned how we as humans are all related. By writing about what we learn and/or what we believe, we are learning how to express ourselves.
I know that my ability to write and express my ideas, thoughts and knowledge has grown stronger each semester. I have always struggled to put my thoughts on paper in a manner that is coherent and correct according to assignments. I can remember being told numerous times in community college to "organize your thoughts" or "provide more support and examples". These are the things that I have worked on and improved over the past couple of years and I feel that my work shows this. The papers I wrote when I first started here at C.I. were bland and short. In these early papers, I would just restate what we learned in class and what I had found in my research. I did not formulate my own ideas and support them with the works of others. The classes I have taken the past couple semesters have really help me shed that bad habit and write better papers with better ideas. I have learned how to write various styles of papers in different forms and different fields. I feel confident that I could write a paper about most anything and know how to cite and format it properly.
There are a couple of things that I do feel I lack the confidence and skill to perform, and that is what I hope to gain from participating in Capstone. I am scared to teach because I don't know how to share my knowledge with others-students who may have no idea what I am talking about. I hope to learn more about how teachers share their knowledge as part of my Capstone project.
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The English program at California State University Channel Islands prepares students for a wide range of exciting and rewarding careers, including:
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