Learning Timelines & The Expert’s Bedroom

I once found a dinosaur in my freezer. Frozen in a block of ice; it merited further investigation. On doing so, my wife, a pre-school teacher, claimed it as hers, to help the 3 year-olds with their writing. Obviously.

It turned out the infants were using toy pick-axes (?!) to excavate plastic toys, strengthening their ‘pencil control’ in the process. I’m not sure how proven this approach is, but probably fun. Or dangerous. It did however lead to an idea, which led to a project and an INSET session, and then to this:

genius_bedroom_exhibition
A Year 12 Installation: The childhood bedroom of an ‘expert’ artist. The wardrobe was an entrance to my classroom, the walls were a timeline of progression from toddler to expert. I really don’t know who the man is.

It all started with this question:

When (and how) does learning begin for your subject?

Arguably easier to answer for Art as children tend to start playing with crayons, rather than, say, Bunsen burners. However, a general interest in a subject -and a conscious awareness of it- must start somewhere, as does the development of relevant skills. But have you ever tried mapping it out? It’s a great prompt for reflection and discussion; ideal for a department session or introductory task for new students.

baby_expert3
With Year 12 Art students we decided to focusing specifically on ‘drawing’. Initially we identified various factors, both positive and negative, that might influence the progression from novice (a toddler, in our case) to ‘expert’ (an established professional). We then added depth to our conclusions with existing research by Lowenfield and Edwards. The project really gathered momentum, along with some surprising results:

When students mapped out their own personal stages of learning (recounting the experiences and approaches that had got them this far) and then, importantly, mapped out the skills required to develop through future stages (e.g. towards ‘expert’ status) their work, and attitudes towards it, took noticeable leaps forward.

For this group, new challenges seemed to become less daunting. They had a sense of a bigger picture, and could appreciate that whilst every stage provided hurdles, it was all part of a rich journey. With hindsight, setting out a criteria for ‘expertise’ seems obvious. However. mapping it on a timeline, alongside years of completed progress certainly added resonance. It was SOLO Taxonomy x 10: ‘SOLO Maxonomy’. Well, maybe.

drawingdevTimeline of drawing development: Student notes combined with wider research

The groups went on to produce a wide body of work, concluding with the collaborative outcome mentioned – the childhood bedroom of a creative expert. It was a playful and ambitious installation, with the walls a visual timeline, from scribbling to expertise.

Could this timeline approach work for other subjects? A previous post certainly generated lots of interest in the idea. Aside from the timeline, the creation of an ‘expert’s childhood bedroom’ could also make a great collaborative project. Who might it be for you? Einstein, Darwin, Churchill, Shakespeare…Stephen Hawkings…James Dyson…David Beckham…?!

We are taking it further this year. Here’s a sneak preview of a work in progress. But enough said for now.

imagea 6th form art student up to some new creative mischief

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If you like the idea of this project, here’s a little more detail of how we set about ours:

1. Identify 7 stages, from birth to expert
Best to use numbers to start with: Stage 1, 2, and so on, – names, or age groups can come later. Age is obviously not a restriction to becoming an ‘expert’. Having said that, we did end up with toddler (1-3), infant (4-6), junior 1 (6-9) junior 2 (10-12) teen 1 (13-15) teen 2 (16-18) art student (18-21) practising pro/working towards expert (…..)

2. Add ‘learning experiences’ to each stage
Once again, kept broad to start with. Ours included physical developments – fine motor skills: pencil grip, pressure control etc., the learning of new concepts – understanding perspective, influence of artistic genres and so on, plus a wide range of contextual factors and moments of ‘awakening’, such as new techniques, mentoring by others, influence of friends…

Example prompts at this point included: What makes someone an expert in drawing? What might a younger child lack that an older student wouldn’t? At what point did you first…use tone, perspective, work from imagination /observation?

3. Compare with wider research and insights of others
Research by Lowenfield and Edwards really put some meat on the bones of our initial ideas. It was also great to gather quotes from artists on their own life experiences. Popular research on Growth Mindsets and the development of expertise – Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers and Mathew Syed’s Bounce - was also drip fed in, along with a dash of

4. Produce new work and make new connections in response to the timelines
This was the richest stage of the project. Having identified specific stages for drawing development it was great to revisit and respond with playful practical experiments. For example, to replicate the difficulties a toddler might have with grip, students attempted a series of drawings with their feet, mouths…cubital fossas (at least I think that’s what it was).

timeline2

Importantly, they then responded to their own childlike compositions, by applying current expertise and understanding (technical and conceptual) and through making connections with the work of others. This helped emphasise how established artists/experts can value and reassess their own early experiences. For example Paul Klee’s and Joan Miro’s automatic drawing approaches, Abstract Expressionist mark-making, or Picasso’s questioning of traditional depictions of perspective, via Cubism.

timeline1

Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we have grown up.
Pablo Picasso

5. Hand it over
T
he final stage of the project involved handing over full creative decision making to the students. They reflected on new learning and then had the chance to apply and express this in their own ways. ‘The Expert’s Bedroom’ was constructed around the entrance to the art room, with a false ceiling containing the whole space. For new visitors, this led to some surprise reactions, especially when advised to walk through the wardrobe! For all students their levels of understanding and ‘expertise’ certainly seemed to be moving forward.

drawings
Year 12 work exploring different approaches to drawing

In summary, I think our broad, contextual, and collaborative approach made this project what it was. There was a sense of us -staff and students together- ‘being up to something’. However, the foundations were solid from the start: Reflect on the role and importance of our subject, how we have developed so far, and how we might progress from here.

I think that has the potential to transfer to all subject areas. Would be interested in your thoughts.

Drawing is putting a line around an idea.
Henri Matisse

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