I’M STUCK! I DON’T HAVE ANY IDEAS!!!

“I’m stuck! I don’t have any ideas!!!”
Heard that recently? At this time of year, art exam season, it’s echoing across the country.

I recently read a comment from an art teacher, an NQT seeking help, seemingly at their wits end, beaten with utter despair at their student’s inability to think of ideas. Whilst the irony wasn’t wasted on me – Art teacher seeks ideas on how students can develop ideas – I do empathise. I too have stared into those blank eyes, my own panic rising as the clocks tick and the lights dim on another target grade.

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For a good five years of teaching my response was rapid: All-out, kick-start commando style, scatter-gunning ideas, setting short tasks, carpet-bombing with artist references, taking lunchtime prisoners. Full on.

Exhausting.

But it worked – excellent grades, busy lessons, happy head teachers – but only to a point. With hindsight it was an approach too centered on my own ideas. Learning was mostly on the surface and the culture of the classroom – whilst usually positive, and relentlessly purposeful – did not necessarily deliver a deeper experience. Ultimately I didn’t let students struggle. With the benefit of time at the chalk face and the confidence to let students dwell with uncertainty, I’ve learned to manage ‘stuck’ better.

Of course the NQT that’s landed in a Year 11 lion pit hasn’t had the luxury of rearing them from kittens. And if students haven’t had regular opportunities to problem solve prior to Year 11, well, it’s a big ask when exam time arrives. But for what it’s worth, here are a few thoughts that go through my head now when faced with those familiar cries of…

I’m stuck! I don’t have any ideas!!

  • Does the student fully understand the task / challenge / vocabulary?
  • Is the student trying to formulate the perfect outcome, rather just starting to experiment?
  • Do they know that ‘playing’ with any idea – no matter how seemingly weak – is not a bad starting point? (And do I, as a teacher, have the courage to accept mistakes, weak starting points and the inevitable dead-ends, regardless that the clock is ticking?)
  • Do they have enough knowledge? Is there something they need to be taught first?
  • Is there some wider reading that could open new possibilities? (News articles, insights into artists work etc.).
  • Is a blank page / a new sketchbook intimidating them?
  • Is a nearby student, who has made a flying start, denting their confidence?
  • How long has the student struggled for, really? Where is the evidence of a decent struggle? (i.e. repeated attempts at work, although blood, sweat or tears taken into consideration)
  • If they are off task what is their capacity for disrupting others? How can I get them fully engaged rather than just occupied?
  • Has the student utilised all the resources provided – exam paper starting points, notes from introductory lessons etc.?
  • How robust will the student be if I leave them to stew on it for a lesson? (If they are struggling through lack of effort do I have enough credit for quiet disappointment to work its magic?)
  • Has this student gone through previously established checklists: What are my own interests or future aspirations, can I make a connection to these? What are my strengths? What media do I want to work in? What if I flip the theme – what are its opposites? What are the stereotypical solutions, could I be playful with these? What do I know already about this starting point? Regardless of the theme, what would I like to learn? What opportunities are coming my way that I might be able to tap into – visits, holidays, events etc.?
  • Will a timed period of silence – exam conditions style – increase the pressure to produce work, forcing ideas out? If this is set to a small group or whole class, will an element of competition bring results?

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Okay, enough. Students can be quick to cry for help. I asked some today – they laughed and readily admitted it. Sometimes, the lazy lions just need a crack of the whip. But often highly sensitive ideas are lurking beneath the surface, unexpressed because of self-doubt or fear of failure. Or just lack of time to fully form.

Perhaps the main danger for Art teachers is that we can dive in too quick – rush to activate the rapid response unit and tell students what to do, create blind obvious brainstorms, deploy Pinterest in the name of research…and so on.  Quick fixes in the name of target grades perhaps, but not always best for deeper creative development. I try to hold back now, to allow for struggle and to let students feel stuck. With strong foundations and a little gentle excavating, they usually find their feet.

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