Cinderella's digital slipper
Are children's mental landscapes being transformed by technology? Research I did for the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta) suggests the answer is yes.
The report finds that teachers of art and design approach technology with open minds and a sense of adventure. They are more inventive and reflective in their use of ICT than teachers of other subjects. Art departments are school Cinderellas - at the end of the queue when ICT is dispensed. But, creative by nature, teachers of art and design make the most of meagre resources, spinning straw into gold.
The report draws on studies of good practice in ICT across 12 subjects and interviews with more than 200 teachers over several years. I set out to discover: lhow ICT helps teachers convey the central concepts of their subjects; lwhat can be learned with ICT that might not be learned as readily in any other way.
With art and design, even the simplest ICT encourages experimentation. Jan McGranaghan, head of art at Lutterworth Grammar School and Community College, Leicestershire, says: "Kids are frightened to death of making marks that might be wrong. They're afraid to make the first stroke on a blank canvas or the first cut in a large piece of paper. The 'undo' button takes away that terror.
"ICT has taken away the preciousness. They haven't had to take hours getting it right, so they feel readier to change or extend the work they've created."
Teachers of art and design find new uses for hardware and inspiration in errors and accidents. For example, Jan's students placed fruit on to a scanner, with clingfilm underneath to protect the glass.
"We rapidly discovered that accidental wrinkles in the clingfilm gave the scanned image a more interesting quality, with wonderful textures and creases. So, having first tried to smooth the clingfilm, we now began crinkling it deliberately to see what we would get. We then extended this to other materials," he says.
Sue Crudgington, head of art and design at the Friary School, Lichfield, says: "You don't necessarily use the equipment in the way it was intended to be used. The scanner salesman would never have said, 'Try putting net curtains on the screen.'" But experimentation, as Sue says, is at the heart of art. "In art and design we seek to break the rules. We move the boundaries and encourage our students to look beyond the original purpose of the materials at hand."
Initially, art teachers used the internet for research and contextual work, then discovered its communication potential. Phil Callow, head of art and design at Christ the King RC High School, Southport, runs a digital art competition for schools (www.treacletart.net). He describes the net as "a shop window enablilng any young artist to create an online portfolio for the world to see".
Some of the teachers I interviewed immerse their students in digital art.
However, most simply incorporate the technology into other techniques.
Their students may use digital devices to make initial studies or explore the directions a piece of work might take.
James Nairne, head of art at Abingdon School in Oxfordshire, says his students enjoy using software to make an image brighter or more saturated.
He likes them then "to go back to the real subject and work brightly with paint".
But what do students regard as "real"? James says they prefer to work from mediated imagery and don't necessarily understand that a photograph is an interpretation of reality as much as a drawing is. Technology outside the classroom may be changing the way children perceive the world around them.
Is this good or bad? James Nairne says: "With a digital image, you never know what you're looking at. Digital art is once-removed. That's its essential characteristic. Some would say that's true of life today, and so perhaps digital art is truer to life as we now live it."