Free, of a kind

4th June 2004 at 01:00
Do structured lessons promote or hinder creativity? Mervyn Lebor tries to unlock the inner artist

What makes good art lessons? Is there something special about art that puts it into a separate category from other lessons? Should inspectors and observers use different criteria to judge the quality of art teaching? Or is it reductionist to force inspiration or creativity into set formulae?

My own art teacher at school was not quite perfect. Wroth, an elderly, German refugee, had three watchwords: "Strrructure, rrrhythm und zimplicity." All art fitted these categories. We drew the spiked helmet he'd worn during the First World War. Anyone who couldn't apply his tripartite criteria was cuffed on the neck. The helmet might have had better uses.

The unstructured complexity of say Jackson Pollock was presumably unacceptable. Ironically, there was little formal or "strrructured" teaching as such. Students were left to their own devices; yet the talented achieved high grades in art A-level.

So are high grades the criteria for good lessons? They are indicators, but the generic qualities of individual lessons, according to Ofsted, require clear aims, objectives, task-setting and inclusiveness. All students in studio sessions should have individual learning plans and portfolio diaries, so that progress is monitored and students know what they have achieved each lesson, do homework and plan for the next. But doesn't this bureaucracy undermine the creative spark?

One teacher, Chris, always found admin deadening. How could one whip up enthusiasm for registration numbers, while trying to achieve excellence through inspiring students' imagination? When observed, she achieved excellent grades because she had scanned students' film-poster graphics into PowerPoint. As each item was flashed on the screen, students gave presentations, explaining intentions, techniques, drawing and use of colour. It was the perfect lesson: visual, conceptual and inclusive. It used ICT. The teacher was facilitator, offering criticism, discussion of iconography and film backgroundI what more could students want? Yet such communal festivities might not inspire a budding Edvard Munch.

If one of art's aims is subversion, at least of previous forms, or a forum for unlocking the imaginativerepressed, primitive sides of the self, then encouraging pictorial or plastic free expression should predominate.

However, the ultimate subversion could mean staff or students just not turning up for lessons.

In contrast, focus on "design" tends to be prescriptive, offering progression through a series of stages to be completed within time constraints. But is control always good?

Art students said they preferred lessons where information, techniques and projects were set out at the beginning of sessions, then they carried out relevant research and tasks. Interventions or small group or individual coaching were useful, but too many intrusions or lecturing stopped the flow of creativity and could be counterproductive.

The problem then becomes one of when teachers should speak. Merely allowing students to "get on with their work" will result in the usual problems of students socialising or going "off-task", or using free-expression and endless cries of "creativity" as an excuse for inaction.

The argument is often put that Picasso did not have aims and objectives and frequently went "off-task". But Picasso also created prolifically and dominated most 20th-century art styles; most students are not at this levelI as yet.

Mervyn Lebor teaches at Batley School of Art and Design

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