Tales from the Art Side Art Blog
Of the countless duties and responsibilities a teacher must address on a daily basis, the most frequent would undoubtedly be the task of answering questions. This is, after all, an extension of the fundamental role of a teacher; to convey knowledge, to relay information, and to resolve uncertainty. In fact, the volume of queries that are proposed to a teacher on any given day can be remarkably overwhelming. There have been numerous occasions in which I felt as though I had to consciously strain to keep my own eyes from crossing by the end of a class, simply because of the barrage of questions I had sustained. As teachers though, we must be incredibly cautious about how we endeavor to address these requests. In fact, it is because of the great quantity that the task of answering questions must be handled with a certain degree of delicacy and thoughtfulness. It_'s all too easy to become dismissive with the regularity of certain kinds of questions and fall into the habit of providing routine responses. We must constantly remain intentional about how we answer and always be mindful of the fact that there is an art to answering questions.
The way we answer most questions will not only speak volumes to a student about how we regard the content of our class, but it will also greatly inspire their own perception of the subject and their motivation for the remainder of the course. We must be careful to answer questions in a way that promotes thought in the mind of the student instead of preventing it. When teachers simply dole out direct answers and advice upon request, students become dependent on the teacher and less capable of developing their own sophisticated ideas. The best way to avoid this is to, whenever possible, answer questions with questions. By doing so we redirect the responsibility for creative thinking back to where it belongs, between the ears of the student. When this is done consistently, it develops a tendency in the students to begin internalizing their questions and finding answers for themselves. This should, of course, be the goal of every teacher, to create independent thinkers that no longer need our constant advice and direction.
In an art classroom there are several kinds of questions that appear quite frequently. Many of these seem innocent enough on the surface, but a seasoned teacher will recognize that these inquiries are laced with subtle layers of contrary meaning. Perhaps the most iconic of these enquiries is as misleading as it is manipulative, "Is this finished?" When a student asks this question it initially sounds as though they are thoughtfully engaging that awkward moment every artist experiences in trying to determine exactly when to leave well enough alone and step away from a work in progress. More often than not though, when a student asks, "is this finished_", they are expressing an intense desire to be done with a project and are seeking permission from the teacher to cease and desist all creative activity. Furthermore, they are hoping to obtain a forecast as to the type of grade they might receive for their work in its current state. A teacher should never answer this question, but instead, press the student to reflect upon what they_'ve done. I always begin with a 10 foot test. While looking at the work with the student I will ask them a few simple questions: "What do you like best about this work?" After listening to and affirming their response, I ask what they like least. This is an easy question for them to answer because most students are very critical of their own work. Once they've identified an area they are not pleased with, a few more questions will prod them into being specific about what exactly they don_'t like about the offending portion of the work. It is at this point that the student has been perfectly positioned to answer their own question. They_'ve located a problem area within their work and have indentified precisely what it is that makes it less successful. They are one question away from solving their own dilemma, and that question is, "So what could you do to fix that?" By pressing the student for several possible solutions, they engage in creative problem solving and can then select what they determine to be the most successful alternative. Often times the student will return to work without even realizing that their question was never actually answered.
This is just one example of the myriad of enquires that are asked of a teacher on a daily basis, but the formula for answering them all remains the same. Resist the temptation to provide straightforward answers and challenge the student to think for themselves. Whether the questions are technical (_"How should I paint this?_") or theoretical (_"What are warm colors?_"), our responses should help students to answer the question themselves. Questions sometimes come in the form of confessions like; "I don't know what to do next_" or, "I can___'t think of anything." Even in these instances we must avoid tossing out specific ideas, something which often comes easily for creative minded art teachers, and instead guide the student_'s thought process with probing questions. This is a skill that does not come easy and after 11 years of teaching I still catch myself reverting back to bad habits when I get overwhelmed. It requires constant effort, relentless practice, and it demands that the teacher always be conscious about how they are responding. But this is true of any skill that is worth mastering. The more one engages in exploring a particular skill set, the more they become aware of the subtle nuances within the task. It is then with finesse and creativity that what was once a technical task becomes an artful execution, and the same is true with answer questions.