Jason Christopher Childers™ - A Philosophy of Teaching
The powers and possibilities of art and creative, imaginative exploration can broaden our perspectives and expand our consciousness. Through learning about and creating art, we in turn learn so much more. In my courses I work for and with my students toward the goal of nurturing knowledgeable artists. A knowledgeable artist is a student of history and culture, material knowledge (through hands-on production), conception and design (through my process of proposing a project [much like a pitch or grant—practical]), and aesthetics (throughout my courses: in design and in improvisation). This includes practical art world workings when applicable. Throughout and as a result of this journey through the arts, my class develops new knowledges and cognitive structures. We develop critical thinking, can see the world as something that is malleable—something that can be changed—and can understand this reality from multiple perspectives. In addition to knowledge of the arts these are the main skills that the artists and non-artists that come through the classroom can both walk away with.
My approach to teaching and developing these skills in the classroom borrows from both critical and social constructivism. In a social constructivist structure, in addition to learning from my personal experience and knowledge, we are active creators of knowledge—learning from each other. I join in the learning, forming relationships through group discussions (lectures and critiques), 1 on 1 (proposals and production), casual conversation, and communication via weekly artist response journal entries that I respond to. Through these conversations I learn from my students so I can understand who they are, what they want to get out of the course, and assess their levels of experience and knowledge of art and materials. This way I can individually scaffold upon what they already know and structurally expand that knowledge, as each student needs to be challenged, but challenged within their grasp. Through a critical constructivist structure, as we look at art, read articles, and research artists, we also research to dig further and understand other narratives, contexts, and views on the subject. We don't take anything at face value, and in this critical thought we develop and share different views and understandings.
These constructivist approaches are important because they emphasize the fluidity and subjectivity of art as a discipline, a form of knowledge, and a way of questioning, understanding, and communicating in the world. Art does not function with numbers, data, and stats. Quantitative, rational, and objective frameworks don't govern this discipline (albeit somewhat in structure and design). In art my students can experience a world where fluidity, subjectivity, and multiple-perspectives function as frameworks of understanding. Not many classrooms, other than some liberal arts studies, can offer such a way of experiencing knowledge.
How do I implement these teaching strategies in a manner that achieves these ideals? Although this happens in an invisible and abstract manner I will paint a picture of my course experience. Each class I teach I will start off a project with new research—reviewing and expanding my knowledge of the subject matter and/or material. I give them the assignment sheet a week or so before we begin the assignment. The next class, after receiving the assignment sheet, I have a discussion-lecture during which we look at artworks— analyzing, dissecting, and discussing the history, context, aesthetics, and ideas of the work. We learn about cultural history and our contemporary context, especially as it pertains to decoding and understanding the images and objects—the barrage of commercial art forms—that surround and fulfill our daily American lives. I relate a lot of art to daily life, grounding it in something real and tangible. This discussion-lecture moment sets the stage, creating an intellectual space within which we will explore together.
The assignments begin with a preparative research and development period (usually homework while they are finishing up their previous assignments) where I encourage them to be creative, imaginative, and think outside the box. They are expected to bring in 3 proposals for their project, giving us options and allowing the students to not always go with the first idea, work out the cobwebs, and potentially integrate ideas. At the beginning of this class I do a materials demo, teaching about the material and techniques for using, constructing, and manipulating the material. I then meet with each student individually to discuss their proposals. During our meetings we discuss inspiration, ideas, design, and production. We challenge and develop the concepts of the work and set out a plan of action for production.
During the production period of the work I bounce around giving 1 on 1 help. I am always answering questions, commenting on work, and finding teachable moments—moments that I see that everyone can learn from. In this I also emphasize that my students help each other out and learn from each other as much as possible. We are a community of learners in the classroom, working differently yet working together and learning from each other. (In drawing and painting I can be more exercise oriented, running drills to hone on our perceptual and technical skills.)
Once a project is complete we have a peer critique. I have been evaluating the artists on their works in progress throughout the weeks, now I see their final product and presentation. I look for ingenuity, creativity, experimentation, hard work, technique, perseverance, attention to detail, ideological representation (communication), visual acuity, application of lesson and demos, etc... I tell them early on in the course that I would rather you meet a challenge head on than when you are challenged you turn to a simpler solution. And that my comments are suggestions, you could come in and say, "I thought about what you said, but I tried or did this other thing."
In addition to this work I assign weekly artist responses, a one paragraph response to an artwork from a contemporary artist. This keeps them actively searching for and looking at contemporary artists. This is art they are more likely unfamiliar with, but they should become more familiar with because art of the now is more relatable to the world in which the they exist. The subject matter and the styles are more a part of their generation and cultures. The artist responses also serve as a dialogue between me and my students. When I look through their sketchbooks I respond to their entries. This way I open a dialogic avenue where I can converse with them individually about art and through art.
I teach practical things in the classroom when applicable. As an ambitious and practicing artist, every time I learn about a new artist, material, or process for my practice, my students benefit in the classroom. Every time I meet a new artist, curator, director, or gallery owner my students benefit. With these connections we get to, for example, take a field trip to a gallery (off hours) and get a walk through with the curator, artist, or director. I also teach such practical lessons as structure, presentation, installation, artist talks, gallery walk-throughs, the structures of different art spaces (museums, galleries, coops, non-profits, and renegades), pricing, and contracts, etc... Whatever it takes to demystify the art world and make it more accessible and tangible.
In the end, through developing our artistic skills we in turn develop valuable cognitive structures that can be carried over into all parts of life—transcending subject matter divisions. With some critical thinking and imagination we can see the world differently. As the ceramicist imagines the lump of clay into something else and works to create that vision, the world in front of him or her has become malleable. Through perceptual alchemy, the ceramicist can see that one thing can be transformed into something else—and has the material knowledge to do so. We can develop our capacities see the world in a new light, imagine it differently, and gear our actions towards that new world. When we have the critical and imaginative capacities to see the world as it could be otherwise, we develop our capacities to understand the world from other perspectives, how other people and cultures might perceive and understand the world. We understand that there are multiple forms of knowledge and multiple answers to multiple questions. This is crucial in both citizenry and knowledge. This is how I work to nurture knowledgeable artists—contemporary producers of culture and knowledge—and broaden the perspectives and cognitive capacities of my students.