I am calling this entry my bad lesson. Don’t let the title fool you. I by no means have only one bad lesson in my last 6 years of teaching, I just thought I’d pick one, and a tricky one at that. It’s a lesson that by all outward appearances could be considered successful. But it’s bad, no ifs ands or buts about it. Why is it bad? Well, it’s what I have begun calling a closed lesson. It’s a lesson that has so many restrictions that there is very little variety in the successful works. When placed side by side, the students’ projects easily arrange themselves into winners and losers, and that doesn’t bode well for instructional quality.
So let’s look at the lesson itself. I wanted my students to have a good understanding of facial proportions and an ability to realistically draw portraits from life. It was something that I had learned when I was in high school, and even though I remembered its execution to be arduous and mind numbing, I thought the lesson valuable enough to pass on to my own students. So, I reconstructed the lesson to the best of my ability. I gave the students homework assignments where they had to draw their facial features repetitively, studying every nuance. We then studied the facial proportions and how everything lined up. Finally, I gave them an 18” x 24” inch piece of white drawing paper, a variety of drawing pencils, placed them in front of a mirror, and told them to draw expressionless, straight on portraits of themselves.
The students hated it. Well, most of them hated it. Some students love any art assignment, no matter how bad. I think it’s that unconditional love from a small segment of the class that prevents us from seeing how bad our lessons truly are. They took weeks painstakingly recording every detail of their emotionless faces. The room was as somber as a tomb. The work moved slowly, and no matter how much I redirected, some students just couldn’t get it. So, when the arbitrarily scheduled due date arrived, my diligent students rushed to turn in a completed assignment, while my less committed students turned in hastily completed or unfinished works.
When we lined up the works, we could clearly see who was the most skilled in realistic pencil drawing. I could easily line them all up from most successful to least successful, and so could everyone else. The worst part of it was, the students whose work looked less successful, less realistic, after all that painstaking work, had to stare at their finished work and feel like failures. After all that effort, they had a very real demonstration that they weren’t good enough for this project.
That’s on me. I created an assignment where only a few students with strong skills in realistic drawing could find the “correct solution.” I had closed the assignment so much, that the only decision the students made was how to wear their hair during drawing. All they learned was basic pencil skills and facial proportions. The lesson failed to teach them anything about self-expression, composition, curiosity, risk taking, self-awareness, or any of a litany of other things that a student artist would find more valuable than realistic pencil drawing.
Think of it like a Venn diagram. First, you just have one circle; it is full of all the possible ways of creating success. And just like a Venn diagram, with every new circle you add, the area of success becomes smaller and smaller. Imagine that every added circle represents a restriction. One for media, in this case drawing pencil, another for subject matter. Don’t forget paper, style and expression. By the end of it, I had added so many restrictions that only one kind of young artist could be successful. What sense does that make? Realistic pencil drawing isn’t so fundamental of a skill that every student need know it or else feel like a failure. In fact, I am hard pressed to think of a contemporary artist who relies exclusively on realistic pencil drawing. But they all rely on self-expression. It seems silly and slightly tragic that I would risk the self-confidence of my students over one particular skill. Shame on me.