Saturday, January 29, 2011

Self-Directed Art & Learning Too

bubble art during one of my classes
Yes, I wrote about this not too long ago (read the semi-recent post, here), but it seems that people come here looking for it, and often are looking for specific projects. I guess perhaps I need to post some examples of how one creates self-directed learning opportunities. I'm going to stick with art, because that's what people are often coming here for, but obviously this goes for anything.

First, briefly, What is Self-Direction? It means simply that the activity is determined by the doer, and not by the teacher. This usually means that the activity will be exploratory, and exploration means learning.

The least beneficial activity I can imagine is one where the end result is not only determined by a teacher, parent, or superior, but also demonstrated. Such an activity not only creates an often unattainable goal of perfection for the student (leading to stress and often failure), but also implies that the students' own ideas are not valued, since we are striving to copy somebody else's idea, so it must be better. This is of course the opposite of what I want in my teaching or parenting.

The ideal activity, to me, is one where ideas or materials are shared, but not overtly demonstrated, and where the student is encouraged to explore with materials (even to explore with finding/creating materials) and to share their discoveries. This implies that whatever the student may discover is important, and whatever creation, idea, or inspiration comes of the activity is by its simple existence highly valuable and appreciated by others involved.

Self-Direction Requires Flexibility: As adults coping with the high-stress realities of modern western civilization, we are often product-oriented, results-driven, and in a hurry. For example, it would be very useful and efficient if our child could churn out 25 valentines for friends in one sitting, thereby making each friend feel equally appreciated, and the parents of those friends feel that we've raised a caring child who is capable of creating valentines. It would be even more useful and efficient, however, if from the experience of creating one valentine, for a recipient of the child's choosing (or even for nobody-in-particular), the child could discover deep values of friendship, personal connection to the act of creating, and have an explorative art experience. It may take our child a very long time of experimentation to discover his/her own preferred method of valentine-creation, but in the end any product will be wholly his/her own, the memories and neural pathways forged will be more meaningful, and probably more helpful to subsequent art activities, and the pride in whatever the outcome is will be genuine and whole. It will be a product of our child's own heart, own mind, and own method.

As a family that follows our own and our children's inspirations as much as possible, we have to be flexible. The choice to fully homeschool our children means a time- and financial sacrifice, for sure, but we have never regretted it. This is the time we're all growing and learning, together, and when a particular activity takes a long time and impinges upon other plans, we either roll with it or accept that this activity will have to be curtailed.

Self-Direction Within a Framework: Making an activity non-goal-oriented does not mean there can't be a framework, or inspirational idea, to begin with. The following examples are common art activities which I've reworked (the "Creative Alternative") to allow students to learn more by exploration and self-direction.

Valentine's Day Card: Discuss the meaning of hearts, and how we can make people happy by giving valentines. Provide children with a choice of red or white folded cards, glue, and pre-cut foam Valentines shapes in red, white, and pink. Instruct children to glue valentines shapes in specific patterns on the cards, so that they'll end up with something pleasing, like the pre-made example. When they're finished, they can decorate with glitter-glue. Help the children to spell names and a message inside the card, put it in an envelope and send it home with them for their parents.

Creative Alternative: Discuss the feelings we experience when we share love and kindness with others. Provide children with a choice of many colours of unfolded cardstock and various supplies, such as scissors, glue, ribbons or yarn, glitter, and fabric scraps. Encourage them to experiment with different shapes and material combinations before gluing down, and then just stand back. When they've finished, they may have folded their card, or they may not have; they may want to write in it, or they may not. The card may be for somebody in particular (in which case, help them wrap it in paper when it's dry, address it, and take it to the post-office to mail, or hand-deliver, if appropriate), or it may be just an expression of their feelings and exploration, in that moment. The benefits to them are the opportunities to explore feelings, social systems, and materials.

harvesting clay during one of my classes
Clay Pot with Handles: Give each participant a lump of clay and two, separate, smaller lumps. Demonstrate creating a pinch-pot, and rolling out the smaller lumps to create handles. Demonstrate proper technique for attaching the handles with hatching and slip. Set aside to dry.

Creative Alternative: Give each participant a lump of clay. Sit down beside them, give no instruction, and watch them play. If you plan to fire the clay and notice they are trying to attach things, demonstrate hatching and slip attachment, and explain why it helps the clay to stick together. Do not instruct them to copy you; just suggest this as a useful method.
Better yet (if possible) take them to a creek to harvest natural clay. Expand the activity to wet sand, mud, snow, or home-made dough sculpting. Projects can even be left outside, exposed to the elements, so students can watch them return to their natural state (like watching a snowman melt away).

blind figure drawing with homemade charcoal
Portraiture: Teach participants classical proportions for face-drawing, with a diagram-example, and ask them to lay out a grid on paper and use it as a template for drawing the face of someone sitting opposite them.

Creative Alternative: Look at portraits done by other people, including caricature, abstract, expressionist, and super-realist. Discuss the various ways in which artists capture expression. Have participants create a series of blind line-drawings of the person sitting opposite them. Blind drawing means drawing what one sees directly, without looking at the paper (blindfold optional). When the drawing is finished, the artist looks at the paper, but commits not to change the drawing, further. The drawing is set aside, and another one begun, also blind. The process can be likened to a direct physical interpretation of the form perceived by the eyes. It's really quite wonderful to see the likeness achieved by this method. After 6 or 7 drawings, the participant usually begins to let let go of inhibitions and see the subject more openly. This is as much an exercise in human understanding and working without goals as it is in drawing.

multi-age art discussion
3D Drawing Techniques: Demonstrate techniques for implying three-dimensionality with pencil or ink, including shading, pointillism, cross-hatching, and weighted line-drawing. Provide a series of clean geometric solids with a single light-source, and instruct participants to practice various techniques to draw those shapes.

Creative Alternative: Spend a lot of time talking about various objects in the vicinity. Many of these will be complex shapes, or have various light-sources. Talk about the colours, and how they change given different light-sources. You may take an object outside to see how it changes in the natural light. You may block natural light coming in windows to explore colour and shadow changes. IF you still have time to draw, you may provide charcoal and ask participants to experiment with finding and drawing shadows of whatever they'd like, in the area. There is no expected outcome; just experimentation with drawing shadows.

Japanese Calligraphy: Discuss the function and use of some general symbol-sets used in Japan. Look at calligraphy, and discuss the importance of making strokes in the appropriate order. Show participants particular kanji and ask them to trace or copy them, then make a version in paint or ink.

Creative Alternative: Calligraphy is about expression. It can even, in fact, be as much or more about expressing feeling, ki, and movement than about being a particular character. Discuss this. Look at calligraphy, including some in the native language of the participants. Talk about the etymology of the word calligraphy ('beautiful writing'). Spend time meditating and learning to feel the life-force before expressing it. Now ask students to choose one idea or word that is very meaningful to them, personally, and to express it in black ink, with a brush, in their own language, a known symbol or pictograph, or in any other way they feel like. Make sure there is plenty of extra paper, and allow them to explore the expression of ink on paper.

Class Performance: Purchase a script, complete with recorded songs, etc. assign roles to the group-members, and have them rehearse and perform along with the music. Of course there's a lot of work that goes into pulling something like this together, and many elementary schools put huge efforts into it every December. I'm not doing it justice, but that's because I think it's so wrong. Yes, some or most children will get inspired about their roles, and yes, it sometimes seems like the only option when we're faced with an overload of obligations, and yes, the parents will be pleased to see their little ones performing... but they won't hear their voices over the recording they are following, and the benefit is just not what it could be.

Creative Alternative: Have extensive group discussions about the topic at hand, play games that relate to it, have the group members express their relationships to and feelings about it, through various art forms. Sing songs together that involve input and imagination of the participants. Divide the group into smaller parts, if necessary, and ask them to develop their own performances that express some common interest they share about the topic at hand. Honour their work, give them support and encouragement, but don't guide them, other than to provide necessary time-constraints, help settle arguments, suggest practical solutions, etc. The performance will be wholly their own.

I have to share this: of all the Christmas concerts/performances I participated in as a child at my elementary school, the one I remember and treasure most is the one where we were divided into groups and asked to choose an unusual December tradition and make a play about it. My group chose Sinterklaas, and we developed a play, complete with costumes and a song, that illustrated the basics of this holiday for our classmates and parents. I remember there was some arguing among us (who would play which roles, I think it was) but the memory as a whole is extremely positive.

Abstract Mural: Discuss and explore various styles of abstract art, and have participants mimic one of their choice, with whatever materials are available. Join all drawings together to create a wall full of abstract art.

group mural during a Wild Art Class in my studio
Creative Alternative: Discuss and explore various styles of abstract art, and create a mural, together. Spread a very large piece of paper on a large table or many tables, joined together, and supply materials of complimentary sorts (various paints with brushes, OR dry materials, OR wax crayons and watercolours). Have participants spread out around the table with their chosen materials or colours, and ask them to create whatever they are inspired to, with the inspiration provided (can be music, poetry or a story read aloud, meditation, previous discussion or experience, etc.). Find a way of moving around the table, so that each participant ends up working in and around the designs already created by others. When the paper feels complete (or full), ask people to look at the mural as a whole, and find ways to pull it together, compositionally. This means not just following around the table, but reaching across, changing positions, and perhaps even taking turns getting up onto the table to create.  
No part of the mural is sacred, and all is open for change. In this way, participants not only share their work, but also their inspiration, and are required to problem-solve along the way, experimenting with various material- and colour-combinations that they may not have been faced with, working alone. The personal nature of the project is gone with the changes made by others, and it becomes a truly group effort. This is one of my favourite group-cohesion activities. I've done it often, especially with adults.

How to Talk about Activities:
Closed comments/questions leave little room for creativity or self-expression:
What did you draw?
What is this a picture of?
Is that a man/house/tree/etc.?
Oh it looks so perfect/realistic!

Open comments/questions open dialogue that the child can direct:
Tell me about what you've done, here.
What kinds of shapes/feelings/ideas do you see, here?
Oh this looks like it was fun to make!
What do you feel about this activity?

Supplies for open-ended art exploration:
2018 Update: Rickshaw Unschooling: Supplies and Practice of Open-Ended Art Exploration


  1. Great post! I'm a graduate student doing research for my final project on self-directed learning in art education. I have found that Choice-based art education is by far the best theory in the constructivist house to encourage self-directed learning skills. Also, check out Teaching for Artistic Behavior. Great community of art educators and a wealth of experience!

  2. Thank you for your comments, Bryan! I'd love to see your work if possible. This is something I care very deeply about, not only as it applies to art making and teaching, but to education and learning in general.

  3. i didn't see your contact info so if you'd like to connect via email, you can reach me at:

    also, i will have a poster presentation at the international society for self-directed learning symposium Feb 6-8 in Cocoa Beach, FL. they are worth a peek.


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