“How do we relate to our school environment?”

This article offers my thoughts on a primary project which involved the use of the creative arts to explore ideas about change and sustainable development. Children learnt through the process of designing and making things with value and meaning.

The project involved a group of thirty-six Year 5 children, who had a wide ability range. They worked in groups to develop sculptures responding to the outdoor learning environment at Timberley Primary.  The question in the background was ‘how do we relate to our school environment?’

The work we did together helped develop ideas about critical thinking and sustainable development, as part of the Bill Scott Challenge.

“How do young learners make sense of things?”

In planning this work with the teachers at the school, a key challenge for us was about how young learners make sense of things. A lot of learning materials with a sustainable development focus are very tendentious, while sustainable development itself often feels like a mess of complicated issues.

As we talked this through, we decided that it was not necessarily going to be important to the children for the idea of sustainable development to be in the foreground. Instead, it would be more important to provide opportunities for them to start to think about issues around the school site at more than their face value, and to start making use of the skills required to get to a deeper level of thinking.

We decided to try out ways and models of working, and work them through. In that respect, our process of Thinking though making  would have something in common with Philosophy for Children and other such managed learning processes.  If the children were to develop their own ideas, we recognised that it would not be a reasonable option to engage in crude simplification or some form of brainwashing. To make it all about messages such as ‘you mustn’t drop litter.’

Instead, we were going to develop learning and practical skills as part of a real situation with a real purpose. It would be the situation, rather than a bank of information, which would serve as our stimulus.

In terms of outcomes, we were therefore looking for developing questioning, creative and social skills in that real context, rather than for specific knowledge and understanding. This would involve making, talking, and doing.

The children worked in six groups to develop sculptures responding to the outdoor learning environment in Timberley. It was important that the final product should mean something to the children.   It was therefore also important for the children to take a lead in this work. The role of adults, including myself as a visiting artist, was to provide technical know-how and a learning process.

Our work involved three main stages.

What the six groups of children did

Each group gave itself a name, and – having identified its focus word – used a variety of materials to develop ideas: clay; wire; wood and bottle tops; bark chippings, branches and stones; bamboo; print making. By the time their ideas were refined into final designs for the school site, each group had also explored the potential of these materials as part of their completed sculpture.

The following are a sample of the initial ideas, and finished products, from each group.

Group:  Timberley Art
Focus word: CARING

The group initially concentrated on things that we should protect: trees, birds, etc., but none of these seemed to get to the essence of ‘caring’. The group moved on to thinking about how we care, rather than what we care about, and this led it to consider the role of the five senses. This led to much more open-ended and creative discussion.  The final product was designed by the children as a ‘sculpture which poses a question’ – in this case, a ‘tree’ made of recycled materials.

Group:  Big, Bad and Blue
Focus word: NATURE

This group worked hard to narrow its very wide focus down. Early plans concentrated closely on the outdoor area itself, and had map-like qualities [as in this image of pond, path and door]. The final product settled on the pond and fish, and involved translucent materials on a sheet of acrylic placed vertically on the ground. To get to this stage, the group employed a wide range of social and practical  skills, and a strong aesthetic sense. It is less clear what depth of conceptual thinking was involved.

Group:  Golden Angel
Focus word:  GARDENING

A huge range of ideas were developed around the theme of ‘the gardener.’ Having tried out a range of media, the group settled on a figure made from sticks and suspended like a puppet from a tree.  When a suitable tree proved unavailable, they created a free-standing figure instead, complete with spade. The strength of this group was in its energetic and exploratory creativity: the product itself was a fairly literal response to the key word.

Group: Nature Group
Focus word:  WILDLIFE

Early ideas struggled to focus this group’s ideas down, but eventually the pond became a central focus, and they created a vivid split-level sculpture. As with the group which selected ‘nature’, much of the energy of this group was tied up in making some very abstract ideas sufficiently concrete, although the product itself was visually appealing.

Group:  Super Sculptors
Focus word:  NATURAL

A long development journey took this group from rather reductive ideas about birds and nests, to representations of the pond, to a final design of a fisherman made of sticks and wood. Was something of the core idea lost in the process?

Group:  Art Attack
Focus word:  HABITAT

A lot of ideas around trees and forests led to the concept of a tree as an entire habitat, from roots to leaves [and including a nest with eggs – the orange hexagon in the picture]. The final sculpture was made out of appropriately natural materials, laid out on the ground. It seems that the key word was sufficiently contained as to allow for the development of a sculptural idea which matched well to the concepts being looked at by the group.

“Going head-on into thinking about ‘issues’ is not necessarily the best way of engaging with sustainable development”

The teachers and I found we needed to work closely to push children past a superficial level of understanding. Critical thinking mostly came from the last, reflective, stage of the thinking through making process.

As is clear from the examples above, some groups of children identified an idea early and evolved things from that [such as the habitat tree]. Other groups went on a rambling journey and ended up with something quite different from what they started with.  With these groups, the most interesting thing from my point of view was to see how they came to what they arrived at, rather than the product itself.

Practicalities sometimes got in the way of children getting to more conceptual learning. In this, it may have helped if children had mastered the materials in advance. For example, some groups working with clay found the novelty of that experience became the main thing.

Some children also struggled to get used to unfamiliar working approaches. For example, working and thinking as a team, and negotiating ways forward, proved difficult at times [eg due to clashes of personality, including between children working together in groups who were generally separated for behavioural reasons in normal classroom situations].

In these instances, working together became the most important thing to learn about, and children often learned most by looking at the group-work issues which had held them back.

Models such as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs sometimes seem to suggest that emotional and social issues like these need to be resolved before higher order learning can take place. However, these issues can also be a legitimate focus in themselves for critical and reflective learning. My view is that we should not be too fixed about the models we adopt.

Critical thinking
“Going head-on into thinking about ‘issues’ is not necessarily the best way of engaging meaningfully with sustainable development, for learners of this age.”

The teachers and I were able to identify several aspects of the project where children needed to engage in deep thought, including:

  • Practical considerations eg what materials are suitable for the environment they are being designed for;
  • Social considerations eg group working, consensus building;
  • Conceptual considerations eg synthesising key words, and conceptualising artefacts which represented them;
  • Meta-learning eg documenting and thinking about the process.
  • Because the development of the sculpture ideas was driven by the children themselves, it tended to develop these thinking skills at a learner-appropriate level. The children’s positive response to the experience suggests to me that learning which comes out of the demands of a real and purposeful situation can be particularly productive. Another way of saying this is that going head-on into thinking about ‘issues’ is not necessarily the best way of engaging meaningfully with sustainable development, for learners of this age.

For more information

For more on The Bill Scott Challenge, click here
For more on Mark’s work at Creative~States see www.creative-states.co.uk

We used a ‘Thinking through making process’ like the one described in the Tide~ Talk article
Thinking through making: Art and sustainable development

With thanks to:

Beccie Fretter and colleagues at Timberley Primary School, Birmingham
Pepita Hanna, BASS

Teachers and Artists Working Together Fund [for financial support]

All photographs: Creative~States