Conceptual Development

I recently had dinner with one of my favorite former students, and we spent some time talking about her art school experience. One thing she brought up was the want of more conceptual development during her time in the high school art room. Then she turned around and authored this profile. Of course, that got me thinking–do I need to teach our students more about their thinking, their ideas, and thinking about their ideas? Do we need to spend more time with conceptual development?

My thought: Not really.

There are those students who have an interest in it, and there are the students who need it, but the number of students who fit those categories is so incredibly limited. There are so many things students need to be able to do before they really–and I mean REALLY–jump into conceptual development. This is not to say that we shouldn’t teach it, or that kids aren’t ready for it–quite the opposite, in fact. I, like most teachers, try to push and challenge my students; I also like to pick and choose when I do so in the context of a bigger picture. We’ll go for it when we’re ready, but viewing things pragmatically, I don’t see the benefits for most of my students.

Advanced Thinking
First off, students need to be fairly advanced in their artmaking (more on this later) and even more advanced in their thinking. Creating, developing, and speaking intelligently about concepts that interest them is asking a lot of high schoolers. At that point, we’re pretty high up on Bloom’s Taxonomy, and I’m not sure how many students are able to  think and process that way on a consistent basis. How many kids are on the meta level–able to spend meaningful time thinking about their thinking? I can count on one hand the number of kids who have come through my room with the ability to do so.

Artistic Voice
How many artist statements need to be written about “expressing what’s in my head” and “capturing the beauty I see in the world”? Those cliches aren’t going anywhere, aren’t useful to anyone, and don’t really explain anything about students’ art. To be perfectly honest, high schoolers (and, to some extent, high school teachers) are usually just on a continuous march toward different types of realistic drawing with a variety of materials. There’s no voice there. There’s no vision there.

Even when one looks at Scholastic Art and Writing Portfolios, or AP Concentrations, very few of the winners–and these are the best of the best–have something meaningful to express. More often than not, it’s 8 or 12 variations on a single theme. Is that wrong? Not at all. Those works are wildly successful, but they to me seem to still be lacking in the area of conceptual development. It’s not easy to do.

Interests and Passion
If, in fact, meaningful personal communication, artistic voice, and a unique artistic vision are beyond most high school students’ abilities, what can we do for those few students whose artistic ability and thinking actually can transcend those boundaries? Can conceptual development be broken down into a formula, or a process? Probably not, but it can’t hurt to try.

Concepts generally develop organically, as do interests and passion. It’s not something that can be forced. Often times the biggest inspiration is simply what we see every day from the artists with whom we work. There are peripheral inspirations–what we read, listen to, see, etc., but the biggest source of ideas comes from other artists. In a high school art room, those artists don’t particularly have a lot to offer in the way of influence and inspiration. Instead, we need to look hard outside that immediate sphere of influence and use our resources as art teachers to show our students what is out there–the art that can influence, and the art that can inspire. It’s our job to a) figure out what interests our students–what are they passionate about? Why do they want to make art? How can they best express what they’re trying to say?; and b) help them develop their skills in a way that these expressions can be meaningful and successful.

Developing a Concept
When we see this need for these students’ ideas to be successfully transferred into the realm of artmaking, I’m not sure it’s terribly different than what we do on a regular basis. The difference when teaching conceptual development is how we reflect on what we do, and where we focus our ideas. Patience is needed. Generally, we’ll begin our lesson with something to think about, a question or two, maybe a quick discussion. Then a sketch or two to lay out ideas and composition, and off we go.

That’s where we need to slow down. Ask more questions. Critique the answers. Discuss more. Critique the discussion. Sketch more. Critique the sketches. Draw more. Critique the drawings. Don’t just look at what you are doing, but look at why you are doing it. Most importantly, don’t move on until you understand the why.

When one thinks, meaningfully and patiently, about what is created, and more importantly WHY it is created, the artistic vision can come into focus. A concept is developed when a student realizes why they are creating their work. From there, the work made because of that concept will inspire even more work to be created. Peer assessment, teacher assessment, self-assessment and reflection will help push and develop that concept so it can grow with the student, and grow with the work. These extra steps can easily slow down the artmaking; at some point, the focus on reflection, critique, and assessment can suck the life and fun out of the process . To truly be successful when expressing and developing ideas and concepts, however, that focus is nothing less than a necessary part of the process.

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