The Demonstration Conundrum (Ep. 074)

It’s one of the existential questions for art teachers: do you use teacher examples? On one hand, you help your kids stay on track for success with their work. On the other hand, you run the risk of stifling their creativity and ending up with a classroom of similar projects. What is an art teacher to do? Andrew brings Tim on the show to talk about the use of teacher examples, the demonstration conundrum, and why every teacher needs to reflect on this issue and come up with their own solution. Full episode transcript below.

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Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by the Art of Education and I’m your host Andrew McCormick.

So I’m teaching the Choice-Based Art Education course this July and it’s been bringing up something that I’ve been thinking about for some time. I’m not sure if Tim and I will be able to really flesh this out into a big episode on this topic, but I wonder about the ethicacy and possible negative impacts on creating and using teacher examples. It’s kind of a weird thought, but I’m wondering if Tim can come on and help me flesh this out.

Now I understand that a teacher work example can be a guide for students, but I’ve been wondering if there’s a drawback on student originality as every student wants to make their artwork look just like ours. I think choice-based teachers probably use these teacher examples a little bit less but it’s still an issue with students using the Internet and digital technology, like YouTube or Pinterest. Those sites can inspire students but, are they just copying step by step tutorials and creating something that someone else tells them to do? Whether that’s a teacher example or YouTube … I mean don’t get me wrong, YouTube tutorials can be great but if a student is just making a dutiful copy of someone else’s prescribed steps, is that original artwork?

Now, on the flip side, doesn’t everyone have to start somewhere? I would say that nothing begets confidence and a renewed interest and commitment to the arts like having success in the arts. So maybe that’s where having a teacher example can be really beneficial. So, before I bring Tim on and have him help me kind of flesh out this conundrum, I want to remind you all again that the Art Ed Now conference is coming up in just a couple of weeks, August third, to be exact. You’ve probably heard that Sir Ken Robinson is going to be giving the feature presentation, which is totally awesome. You can see all the details at Artednow.com. But I also want to let you know that you need to be excited about the Swag Box, which should be arriving pretty soon if you’re one of those first 1500 people to register for the conference.

Stabilo has included a set of their pens in the Swag Box, which is really awesome. They’re really incredible. They’re these like technical, stylish, well designed pens and they’re really perfect for drawing. I actually got a chance to use them a little bit at the AOU retreat last month and I really enjoyed them.

Shannon Bell’s going to be giving a presentation on Stabilo pens and how they can be used in your drawing classes. Let me tell you, you’re going to want to see these pens yourself and have your students probably use them every single day. They’re innovative, high quality pens and you’re totally going to love them. So make sure you check out Stabilo at the conference and also in your Swag Box.

Alright, so let’s bring on Tim and see what he thinks about using teacher examples. Alright. So Tim, thanks for coming on today. I really appreciate it.

Tim: Hey, thanks man. I am excited to talk to you.

Andrew: You know it is going to be a bit of a bizarre episode as this idea of a demonstration conundrum, what to do about demos and teaching work samples. It’s been gnawing on me for a while now and in some ways think this episode’s kind of a choice-based episode. It comes up a lot in the Choice-Based Art Ed class that I’m teaching right now and that I’ve taught from time to time and it’s what to do about teacher samples. We think specifically, does making a teacher example help kids stay on track as they’ve got a visual target or do you think in some ways that that can hinder their own creativity and encourage them to just kind of imitate you? So right off the bat, let me throw you into the fire. Where do you sit on that divide? Is it helpful or do you think it actually hinders students’ creativity?

Tim: Oh, man, can I say both?

Andrew: Yeah, sure.

Tim: I think there a lot of benefits to having a finished demo piece. I think it can be an important part of scaffolding, especially when kids aren’t really ready to be super-creative, they aren’t ready to generate their own ideas. I think it can be a learning piece and I think it can be helpful because, like you said, they have an idea of what they can be going for and they can put their own spin on it, ideally. You would hope that it’s not just kids looking at that and copying that. I think some of the issue with that falls back on the teacher, where you need to make it clear that this is just an example, this is not what you’re going for, this is one possible solution, this is what I came up with, but you need to come up with your own.

But, at the same time … I’m not going to let you talk yet, just hang on.

Andrew: Okay, I was ready man, I wanted to jump in there.

Tim: At the same time, I have never been opposed to those teachers who do not want to put up work samples. I was the same way. I did not want to do that because I think it does hinder kids’ creativity a little bit because they focus so much … as much as you may want to tell them, “This is not what you need to come up with.” especially younger kids or kids who haven’t had a lot of art experience … that is what they come up with, they will do things that are very similar. I can see where it will kind of hinder creativity as well and so I’m with you where I think it is a little bit of a conundrum, where I can see both sides of the issue.

Andrew: Yeah and I like that approach. I think we’re both kind of have some, I can see it both ways and I think it kind of depends. One of the things as you were talking that came up in my mind, is when it’s really helpful is when I do have a struggling student.

I remember in high school, absolutely hating when my teacher would draw on my work unsolicited. She would notice a mistake and like “Oh, let me fix this for you.” It’s like “Ahhh.”

Tim: That is the worst. That is the worst. But anyway, go on.

Andrew: There are some kids who actually kind of want that, they’re like “Oh no, go ahead. Fix this whole thing for me.” When you have an example that is your own … that maybe you did a little technique on the side and you showed them some things and you’re kind of working on it when there’s some down time … when you see a student who is struggling with something, a technique or an idea, you can say well let me show you what I mean again on my own example so you’re not doing it over theirs. You’re doing it parallel to them and that’s where I can see it being really helpful. Again, I think it’s like how the teacher approaches it. If you put it up and say … no one will do this … “This is exactly what I want.” Of course that’s going to hinder creativity. But if it’s just a guiding light or an example for you to mess around with, that’s great.

I want to get to something. You kind of said it depends on the teacher. I wonder if you could … maybe agree with me here, I just want you to agree me, just say, yes. I think that there’s two different groups of teachers that this becomes especially tricky for. I think choice-based teachers are really interested in this and it seems really easy as your going choice to just say “I don’t need those at all because everyone’s choice-based.” I also think that there’s a divide between elementary teachers and secondary teachers. Elementary teachers, I think kind of, by their nature, enjoy this example idea because maybe the structure of elementary is there one and done type projects. Secondary teachers, we can let them stew in their own stuff for a while. Do you see those groups as being really grappling with this idea a lot?

Tim: Alright, I think you asked about seven questions there, but let me try and go through and answer a few things here. If I can just circle back around to what you were talking about before you asked that question and showing kids how you struggle with things. As you know, I’m a huge proponent of sketchbooks and I think that’s a great way to work out a lot of issues. I always have my own sketchbook somewhere in the room and I love breaking that out for kids and saying, “Hey, look at this page. Here’s where I struggled with this. Here’s how I solved that.” I think that works really well for high school and probably works really well for middle school too because kids can grasp that. Plus, you’re seeing the same kids every day, so you can kind of work through those problems with them on a more regular basis. I think that’s why secondary teachers probably don’t need these examples as much.

But then in that question, if we compare that to elementary, you hit on a couple things where there are a lot more one and done projects. You’re not seeing kids as often when you’re teaching elementary and you need to get through things a little more quickly. Unfortunately, because of those time constraints and just because of all of the logistics, you aren’t able to have kids reflect and go through that artistic process as slowly and as carefully as you would like. So, in that case, I think these examples are really important because they can do a lot for you in just a little bit of time. Most of our kids are visual learners. If they can see exactly what you’re talking about or if you can point out specific examples in what you’ve done already, it sort of speeds up the learning process, which is a necessity when you’re at the elementary level. I can see why there is a little bit of a divide between elementary and secondary. I think there is and I think it’s justified as well.

As far as choice-based, I’ve never taught choice-base so I don’t know that I can or should speak too much to that. But, I think it does go back to … If it is student centered learning and individualized learning, you are going to need to spend a lot of time as a teacher just talking through with them all of the possible solutions and just make sure you’re attentive to what they’re doing and helping them through that learning process, even if you don’t have those examples up there.

Andrew: I agree with you. I think one of the things we will suss out here in the next few minutes is there’s probably a difference between a teacher work example, or a teacher example and then a demonstration. Some demonstrations turn into teacher examples if they’re like a really quick one day lesson. Sometimes demonstrations are just, “Okay, here’s how you do this.” Then you just throw that thing away. You know, it’s like you just had to see me, watch this and maybe I’ll leave out this little five minute thing. I do think we will have to differentiate between those a little bit.

Let me circle back to big picture here. Is this just the dumbest argument in the world to even be having? I think about like math teachers, math teachers don’t give a crap if their students solve equations exactly how they do it. So what is it about us, as art teachers, that we get all worked up about am I doing this right, or how much am I doing it, or how deliberate or intentional am I using my examples?

Tim: Yeah, that’s a really good point because I don’t know, like art teachers are really good at self-reflection but we’re also really good about worrying about some of the dumbest stuff. I agree that this may fall under that category too. I think it just comes back to the, “What works for you?” question. We want our students to come up with individual ideas and we need to do that as well, as teachers. Just thinking about your own classroom, thinking about how you teach individually. Is you’re teaching better if you have an example on the board, or is your teaching better if you’re sitting down and talking to students one on one about the creative process, about how to solve these problems?

When I taught elementary, I think my teaching was probably better when there was an example on the board because, like I said before, you’re going through so many different ideas and you’re seeing so many different students that it’s really easy to just point out and reference, hey, see what I did here, in one certain spot. When I taught high school, I think I was a better teacher not having examples. That’s why I gave them up because I wanted to focus more on one on one interactions with kids.

Long story short, no I don’t think we need to worry about it. I think we need to just do what’s best for us and not worry about if it’s the … quote, unquote … right way to do things.

Andrew: I like that approach. There’s lots of solutions out there. There’s the mini lessons, the flipped instruction lessons. If you’re going choice-based, you can kind of show students you can do this, this or this without saying you can do this and then this is the desired end result, thereby squashing a lot of their creativity. There’s boot camps, there’s lots of different ways. I like your approach of every teacher needs to decide what strategy is making me most effective with my students. That’s a good approach.

Let’s switch it up here a little bit. We’ve been talking teacher example, teacher example, teacher example. Let’s talk now about demonstration and how that can actually be tricky. I want to kind of set the stage for you a little bit. Our students, the majority of their day, they’re told to sit and be quiet and passively get knowledge and learning poured into them. Then you have this art class where it’s freedom and it’s creativity and it’s expression. Then as art teachers we all do this thing where it’s like, “Okay, come on up to this table for the next 10 minutes as I’m going to show you stuff and you need to be quiet.” Right? They’re like, “Ah, gosh, more of the same.”

I just remember back to my days of being an elementary teacher. By the time I get them in, do a little anticipatory thing and then demo, it’s like “Oh my gosh, we’ve got 20 minutes left to make capital A art that’s meaningful.” It’s like “Ahhh!” I struggled for years as an elementary teacher trying to figure out ways to get my demonstrations faster, leaner, meaner, so that I wasn’t sending all my students home with half finished artwork. That drove me crazy. Okay, so that’s me setting the stage, right? So here’s a question to you. Do you have some ideas, strategies, tips, tricks for teachers out there to streamline their demos so they’re not frustrated like I was all those years?

Tim: Yeah, again, I think it needs to go back to what makes you most effective. So I think I can relate to some of the issues that you’re talking about because when I was teaching elementary, I was always searching for more time, more time, more time. When I switched to secondary, that was more my thing because the slower pace and seeing kids every day allows you to really develop ideas over a longer amount of time. You can show just a little bit every day and let your kids get to work. So I think that’s a little bit more effective but not everyone has that luxury, I know.

I think the biggest thing that you can do or two of the biggest things you can do is, number one, just cut it down or pare it down to just the most essential information. Go through your demonstration, say “Can I cut this out? Will my students be okay if they don’t learn this?” Obviously you don’t want to neglect too many things when it comes to skill building or craft or technique but at the same time, you need to give kids time to create.

I think the second thing … and probably a more important part of this that I think gets overlooked a lot … is that scaffolding so important. If you get clay out, you can say “Hey guys, remember last time we did ceramics we talked about this, this and this.” That way you don’t need to demonstrate those things over and over again. If they already have that knowledge and you’re scaffolding and you’re building on that previous knowledge, it can save you so much time when it comes to demonstrations. If you can refer back to things you have done before, refer back to things that you’ve taught already, that can save you so much time when you are demoing. Just think about that, think about how you can build on prior knowledge that your kids already have. That can be a huge time saver.

Andrew: Okay, let me ask you this question. Let’s say that you know that have four steps of, you’ve got to do this and then you’ve got to do this, remember to do this and then finally do this. You know that that is going to take eight minutes and you know that your students have about an attention span of 90 seconds. After about the first 90 seconds, they’re going to be like, “Can we just make art already?” Do you just forge ahead and just tell them upfront like, “Listen, I know I got to talk a little bit more than normal today. It’s going to take me seven, eight minutes. I know you can do it. Sit tight.” Or do you try to break up your demonstrations and do like, “Okay, I’m going to show you a couple of steps, then you guys can work for a while. Then when I see enough people are ready for the next couple steps, I’ll bring you back up again.”

I ask that because every time you have a large group of people, 30 students or something, moving around the room, putting their work on hold, it’s a little bit herky jerky. Which one would you prefer?

Tim: Now personally, I always prefer the former approach. I always appreciate being proactive. I always like telling kids “Hey, this demo’s going to take a little longer than normal. I appreciate your attention.” I’m just going to set the expectations of what they need to do to listen, what they need to do remember or take notes or whatever you need from them. Set those expectations before you even get started and then you don’t feel as bad about taking up a little more time. Kids aren’t as anxious if they know that you’re going to be talking a little bit longer. The proactive approach works for me.

I definitely don’t mind breaking it up into multiple steps where, “Why don’t you guys go back to your table and do X, Y and Z.” And, like you said, when enough people are done we’ll move on. Those kids that are a little bit slower can talk to their friends about “Oh, hey, I missed that, what do I need to do?” You can spread it out a little bit more and I think that’s effective but for me it’s just a little bit too chaotic to get people up and down, moving around constantly. I see the benefits of it, especially if you have a class with shorter attention spans. But just on a personal level, I definitely like the proactive approach, setting expectations and then taking just a little bit longer for the demo.

Andrew: Yeah, it’s always tough. I’ve had bigger class sizes than I’m used to and one of the things I used to do … That presents a whole ‘nother problem is like, maybe your first row of kids can see and can anyone else in the back see? Then they start to lose attention. I used to do this in elementary school where I would demonstrate for half of the class while the other half had a duty or a task that they were working on. The understanding was, then we’ll flip-flop. But if you’re working on your stuff, you’ve got to be really quiet so I can have this demonstration conversation with this other half of the class. It worked pretty well. There’s pros and cons to that too, which is you’re saying everything twice. It’s sometimes a little trickier for that group that sitting down to really be quiet. Sometimes that kind of works.

The other thing I’ve started going … and people who listen to this podcast you know this as well … I can be a little bit long winded. I realized that students were coming into my classroom and were like “Oh, do you have to talk today?” I was like “Yes, I have to talk. I actually have to give you some knowledge and some content and some feedback.” I started using my phone as a little timer. I would tell kids, “Okay, I’m going to talk for six minutes. I know you guys get talked at way longer in your other classes so I know you can bear with me for six minutes while I demonstrate this thing.” I would set my phone up and it really helped me like, boom, I’m done at 5:40. Like “Hey, look. I even gave you guys 20 extra seconds.” That was really helpful for me. I don’t know if other teachers do that or I you’ve done something like that at all?

Tim: I have not done something like that but I like it. I like the idea of just telling kids “Hey, this is how long I’m going to take.” I think that gives them … like you said … a little more incentive to pay attention. Although there’s one thing that I always like to do where I would demo for one class and then the next section of that same class would come in and I would tell kids just about exactly how like “I’m going to talk for about three minutes and 37 seconds here.” Some kids would time and see how close I got to that. It was usually pretty close because, you know, you’re doing the same kind of demo again. That’s always entertaining.

As you were talking, another thought crossed my mind. There’s always space there if you have the technology for it to flip some of your demos and some of your lessons as well. It’s easier to split the kids up into groups. It’s easier to just kind of demo things over and over without wearing yourself out, without worrying too much about logistics. I would encourage people to do that as well just to make sure that you can be consistent with things, make sure you can handle classroom management the way it needs to be done. That’s an option that’s always worth looking into as well.

Andrew: I like that idea. I’ve done a lot of that with my graphic design or digital photography. I struggle a little bit more with hands on demos. I think it’s important for me to do that because I’ve noticed this thing, if I have four classes that are all the same and I’m going to give four demos, every class it actually gets a little bit longer and longer and longer because I keep coming up with, oh I didn’t say that, or oh I never even thought of this problem. But in second hour someone did this and please don’t do that. It’s unfortunate because by the fourth time, you’re like, gosh, I’ve added an extra three minutes onto this six minute demo that I had to give. That’s not cool. I think that’s where flipping would really help out.

Let me circle back and kind of wrap this up because we’ve been talking for a while on this. Let’s just kind of agree that we’re all going to have some sort of demonstration or teacher example. Can you give us some last minute parting words again on how to use it, use it well and minimize some of the unintended negative consequences that can come out with a teacher example or over demonstrating things?

Tim: Yeah, I would say as far as words of advice, just spend some time reflecting on what you’re doing with demos, what you’re doing with examples and more importantly why you’re doing it that way. We talked earlier about how different teachers are going to have different approaches. You need to figure out what works for you because it’s dependent on the level that you’re teaching, what type of project you’re doing, your approach to teaching, your classroom management skills, what type of kids you have. So I don’t think there’s one hard and fast rule that’s going to work for everybody.

My advice would be just to think deeply about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Maybe you’ll come to the conclusion that these examples are needed or these type of demos are needed, that’s when you’re going to be most effective, that’s when you’re going to be at your best as a teacher. Once you come up with that conclusion, you can tailor your teaching, your examples, your demonstrations accordingly. Just figure out what works best for you, what works best for your students and go with that.

Andrew: Right on. Well put, man. I really appreciate it and thanks for coming on and humoring me on this bizarre, weird conundrum that I’ve been perplexed with for a while.

Tim: I think it’s definitely worth talking about. Just like we said, you’re reflecting on it right now, like everybody else should do. Your teaching’s going to improve because of it. Anyway, thanks for having me on.

Andrew: Yep, we’ll see you, Tim. Bye.

Tim: Bye.

Andrew: Alright. Thanks to Tim for coming on and being the voice of reason and helping me wrap my brain around why this has been bugging me. You know, there really isn’t a right or wrong answer. Like Tim said, we say this a lot, it’s going to require some honest reflection and individualization to make it right for you and in your classroom. I don’t use a one size fits all approach to this. Even last year, there were times in my classroom where I totally used a teacher example. The end product was still pretty open-ended though. But my finished piece was there and it showed my interpretation of the process. Then there were other times where I didn’t really use any examples at all, just a few quick demos and a guiding light on how to interpret it was up to the students to come up with.

If I had to pin down my own thoughts on this though, I think it would be this — less is more. But there’s got to be some sort of happy medium. It’s why I mostly have half-finished demos around the room. I don’t want my artwork to look too good or too finished that students misinterpret it for more than what it is, just my process, not something that they should aspire to produce.

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