by Ryan Sprott
Many teachers integrate art in Project Based Learning when developing public products. While using art in this way can enrich aesthetic appeal and build design skills, infusing art throughout the project process can enhance every design element of Gold Standard PBL.
Creating art is more than personal expression; it is a way of investigating, evaluating, and representing the world. As such, art can support inquiry throughout the project process. By making sketches, oral histories, videos, and photographs, students can develop their analytical skills as they explore a project’s driving question. In the example below, student Ellie Crowley mixed polaroids and questions to support her inquiry during Border-land, a project focused on immigration.
Student Voice and Choice
Presenting students with a range of artistic options increases student choice. Some students may be more comfortable investigating a topic by sketching it while others may prefer writing poetry or making photographs. When approaching art in this manner, more students may feel that art is accessible to them while simultaneously generating engagement in a topic due to increased individual choice.
For example, in the Oil-land project, students investigated the topic of energy policy through different mediums. This excerpt from the Oil-land newspaper shows a written piece by Bailey Nicholson next to a picture made by her classmate Jonelle Gonzalez.
By elevating art to a central PBL practice, teachers can implement new strategies that reflect real-world learning. In the real world, professionals do more than just take notes on what interests them. They create pictures, videos, sketches, essays, models, and more. They record conversations with experts as well as collect and archive objects. Adults create art to process and understand the things they find interesting; students should be allowed to do the same. Student Claire Wilson explored energy policy through a variety of forms, including the embroidered works below.
When students use art as a tool for inquiry, they can build a rich multimodal archive of their learning. This archive can serve as a powerful resource to drive reflection. By curating their art in an evolving portfolio, students have a tangible foundation from which they can reflect upon their growth. Students can pass around collective journals like this one from the Border-land project in order to engage in artistic processes by sharing ideas and posing new questions with their peers.
Art is often used in PBL when making public products. However, teachers can consider incorporating art in public exhibitions to highlight not just what students learned but how they learned. Activities like chalk talks, notecard conversations, rough drafts of work, and written reflections can all be exhibited on a gallery wall alongside students’ final products. Through this approach, the learning process itself can be viewed as art.
At a public exhibition of the Border-land project, visitors observed artifacts of student learning, including viewing notecard conversations and listening to recorded group dialogues.
Critique & Revision
Utilizing art practices throughout a project can help encourage a spirit of critique and revision. If students view art as an essential part of the learning process instead of just an aspect of a final product, they are more likely to seek feedback throughout a project instead of nervously fearing critique. Below, students are discussing project driving questions and giving one another feedback during the Oil-land project.
Challenging Problem or Question / Key Knowledge and Understanding
Rote curriculum can be painfully boring. It’s difficult for teachers and students to get excited about pursuing a predetermined path to a predetermined answer. But it’s invigorating for a classroom to learn together, pursuing and posing authentic and complex questions like “What is the purpose of a border?” or “What is the best way to improve energy policy?” Art and PBL both ask challenging questions about the world, and by grappling with such questions, teachers and students can build essential 21st century success skills like critical thinking, creativity, and collaboration.
Similarly, art and PBL shift students and teachers from a black and white, right or wrong mentality—a way of thinking often encouraged in high-stakes testing environments but which contradicts the complex thinking needed by today’s global leaders. In contrast to binary, black and white thinking, the fusion of art and PBL invites students into spaces of nuanced grey so they may explore the ambiguity and multiple perspectives inherent in pressing global issues. In this way, infusing art into PBL creates a rich framework to develop the complex thinking and creative problem solving required of present and future global citizens.
Art practices can enhance PBL by providing students new avenues to engage with important and challenging questions in critical and creative ways.
Ryan Sprott is a high school humanities teacher in San Antonio, a member of the BIE National Faculty, and the co-founder of Borderland Collective, a long-term art and education initiative.
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