Monthly Archives: February 2011

The Studio Community

In his book titled The School and Society (first published in 1899) John Dewey speaks of the spirit of social co-operation and community life when he describes the ‘workshop’.

 “[…] in any busy workshop; there is not silence; persons are not engaged in maintaining certain fixed physical postures; their arms are not folded; they are not holding their books thus and so.  They are doing a variety of things, and there is the confusion, the bustle, that results from activity.  But out of the occupation, out of doing things that are to produce results, and out of doing these in a social and co-operative way, there is born a discipline of its own kind and type.  Our whole conception of school discipline changes when we get this point of view.  In critical moments we all realize that the only discipline that stands by us, the only training that becomes institution, is that got through life itself.” (Dewey, 1956: 17)

What is particularly relevant to my practice is the relevance that this passage has in relation the printmaking studio and the possible contrast between the contemporary print studio where community is still important versus the painting studio where artists are encouraged, more and more, to work in isolation.

One of the reasons that I have always enjoyed teaching printmaking was because of the technical processes as well as the introduction of students to a ‘new’ artistic process.  ‘New’ in the sense that many students do not experience a high level of printmaking before entering university because of the facilities and resources needed.  However, in reading Dewey I realise that it is also because of the community that is fostered in my classroom.  By teaching students the printmaking processes it is also the case that they (as students and individuals) are being asked to participate in a ‘workshop’ where they are required not only to learn the skills but also to negotiate the hustle and bustle of the studio with many students trying to use the same equipment.  This requires, as Dewey points out, them to negotiate their social situation and gain an understanding of how to work alongside each other. Therefore, aside from developing new skill sets these students are also building a community that sees them help each other, congratulate each other on their successes and push through their less successful moments.  This links their lives to the “ordinary conditions and motives of life” (Dewey, 1956: 17).

There are times when, as the teacher, I wonder whether or not students should be working more individually or whether I should be the only source of information and insight.  However, I have always enjoyed seeing students help each other.  In my eyes, it demonstrates that they not only are learning the processes but that they are concerned enough with the well being of their peers to help them execute their ideas.  My role as the teacher is not as the fountain of all knowledge, but as the one who helps to guide them through a series of ideas in order to produce their outcomes.  In the visual arts, and perhaps other Arts, this is particularly pertinent because the students must contribute their knowledge to the experience.  It is not the teacher who dictates the subject-matter but rather the student who selects their journey and the teacher who guides them along their route.

The Dog Ate Dewey!

I am not sure what it is that attracted my dog to Dewey’s little book on education.  Maybe it was the musty smell of an old book, maybe it was the fact that I was spending too much time reading and not enough time playing with him but he was adamant that he was going to taste test the spine.  Thank goodness I caught him in time but it did make me wonder what the particular attraction to Dewey was since we have so many book to choose from around the house.

I have just returned from a weekend away for my doctorate and it has been enlightening and inspiring.  One of the readings on my current research list is Dewey’s The Child and the Curriculum (originally published 1902).  This is the book that my dog fancies a taste of, perhaps he is aligning himself with the child?  Dewey argues for more attention to the child and their needs.  In a closing statement when querying ‘the child vs. the curriculum,’ he writes:

“The case is of Child.  It is his present powers which are to assert themselves; his present capacities which are to be exercised; his present attitudes which are to be realized.  […]  ,the teacher knows neither what the present power, capacity, or attitude is, nor yet how it is to be asserted, exercised, and realized.” (p.31)

Essentially Dewey is arguing for a more naturalistic approach, and less of a positivist approach that might be more concerned with the curriculum as an area/object that can be controlled without attention to emotion; and without attention those aspects of an individual’s personality that are not common to all.  The positivist (or normative) approach is also more easily aligned with the concepts that are of interest to the society, that will appeal to the majority and that will be supported by the statistical analysis of progress.  Ultimately a much more quantitative approach, rather than the qualitative strategies that might be more dominantly used in the interpretive paradigm.  Although there is a need for a student-centred (child-centred) approach being outlined by Dewey he also eludes to an interesting concept that I have recently discussed with my YR10 Art class.  The notion that the students and their teacher do not know what the future will bring, what they are being prepared for or where power will be “asserted, exercised, and realized” in the coming years.  As a class we watched the ‘Did You Know 4.0‘ clip from 2009 that, through statistics and interesting facts, outlines how rapidly the world is changing and, as such, how we don’t know what our jobs, lives, etc. will be like in ten years when they(the students) are vying for employment.  How do we prepare students when we do not know what we are preparing them for?

The discussion that ensued was not one of panic or worry but rather of curiosity.  I was pleasantly surprised at how open they were to this concept of uncertainty.  It was perhaps a bit more thrilling to consider options that didn’t yet exist.  However, when I asked them how I was to teach them not knowing what they would need to learn that weren’t sure how to answer?  I tried to direct them toward ideas about skills, motivation and independent learning but they were much more interested in pursuing the ideas of Nano-technology and mobile devices.  At which point we returned to Art and Design.  How will these things look and how can we design for an increasingly mobile world when we don’t yet know what that world will be? And we don’t yet know who those children will be?   If we focus on the present, as Dewey suggests,  will our children be prepared for the future?

… further commentary from 17 May 2011
To add to this discussion it might also be useful to think about Anthony Sneldon’s recent push for Wellington College to get rid of its books and replace the library with a ‘Centre for Research and Innovation’.  In a BBC news article they have outlined how 20,000 books will be replaced with laptops, iPads and Kindles (  They are recognising a “radical shift” in the habits of their students and responding to the movement of their needs with speed, with the new centre to be functioning by January 2012.  This is the kind of forward thinking that is inspiring, although I am also thankful that there will still be a core of 10,000 books for the students to use.  Although our future moves forward it is nice to think that we won’t completely forget the past.

With the disappearance of books and the electronic development of eBooks; one thing is for sure, I will have to keep an eye on the ‘Kindle’ because if my dog fancies that as a treat it may not be as durable as the musty old book!