5 ways to develop more independent learners in Art

Do you ever look across a sea of waving hands in your classroom and despair? Some classes are worse than others, but the slide toward helplessness, giving up or not even trying in the first place seems to be a problem that Art teachers frequently have to tackle.

In an attempt to build confidence and resilience in a few of my classes, I decided to face the problem head-on and try out some solutions. I’m pleased to say that, to my surprise, I did begin to see change and found myself with more breathing space in the lessons to be able to support where needed as I was not in such constant demand…

So, here are my top five tips – I hope they are useful for you too:

  1. Green and red paper cups

    I introduced a new ‘cup’ system for signalling the need for help. Rather than putting hands up, calling out and therefor halting work, I decided to employ a new approach to signalling the need for help. It’s pretty simple: each double desk has a green and a red paper cup on it. To begin with, all the desks have the red cup slotted inside the green one and this is placed upside down. Once the lesson is underway, students can swap the red cup to the outside if they feel that they need some support. Once they have received the help they needed, the green cup goes back on top. Of course, it took a couple of lessons to get students used to working in this way, but they initially like the novelty, and then seemed to recognise the benefit to the way we worked as a class. The idea here is that whilst waiting for teacher support, students keep plugging away, and very often they have already overcome the little hurdle they had experienced by the time I get to them.
  2. Resilience stickers

    It’s surprising how many students respond to a lovely shiny sticker, isn’t it? This is nothing new in the teachers’ toolkit, I know, but I felt that the stickers I had did not specifically recognise the attributes that I wanted to see in my students, so I created some for myself. You can do this using A4 printable stickers and print from your own computer (I have an example in my TES shop here), or – for a little more money – get some swanky ones printed online (I used www.moo.com and they do make lovely stickers!). I was inspired by Building Learning Power in coming up with learning dispositions that I wanted to see developed in my classroom. Apart from motivating the students, I have found that these stickers are great at reminding me to talk about these qualities in my classroom practice, which brings me to…
  3. Learning objectives
    In addition to the usual skills or knowledge based learning objectives I planned for lessons, I have also started specifically giving learning objectives around the attributes I want the students to practice. This would mean, for example, learning how to improve focus by avoiding distractions, or persist even when there are challenges in the work. By talking about these aims and reviewing them in plenary discussions, students have been able to see their own progress which has helped keep the ball rolling… bit by bit we are seeing fewer students stuck and waiting for help, and more who are motivated to get on and make progress.
  4. Modelling
    The mindset amongst students (and teachers sometimes) that you can either do something or you can’t is often pretty strong. I was finding this was one of the chief causes of students giving up on practical tasks and disrupting lessons when they got bored. To tackle this, I have tried to be a better role model, showing that I often don’t know how to do something and that I make mistakes. I am attempting to model a good process of learning, rather than being an infallible teacher. I have even offered one of my particularly disengaged students the opportunity to teach me basketball (which she is really good at) to highlight our varied – but equally valuable – skills. She didn’t take me up on the offer, but has started working well in art and recognising her own improvements.
  5. Rewarding the right things
    Finally, it is an unavoidable truth that we all like rewards for doing well. Whether it is a postcard home recognising effort or a piece of work being put display, I have taken a good look at the criteria I apply for selecting the work that gets rewarded. I am now actively looking for the students who turn their own cups from red back to green (see point one above) or who manage to keep focused despite distractions. By emphasising the learning process rather than focusing on the outcome, I am hoping to reward the behaviour that I want to see in the class, and this then has a positive effect on the outcomes themselves – win, win!

What are your tips for building resilience and independence in your art room?

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