“Sparking” and “Curating” as Student Engagement Techniques


In a recent post on my favourite blog, Art History Teaching Resources, Elena FitzPatrick Sifford discusses Interactivity and Communication in the Art History Classroom. She explains that her recent survey  courses had interactive components:

In the lecture course students chose a subject from the course calendar and were assigned to a group. They were tasked with putting together a presentation on that topic during one fifty-minute class session. They were asked to lecture and to ask the class questions in order to foster classroom involvement. The class met three times a week, so there was still plenty of time for me to fill in the gaps as needed. In fact, I would often treat the student presentation as an introduction to the topic, which I would then fill in in more depth during the next one or two class sessions. There was no paper component to this assignment, but I found that students had to do a fair amount of research, particularly for some of the lesser-published topics. Many of them were nervous about public speaking, but they rose to the occasion, and there were even some good classroom discussions generated from these presentations. Overall, I think it was successful in having students generate some of the content of the course and getting away from the authoritative talking head model of so many lecture style courses.

Her seminar courses incorporated “sparking” and “curating,” two approaches that I would argue constitute student engagement techniques.

With “sparking” (a term that she borrows from her graduate school professor, Dr. Katherine Manthorne)  a team of two students were tasked with starting a conversation about the readings, by  briefly introducing the authors and the main argument of the paper, then asking a series of questions that would lead the class in a conversation about the works. She describes, “After the exchange, I would impress on them the importance of questions that test critical thinking, and they would come back with broader more discussion-oriented inquiries.”

“Curating”  was largely inspired by an assignment written by her colleague Dr. Ananda Cohen Suarez. In this project students curate an exhibition by presenting a title, series of works, location, and researched wall texts. Reflecting on the activity, Sifford noted “when I try this again, I will aim for more interactive moments during the semester for groups to share their progress and for me to respond and provide feedback before the final due date and exhibition “opening.” I’ve found that the most successful interactive assignments require multiple points of critical feedback so that students are getting more out of the process, interacting with their classmates and professor, and ultimately ending up with sharper finished products.”

“Sparking” and “Curating” are both excellent examples of student engagement techniques idea for art history classrooms. I am excited to try both! Elena FitzPatrick Sifford has inspired me. What perfect examples of the Marva Collins, wise words that motivate my teaching. “The essence of teaching is to make learning contagious, to have one idea spark another.”

Thinking Critically

On June 25th one of my classmates posted to the forum a TEDx talk on “How to think, not what to think,” in which Jesse Richardson convincingly argued creative and critical thinking to be two sides of the same coin.[i] He explains: What critical thinking teaches us how to question things rigorously, how to form sound, well-reasoned coherent thoughts and arguments, and critically, how to identify bullshit. But perhaps the most important thing it teaches us that it is good to be wrong. That the ideas we hold are not us, and we don’t need to defend them to the death and that in fact that we can change those ideas and that it is absolutely liberating to do so.

Referencing Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talk, “Do schools kill creativity?” Richardson critiques school systems suggesting that their didactic nature does not encourage questioning, deeper understanding, engagement or curiosity, but rather does the opposite, teaching students what to think, not how to think. He calls for educational systems to adapt in order to support the types of creative and critical thinking required for today’s innovations. Richardson makes clear how important it is to get students involved in the process of their own learning. By questioning, learners are engaging their minds, “they are obtaining understanding not just knowledge,” all crucial factors in keeping the spark of curiosity alive.” Unknown As much as “critical thinking” can be a bit of a buzzword in education circles today, it has long been included discussions of art and pedagogy. As early as the 1960s David E. Templeton noted a decade of “increased systematic, sustained attention being paid to critical inquiry, reflection, and thinking in the visual arts.” His article on “Critical Thinking and Teaching Art” asked “What is critical thinking? How do we engage children in critical thought? What effect might the answers to those questions have on the structure of art programs?”[ii] These are all questions I too have asked in relation to my teaching.

Overall I was impressed by Richardson’s clear and inspiring call for critical thinking. I was however slightly concerned about his cliché characterization of creative expression vis-à-vis design. Perhaps I am biased in speaking from a position within the artistic cultural production, but I would argue that creative expression is not “sitting in a loft, with red wine, ciggies, and a black skivy, suffering the burden of no one understanding their artistic genius [sic].” Although seemingly harmless, this is a problematic stereotyping of art versus design reinforces conceptual dichotomies with deep seeded, complex, consequences. Art, even in expressive form has the ability to solve problems as well, particularly when paired with critical thinking and some of the “making connections” Richardson advocates, while being very much a part of the “real world”. In art history classrooms creative expression is obviously a powerful tool for students to work towards “solving” problems particularly when it comes to issues around race, gender, sexuality, class and other topics hotly debated today. 

I was immediately inspired by Richardson’s rallying cry to teach students how to think not what to think. Both creative and critical thinking are abstract concepts that I have listed among the learning objectives for the courses I teach. Great in theory however more challenging in practice. One of the biggest challenges I have is teaching critically thinking in survey courses that typically follow a canonical, patriarchal model of art history, in which movements, styles, and innovation progress from one genius artist to the next and require (according to the department, not always me) an accompanying survey textbook. In “Canon Fodder: What’s wrong with art-history textbooks?” by Alexandra Peers the two related topics are reviewed. She quotes Larry Silver of the University of Pennsylvania, who notes, “The standard textbooks do not begin to address our needs. The art-history survey text has remained virtually unchanged for half a century or more. In the meantime, students who take art history have become increasingly diverse—with interests more engaged with gender or social issues than a generation ago—and they have wider backgrounds.”[iii] With so much material to cover it can be challenging, but I try to create space in survey courses, with these issues to discuss how we think about art and not just what to think. I am very transparent with student as to why we study certain artists in certain ways, and encourage them to locate himself or herself in the social production of art. However, I think the best way I am going to support an environment of critical thinking is to create active learning using many of the student engagement techniques (SETs) I have discovered in this class.

Right now I am working on my syllabi and lesson plans for the fall and I plan on using at least ten of the different SETs outlined by Elizabeth F. Barkley that will encourage questioning and reflection on thinking.[iv] I am also interested in further exploring some of the essential question techniques proposed by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins.[v] The culture of inquiry they call for seems to be supported by John Hattie’s research in which he found interventions such as high-level questioning, attention to metacognition, and targeted feedback (all concepts related to critical thinking) to have a greater effect on student achievement than socioeconomic factors.[vi] Within the context of a culture of inquiry, essential questions create three very important shifts that I would like to occur in my teaching in order to facilitate critical thinking: 1) the question becomes more important than the answer; 2) I act as a facilitator and co-inquirer; and 3) students become their own teachers.[vii] There is a refreshing and inspiring alignment between Richardson’s demand for critical thinking, McTighe and Wiggins’ culture of inquiry, and Hattie’s visible learning in which, teachers see through the eyes of their students, and students see themselves as their own teachers. Sounds like a great class motto! [i]

Jesse Richardson, “How to think, not what to think,” TEDx Brisbane, 5 October 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6dluwVks444 [ii] David E. Templeton, Critical Thinking and Teaching Art, Art Education 22, no. 1 (January 1969): 4-9. [iii] Alexandra Peers, “Canon Fodder: What’s wrong with art-history textbooks?” Art News 02 January 2006 http://www.artnews.com/2006/02/01/canon-fodder/ [iv] Elizabeth F. Barkley, Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010): 85. For more on my ten favourite see my blog post, Alena M. Buis, “My Top Ten Student Engagement Technique,” 29 May 2015. https://alenabuis.wordpress.com/2015/05/29/my-top-ten-student-engagement-techniques/ [v] Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins, Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding (Alexandria: ASCD, 2013). [vi] John Hattie, Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement (New York: Routledge, 2009). [vii] McTighe and Wiggins, 86.