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Reconsidering the Schism Between Process Based and Product based Early Art Education.

An example of Process Based painting made by River (4yo) and myself (32yo)

In the world of Early Years education there is a great divide, between educators who emphasize the process of art creation vs those who put the importance on the resulting product.

   This might not seem like a big deal, but between you and me, the resulting two sides can get quite judgemental of one another.  Especially if you happen to be working together with a partner who is of the opposite camp.  It can make for a heated planning session between teacher and ECE partner!

   Critics of product based art education deem the carefully coordinated and uniform projects to be void of any actual creativity or student voice.  Resulting in row upon row of identical cotton ball snowmen or cloned egg carton flower bunches. 

   Whereas those who oppose process based free form art wrinkle their noses at what they see as the inevitable muddy dishwater that child led activities produce.  Where is the learning in a big swirl of paint that resembles the contents of my stomach?  Who wants to frame that?

   I should start by admitting my bias, I have always been a Process based art teacher with an emphasis on Inquiry led projects.  I have a background in Fine Art, I attended Western university for painting, I have a minor in Art history from the University of Toronto and my original teaching subject qualification is Intermediate/Senior (high school) Visual Arts.  But my work experience has always been in Full Day Kindergarten as both ECE and Teacher, specializing in music teaching.  

   Coming from this background and a handful of years of teaching I want to question some of the basic ideas at the core of early art education.  And I want to suggest the need for a shift in the way we consider a holistic approach to early art exploration that can incorporate both process and product driven ideas.

  The major rule I want to question, that exists on both sides of the spectrum, is that a teacher or adult should not interfere in the execution of the student’s work.  Each child should be wholly and independently responsible for what you see on the page or creation.  Teachers should not write on the work, they should not even help label directly on a journal page but instead scribe on the back. 

With process work this means the students just go to town with the materials with some verbal guidance to try and observe and reflect on what they are creating.  With product work this means a carefully directed and controlled procedure that is directed by the adult and carried out by the student, then assessed.

  This dogmatic emphasis on a child creating totally independently is for two reasons. First and foremost, for assessment purposes.  At the heart of all school based projects is the directive to document, and assess for reporting purposes.  Everything a child does is ultimately evidence of their individual growth (or lack of growth to put it bluntly) to be written up on and filed away.  The second reason stems from the idea that if you interfere with a child’s work, you are telling them, they are incapable of doing it themselves.   Which supposedly has emotional and long term psychological ramifications (I strongly question this assumption.) 

What I am proposing is that we challenge this idea that art must always be an individual effort, (which is such a modern idea.) Instead look at art production as a community effort, a joint product and a way to share and cooperate.  For example when we teach music we use a community approach rather than individualist, teachers accompany on piano or guitar, children all sing or play together.  I think we should take this communal creation approach and apply it to visual arts.

An artist’s apprentice three hundred years ago would have worked with direct support, an artist’s workshop would have worked together to complete commissions.  At some point the view of visual art production as a group effort shifted from cooperation to individual genius.  And I don’t think this shift did anybody any favours.

So what would this mean for practical application?  What I am saying is that I believe it should be acceptable for adults to assist with the execution of some art projects not as a way to erase the student’s work but as a cooperative effort.  That students should work together on paintings and sculptures, that it shouldn’t matter if it is impossible to document and assess who did what exactly. There is so much more that you can get out of these sort of partnerships.

A shift away from individualism and instead a focus on exploration and social connection during art projects would have a huge impact on both of the existing approaches to art creation in the classroom.  It would mean that process work would have more of an aesthetically pleasing product and product work could have a little more complexity and depth.

Being able to intervene and work with a student during a process based piece for example would mean you don’t get that muddy dishwater effect. For example you could help them with some elements of painting, you could have a discussion about the pitfalls of overworking a painting, you could demonstrate technique and model right on the work.  Over all I find that working together also encourages students to take on larger products because they feel like they’re better supported. It also just looks better.  

In terms of doing product based craft work with adult and group support more complicated things can be accomplished. This allows for products that are a little more interesting and varied.  Allowing more than one student to work on a craft also means that your classroom bulletin board will have one or a smaller number of pieces on display but that they won’t look like a line up of tin soldiers.  

Will you still be able to assess? Yes. We manage to assess in music class while everyone is working on projects together so I don’t see how support and communal work would be impossible to assess in visual arts.  The only real difference is that it would make sending pieces home for each child a little harder to divide.  But, does anyone really keep every single macaroni decoupage?  No. So I think we can relax a little.