For and Against: Debating Ideas and Concepts around art!

Article Detail

Tuesday 29 July 2014
Vivien Masters and Elizabeth Buchanan

A case study around developing a new cross-curricular secondary school programme piloted with Year 12 History students from Pukekohe High School.

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The moment of truth! The students were now asked to use the content they had been given to debate the moot ‘The influence of the Renaissance is obvious in art from today’... The debate was a roaring success – both groups were lively and engaged, and were keen to discuss their interpretations and ideas... I'd facilitated many debates in the Gallery prior to this one, but immediately this stood out as more successful.

The analysis and discussion of works of art can offer rich learning opportunities appropriate for a broad range of subject areas. Motivated by this thinking, we wanted to develop a programme that gave secondary students from a range of subject areas the opportunity to build relevant content and contextual knowledge around works of art, to explore the big ideas these generate, and to then apply this knowledge through a facilitated group debate designed to encourage high level critical thinking.

We developed a focused tour and debate programme (For and Against: Debating Ideas and Concepts around Art), combining the strengths of two of the Gallery’s teams. The first part of the session is led by one of our Gallery Volunteers, who work with the public to deliver daily tours and have an comprehensive understanding of the Gallery and its collection. The second part of the session is led by one of our Gallery Educators, who work with schools and community groups and specialize in facilitating sessions where students use critical and creative thinking to analyze artworks.

We trialed this new programme with a class of Year 12 History students from Pukekohe High School. They had been studying the Renaissance, and were preparing for an internal standard for which they needed to write an essay on the art of the Renaissance and its effect on art in the present.

We introduced their debate topic: ‘The influence of the Renaissance is obvious in art from today’. When they discovered they wouldn't know which side of the debate they would argue from until the second part of the session there were groans and slight looks of panic on several faces, so we assured them the debate would not be a test, but rather a fun and lively way to apply their knowledge, share their thoughts and hear the thoughts of others!

Part 1: Volunteer Guide-led tour 

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Juan de Juanes, Saint Catherine of Alexandria, 16th century

We started in Little Miracles, an exhibition of 16th century Renaissance paintings and then spent time discussing several works in-depth. Students also had opportunities to share their own knowledge and interpretations, and she encouraged them to link what they were hearing now back to what they had learnt in the classroom.

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Tony Fomison, My Personal Christ (St Anthony) 1976

We then viewed examples of ‘art from today’. The challenge was to identify or relate the characteristics of the Renaissance works we had discussed to these contemporary New Zealand works. The students were supported through this process through discussion and were encouraged to look at the notes they had taken in Little Miracles to compare and contrast the works.

Part 2: Educator-facilitated debate 

The moment of truth! The students were now asked to use the content they had been given to debate the moot ‘The influence of the Renaissance is obvious in art from today’. Their teacher, Liz, and I stepped back at this point, and gave the students space to voice their opinions, use the notes they had taken in Liz’s session, and to use their prior knowledge. Where needed, we would step in to further fuel a discussion or push them further with their thinking.

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Colin McCahon, Takaka: Night and Day 1948

The debate was a roaring success – both groups were lively and engaged, and were keen to discuss their interpretations and ideas. An atmosphere of playful competition kept them on their toes, as both sides wanted to 'win'. I'd facilitated many debates in the Gallery prior to this one, but immediately this stood out as more successful. Giving the students access to content and then allowing them the time to digest it and manipulate it made a huge difference. Challenges we’ve since thought through – sticking to our timing – they could have kept debating much longer, and trying to keep all of the students engaged during the debate, not just the ones who are really comfortable talking in public. The arguments from both sides were well measured, supported with evidence and convincing. For example, the 'for' group argued that the influence of the Renaissance was clearly visible in McCahon's Takaka: Night and Day. They thought his dramatic use of light and dark tones referenced the chiaroscuro technique used by Renaissance artists.

Successes: 

  • Students said they found arguing a given point of view challenging, but useful. This is a skill they need for essay writing in several subjects, not just History. They also liked hearing different perspectives from their peers during the debate, and having the opportunity to learn from each other in that way. 
  • The flexibility of this programme allows the Gallery to respond to a teacher's needs, or to a specific topic of study. Liz was able to introduce lots of content, which secondary students need. Their teacher was engaged and encouraging throughout the entire session. Her enthusiasm helped students maintain interest. 
  • Liz’s past experience with secondary groups had seen her solely as a ‘guide’, her role purely to share content. She has found in this environment students are often reluctant to ask questions or participate in discussion. Alternatively she found the For and Against programme created an atmosphere that allowed students space to show curiosity or share their knowledge, making it a more rewarding experience for them and for her. 

Going forward:

  • Taking into account the challenges in the pilot, we are now offering this programme on a regular basis along with the rest of our Secondary Learning programming
  • I love working with this age group, and really enjoyed the opportunity to hear them voice their opinions and share their knowledge in such an enthusiastic way. 
  • Bring your students in and let us know what you think!