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The Value of Asking “What If”

        …and the importance of building personal scaffolds


Early Bakersfield School House

Recently I had a fascinating conversation with my sister who after retiring from the classroom is presenting at conferences for teachers.  We come from a long line of educators going back to our grandfather who graduated from Bowdoin College in Maine in 1900 and after being a teacher and principal finished his career as Superintendent of Schools in Redlands California. Most of our family’s four generations of educators taught in grades K-6, but since my credential was a Special Secondary in Art, I had a different group of classes than those teaching elementary school. As my sister was describing her new training, she also mentioned “scaffolding,” a term I was unfamiliar with in the classroom setting.  She said it’s the concept of the teacher presenting material just a bit ahead of each student’s level, encouraging growth smoothly from one building block to another.

Well, I didn’t recognize the term in this context, but the concept was utterly familiar. I have been doing that in my artwork for years by giving myself problems to solve, asking “what if“ regarding working processes and trying out new materials or using old materials in a completely new way.  I also find that conversations with fellow artists who share your curiosity helps create even more “what ifs.”

Some favorite supplies

Robert E Wood, a fine watercolorist and teacher gave one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten from a workshop leader. He admonished us to keep ourselves on the edge of comfort, approaching discomfort, to refrain from painting the “same painting over and over.” By focusing on a few goals to solve in the creative process, the learning expands and quality improves because the artist is actively solving problems rather than painting “pretty pictures.”

All artists recognize that “itchy” feeling that foretells a growth spurt in your work. Not an especially comfortable feeling since you have to figure out what it is that you want to change and where it is that you are heading. And to go from comfort and confidence into the great unknown takes its own kind of courage. But it also brings excitement and anticipation and joy, which is why we keep at it.
My sister commented that one of the real losses in schools is the growing absence of art and music in the curriculum. The students lose the chance to interact with instructors who automatically think in the “what ifs.” I distinctly remember a class of seventh graders who were instantly engaged when I described a method that I’d been thinking about but had never taught before. I asked if they’d like to try it. It was an overwhelming success and they dove into the work with great enthusiasm. All of us had a wonderful time.
As an educator, I am committed to arts education and it’s importance in the curriculum. As an artist, I’m convinced that we all need to build our own scaffolds for life long learning. May your New Year be full of engaging and challenging scaffolds!  

1 Comment

  1. Sketchbook Wandering
    January 9, 2013

    Thank you, Judy. I believe that in the language of Piaget this scaffolding is called cognitive dissonance? I'm taking a class this week that is pushing me out of my comfort zone a bit. I admit, I like being comfortable, but thanks for reminding me about explorations into the unknown. It's lovely to see some of your work again. Best, Rita at Sketchbook Wandering.


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