What do you see? Reflections on a week in Athens as part of the Erasmus + project ‘Developing English, Engagement, Motivation, Challenge and addressing Big Issues by Using Art, and an Arts Approach , to Non Art Subjects’

Alison Ramsay – Tutor in Drama and Education 

From 12th to 17th January, Joe Barber (Senior Lecturer in Education and PGCE English Award Lead) and I were in Athens as part of an Erasmus + project entitled ‘Developing English, Engagement, Motivation, Challenge and addressing Big Issues by Using Art, and an Arts Approach, to Non Art Subjects’.  This project looks to draw upon well-known selected art works as starting points for learning across the curriculum. Joe and I worked over four days with ten teachers from five participant schools across Europe. Also present was project co-ordinator Mick Boyle, a former Drama teacher and senior school leader. Our brief was to look at how arts-based methods might put the paintings to work as pedagogical tools to engage and motivate learners.

As a group we spent time discussing how encounters with art can engender feelings of self-doubt about one’s capacity to comment with authority on what might be the wider meaning. Through the application of individual and collaborative strategies and approaches for engaging with the artworks in question, it was the aim of MMU tutors to look at ways to dismantle such barriers. 

In our first workshop, we began by asking participants to select one painting they felt drawn to and to explain its appeal to the rest of the group. This activity situated the painting within a subjective realm of possibility, eliciting a multiplicity of meanings that each had a unique rationale. This was a celebration of the human capacity to connect emotionally with an image and we all felt moved or stimulated by the variety of responses that emerged. However, we were also provoked to consider the extent to which it was necessary for the individual to understand how the personal response was stimulated by the original painting. Do what might be perceived as random observations and connections lessen the authenticity of a response, or are they a valid feature of a creative encounter with a stimulus? Following Barthes’ contention that the ‘west moistens everything with meaning’ (1982: 70), is it also sometimes desirable to resist imposing meaning? That is, can we value the interpretative process as an end in itself rather than reaching for a definitive conclusion? Equally, might developing cognisance of how creative connections emerge and grow from a stimulus be something important to the project moving forward. Joe and I decided to explore these ideas in the subsequent workshops. 

The following day, Joe asked the group to consider what existing knowledge and capabilities we draw upon when we attempt to ‘read’ a painting. Drawing attention to the field of semiotics (Sebeok, 2001) and our capacity to infer meaning from culturally embedded signs and symbols, he encouraged us to consider how the act of interpreting art operates at both a subjective and cultural level. In the activities that followed, Joe looked to create opportunities for the teachers to interrogate one of the selected paintings, Joseph Wright’s ‘An experiment on a bird with an air pump’ (1768)as a cultural sign bearer. This included attending closely to the use of light and shade, moving around the picture in a clockwise direction to scrutinise fine details and imagining the sights, smells, sounds, tastes and textures evoked by the image itself.

In the next workshop, I wanted to use drama methods to add to the interpretative toolkit Joe had begun to compile and to encourage further confidence in the act of interpretation. I decided to base the session on Mantle-of -the Expert (MOE), an approach to learning through drama created by Dorothy Heathcote (1995) and further developed by Tim Taylor (2016). MOE involves putting learners into role as ‘experts’ in a particular field or endeavour in order to create an imaginary framework for learning. Thus, I requested the teachers take on the role of art historians charged with curating an exhibition of new art inspired by existing famous works of art. Using the convention Teacher-in-Role (TIR), I went into role as director of the Athens Gate Gallery (a playful nod towards the hotel we were staying in) to welcome the group as eminent art historians and to introduce them to the aims of  the exhibition they would be working on entitled What do you see? The drama techniques Still-images, Spoken-thoughts and Hot-seating were then applied to encourage deeper engagement with the ideas and themes suggested by Ford Maddox Brown’s ‘Work’ and Michelangelo’s famous fresco from the ceiling of the Sistine chapel ‘The Creation of Adam’.   

In the final workshop, Joe and I informed participant teachers they were going to again take on their expert role as art historians/artists to create the exhibition that had been introduced the previous day. Invited to choose any of the pictures selected for the project, teachers were given one hour to create an artistic response drawing upon their skills of interpretation and analysis. The responses were then presented as work in progress to the exhibition benefactor, a role taken on by project coordinator Mick. The exercise produced a diverse range of responses, each of which reflected participant teachers’ personal and professional engagement with the pictures (see https://padlet.com/j_barber/d262btslszh9). 

During the week participant teachers commented on how the workshops had enabled them to feel more confident forming opinions on the various artworks. There was a sense that the activities had facilitated a considered engagement with the subject matter and that this provoked more depth and breadth in the act of interpretation. In the context of the project, teachers saw the potential in introducing such methods to young people to help them connect with the paintings as a stimulus. This might then open up multiple lines of inquiry useful to learning across the curriculum. The possibility of empowering young people to uncover complex ideas for themselves through collaboration was also noted. 

The week in Athens affirmed the potential of the artworks to generate exciting opportunities for learning. It also enabled the objectives for the forthcoming mobilities to be refined, allowing us to identify thinking laterally and creativelydeveloping interpretationnurturing independenceand collaborative working to further deepen knowledge and understandingas key areas of focus. We now look forward to February, when MMU representatives will head to Denmark to work with young people from the participant schools. 

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Barthes, R. (1982) Empire of Signs. London: Jonathon Cape

Heathcote, D. and Bolton, G.  (1995) Drama for Learning: Dorothy Heathcote’s Mantle of the Expert Approach to learning. Portsmouth: Hienemann

Sebeok, T.A (2001) Signs: An Introduction to Semiotics. Toronto: University of Toronto Press

Taylor, T. (2016) A Beginner’s Guide to Mantle of the Expert: A Transformative Approach to Education. Norwich: Singular

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