Recently, I was emailed this fascinating story and while I advocate teaching our children through the arts, I do believe that Art must also be taught for Art’s sake. The alarm bells are ringing:
Why do so many people say: ‘I can’t draw’?
The answer may lie in schools, says the children’s laureate Anthony Browne
Tuesday June 30 2009 The Guardian
On a recent school visit I was greeted by a teacher who proudly informed me that the children at this particular school were two years further ahead in their reading compared with those in other schools. I was impressed.Then I began talking to various classes.
The children were indeed bright, articulate and enthusiastic, and keen to play the shape game, a drawing game that I always play in schools. It’s a game that my brother and I thought we’d invented when we were small boys, but it seems that children play their own version of this game all over the world.
It’s very simple. The first person draws an abstract shape, without thinking about it. Sometimes I quote Paul Klee and say it’s like “taking a line for a walk”. The next person transforms the shape into something recognisable.
All children seem to love playing this game, and they’re very good at it – much better than most adults. Although on one level it’s just a game, I believe that it encapsulates the act of creation. Every time we paint a picture, write a story or compose a piece of music, we are, in effect, playing the shape game. Everything comes from something else, inspiration is everywhere.
But at this school I saw that the shapes the children were drawing tended to be very carefully drawn small triangles, squares and circles – “proper” shapes. As the game went on, I tried gently to steer them towards wilder, imaginative shapes, and by the end of each session they were playing with as much abandon and creativity as any group I’d worked with.
I showed the same children images from my books, demonstrating how I’ve played the shape game in every book I’ve ever made. But again I noticed a difference from other schools I’d visited – no one recognised the Mona Lisa. I was amazed, and later in the day as I left the school, I looked at the artwork displayed on the walls. Every piece of art was related to another subject: history, geography or science. Art for art’s sake was nowhere to be seen.Of course, this school isn’t typical of the ones I’ve visited, but it does seem to sound warning bells. The evidence of a lack of visual creativity in schools is a danger that we ignore at our peril.
Most adults will tell me: “I can’t draw!” Children, too, as they get older, say the same thing. Something happens to our creativity as we go through the education process; most of us lose touch with it. A stifling
form of self-consciousness invades us, whether it be in drawing, writing, singing or (in my case) dancing.When I talk to children, I show them a typical drawing I made when I was six and point out to them that when I was their age I didn’t draw any better than any of them. All children can draw because they instinctively know that drawing isn’t about reproducing a careful, photographic version of an object or a scene. Drawing is about communication, and the shape game is a perfect example of this. It makes us look, and use our visual imagination.
The game starts with us creating a visual simile – we may think the abstract shape looks like a hat – then, as we transform the shape, we create a visual metaphor: the shape becomes a hat.
Just before this unhelpful self-consciousness creeps into children, many of them are encouraged to move away from picture books and move into chapter books” – books without illustrations. Perhaps there’s a connection? The illustrations in picture books are the first paintings most children see, and because of that they are incredibly important. What we see and share at that age stays with us for life. If children are encouraged to think that pictures are for babies and that to become educated is to leave images behind and concentrate purely on words, we risk creating a country of visually illiterate adults. Research has shown that we spend, on average, 30 seconds looking at paintings in a museum and considerably longer reading the captions.
I’m sure we can change this by teaching children (and adults) to read pictures as well as words. As adults, we’ve seen so much before that we often turn the pages of a picture book without really looking. Young children tend to look more carefully. It’s often said that children now grow up in a visual world of computer games, television, DVDs and films. That’s true, but these are moving images, and what I believe we all need to do is to stop and really look at pictures and at the world. By looking we learn so much.
I may be the new children’s laureate but I’m definitely not an expert on education. I did start teacher training courses at Goldsmiths in 1967 and Leeds in 1971, but realised I was doing it for completely the wrong reasons. So I’m not going to spend the next two years telling teachers how they should be teaching, or the government how it should be running the country. I do feel, however, that in our rush for children to pass tests and tick boxes we are in danger of crushing their gloriously innate creativity and imagination.
For more information on the children’s laureate, administered by Booktrust, please see www.childrenslaureate.org.uk Is your school doing exciting, creative things? We want to hear about it. Education Guardian’s Creative Summer project aims to show what schools re doing to brighten the curriculum. Send your pictures, poems, videos and schemes to us at firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009