Developing innovative thinkers and positive risk-takers

Helen Yip offers insight and advice on how to embed creativity into classroom learning and teaching, with a focus on the nature of contemporary artmaking practice as an evolving process of research and experimentation - informing and developing students’ own practice as artists.

Image: Helen Yip teaches visual arts and photography, video and digital imaging at Asquith Girls High School.

Empowering student creativity

Albert Einstein once argued that ‘creativity is intelligence having fun’, alluding to the parallels between science and art in advancing society through innovative thinking, experiments, technologies, creations and ways of perceiving and responding to the world. My parents didn’t think so, however, when I told them that I was going to study Art Education at university. ‘What do you mean?’ they asked, perplexed. ‘You scored your highest marks in science!’

Today’s globalised society underlines our role as teachers to actively teach our students to become autonomous, empowered creative and critical thinkers, risk-takers, solution-seekers and agents of change in their digitally-saturated, perpetually-transforming world. Embedding creativity into classrooms makes learning meaningful and authentic, and engenders creative thinking as a lifelong mindset and skill that enables students to become resilient individuals who will succeed and find fulfilment in their future pursuits.

As Bloom’s digital taxonomy identifies, ‘creating’ is the highest order thinking skill and can include designing, constructing, planning, producing, inventing, devising, filming, animating, blogging, re-mixing, publishing and directing. Creativity involves the process of bringing into play something new or innovative, whether it be an idea, approach, action, product or representation. Every artwork, song, dance, play or text acts as an interpretation and re-presentation of the artist’s world regardless of its expressive form or level of abstraction, and emerges as a result of something that we have learned or discovered that brings about a change to our foundation; how we see, sense and understand our world and ourselves. Creativity implies and demands action, both conceptually and materially.

In the context of our classrooms, creativity is a teachable concept and skill that can never be ‘used up’, contrary to what some of my Year 7 students initially believe when they exclaim, ‘bags that idea’. The history of Art testifies to this characteristic of creativity, revealing that the nature and significance of artists’ practice and artworks is never static; rather, meanings and values constantly shift and evolve with audiences across time and place.

Visual arts, along with other creative arts subjects, functions as a universal language that involves visualisation, sensory experience, rhythm, composition, tone, gestures, performance, choreography, curation and direction.

At Asquith Girls High School, visual arts, music, dance and drama teachers regularly collaborate to design and implement cross-curricular tasks, workshop days and community events, with the aim of creating vibrant opportunities for creativity within and beyond the classroom.

The nature of artists’ practice

It can be argued that it is the responsibility of artists to experiment, no matter what medium or expressive forms they are working with. Practice, in the context of artmaking, can be defined as a dynamic, reciprocal interplay of conceptual and material dimensions that continually evolve and transform in response the world, informing the making and interpretation of art, including ideas, beliefs, values, intentions, choices, actions, processes and ways of working. Enacted through a process of research, investigation and experimentation, it is inherently more complex and demanding than a simple act of repetition or routine practising of a skill. Practice, as discussed and understood in the field of contemporary art and design, is a highly relevant model for understanding creative thinking and the process of learning itself. As artist Merilyn Fairskye illuminates,

… all artmaking can be considered as research – research into how we are situated in the world, what our concerns are and how we are thinking at a particular time.

Recent amendments made to the Visual Arts Stage 6 NSW syllabus, to be implemented by teachers for this year’s Preliminary course and the HSC course from 2018, reflect and elucidate this interconnected nature of material and conceptual practice, focusing on the agency of artists, innovations and interdisciplinary approaches in the field of visual arts and design as well as broader cultural and technological realities, the simultaneity of emerging and re-emerging conventions, and how practice relates to the conceptual framework and the frames.

Amendments to syllabus content – syllabus element:

8.3 Practice in Artmaking Art Criticism and Art History

8.4 The Conceptual Framework – Agencies in the Artworld

8.5 The Frames

[It is to be noted that these amendments will not impact the design or conduct of the HSC examination in Visual Arts, and that there have been no changes to syllabus outcomes, objectives, structure of the course content, requirements or specifications in either the Preliminary or the HSC courses.]

These minor amendments to syllabus content are designed to provide teachers with clarity and guidance in:

* the content areas practice, the conceptual framework, and the frames

* the intended relationships and connections between the content areas practice, the conceptual framework, and the frames

* content statements that, within the scope of minor amendments, reflect changes in artworld practices.

Summary of the Visual Arts Stage 6 syllabus amendments 2016, NESA

The challenge, then, of teaching ‘practice’ to students and embedding this concept and process of creativity into everyday teaching and learning, involves developing students’ critical judgment and understanding of practice as

making informed decisions and developing autonomous knowledge in responding to the world, making artworks and communicating with audiences.

Visual Arts Stage 6 syllabus, NESA, 2016, p. 17

Finding and establishing a balance, between practical and theoretical components of the course across Stages 4-6, importantly enables students to perceive the reciprocal nature of artmaking, and art critical and historical investigations. With planned yet responsive lesson sequences, students can come to realise that exploring and responding to the practice of diverse historical and contemporary artists informs and enriches the development of their own conceptual and material practice in artmaking, and vice versa.

Students as artists

Teaching artmaking in ways that enable students to see themselves as artists and gain a sense of ownership and empowerment through developing their own artistic practice, is one of my primary aims as a visual arts teacher. It is extremely rewarding when students find flow, excitement and confidence in exploring their own creative potential and interests, and become so engaged that they feel as though they belong to their work.

Motivation and the openness to take positive risks in learning is pivotal to the development and extension of students’ practice as artists over time. Creativity takes courage and I often humour my students by highlighting and demonstrating that in artmaking, there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’… just ‘left’.

Designing investigations that model artmaking as a process of creative thinking, research and experimentation, grounding students in what they know while moving them beyond what they know, is key to developing innovative thinkers and positive risk-takers. Scaffolding tasks, explicit teaching of higher-order thinking strategies, practical workshops, structured experiments, and timely opportunities for feedback and feedforward, all encourage students to lose their fear of making mistakes and trust in the process of artmaking as an evolving network of choices, intentions, material actions, reflection, reworkings and resolution, that is not strictly linear and that often involves accidents meeting an open mind.

Programming approaches – developing students’ practice

There are no exact methods for teaching students the dynamic and complex nature of practice in visual arts. Remaining learners ourselves and experimenting with new ideas, research, understandings and approaches in our own programming and teaching, is equally empowering for ourselves and our students.

In offering suggestions as to how practice can be authentically ‘taught’, I will discuss key aspects and strategies that I have found useful in designing and implementing tasks and units of learning across Stages 4-6, aimed at developing students’ practice as artists. These approaches allow for flexibility in terms of student interests and abilities, mediums and expressive forms, timeframes, and individual as well as collaborative artmaking investigations.

1. Conceptual inspiration

A rich conceptual starting point for any task, program or unit of learning is essential to direct and motivate students’ research and inquiry through the artmaking process. Inspiring concepts can emerge and be sourced from the diversity of artists’ practice, current exhibitions, art history, popular culture, fictional narratives, the everyday, the universal, visual or sensory qualities, contemporary issues and other limitless possibilities stemming from human experience and interdisciplinary knowledge.

When deciding upon the conceptual basis for a program, unit or task, I critically consider its meaning, relevance, context and level of appropriateness and challenge for the class or year group I am targeting. I often pose thought-provoking, ‘big’ questions or scenarios to engage my students via active brainstorming, research, lateral thinking and innovative inquiry into subject matter, viewpoints and relationships between the artist, world, artwork and audience. Students are, therefore, challenged to interpret an open concept, topic or scenario, and investigate this through sustained experimentation with selected materials and techniques. This approach enables student choice and voice while still providing a shared interpretive framework for the class or student group.

Jason Clarke, founder of Minds at Work, highlights how this process of creative thinking involves moving from whole to part to whole again. Deep, idea-driven questions that incite curiosity and breadth of thinking about the ‘big picture’, can be broken down into smaller parts, specific details and evidence that provide depth of understanding. Students can be prompted to consider ‘what if?’ scenarios, connect different subject areas and visualise ideas via innovative forms of representation. Through the process of making artworks, students can deconstruct and reconstruct ideas and materials to resolve their own big picture that incorporates new insights, angles and findings, and re-presents their world to audiences.

2. Structured freedom

Creating engaging tasks, lesson sequences and units informed by the nature of artists’ practice, requires a framework that has structure yet versatility. From experience, I have found that defining particular task criteria and boundaries actually gives students freedom and confidence to experiment and innovate, in both material and conceptual terms. Project-based learning is a useful model to which I refer when designing such artmaking investigations that involve students in sustained, meaningful inquiry.

To start with, I often introduce students to an authentic, conceptually-driven question, idea, issue or scenario, aimed at developing students’ abilities, interests and critical thinking. We then break this down and interpret specific aspects and diverse ways of exploring this topic, via class discussion, brainstorming, mindmapping, visualisation and contextual considerations. Students then proceed with developing, researching and planning their own individual or collaborative concept or proposal in response to this challenging idea, scenario, issue or question.

Following this initial concept development, students engage with the process of material experimentation, exploring and manipulating media and techniques to convey and develop their intentions and concept over a specified timeframe.

I scaffold and chunk steps or actions to model the artmaking process, demonstrating and workshopping practical skills with students. They are then encouraged to act independently and take positive risks by experimenting with these further in relation to their interests and intended concept, and applying these to new situations.

Timely verbal communication, positive reinforcement, constructive feedback, feedforward and opportunities for individual reflection and peer review of students’ progress support student motivation, autonomy, collaboration, critical judgement and resilience in knowing when and how to proceed. Criteria regarding a range of materials and techniques to be selected from, and the number or form of artwork elements, layers or pieces to be resolved, also guide students’ extended process of research.

In resolving their work, students are encouraged to lay out all of their progressive experiments and work and reflect on how certain choices and actions in their artmaking will enable them to successfully resolve their work and the communication of their intentions to audiences.

To celebrate the achievement and significance of their finished work, I regularly get students to install, ‘perform’, project or exhibit their artworks within the school or community environment through site-specific installations, collaborative performances or documentation via photography, video or animation.

Project-based learning provides a rich opportunity for students to deepen their knowledge of practice, expand their repertoire of material and conceptual strategies, and enhance their confidence and trust in the creative learning process.

Elements of project-based learning

* Key knowledge, understanding, and success skills

* the project is focused on student learning goals, including the development of critical thinking, creative problem solving and autonomy

* A challenging question or scenario

* the project is framed by a big question or meaningful scenario to respond to, at an appropriate level of challenge for students’ abilities

* Sustained inquiry

* students engage in an extended process of research

* Authenticity

* the project features an authentic context or impact, or speaks to students’ personal interests and experiences

* Student voice and choice

* students are involved in making their own decisions through the project, including choices and actions related to subject matter, selected media and techniques and the form of their resolved artwork

* Reflection

* students and teachers reflect on meaningful learning and how challenges can be overcome

* Review

* students give, receive, and use feedback and feedforward to extend their process and work

* Public product

* students share, exhibit and/or present their work to audiences within and beyond the classroom.

Adapted from ‘What is Project Based Learning (PBL)?’ , Buck Institute for Education, 2017

3. A site for developing practice

Development of students’ critical understandings and judgment through the artmaking process can be strongly supported by promoting students’ use of the Visual Arts Process Diary (VAPD) as a site and tool for formulating their conceptual intentions, recording research, planning actions, documenting experimentation with materials, and reflecting on challenges. The ability for students to generate ideas and record their investigations via a range of media as part of their VAPD, including drawings, sketches, notes, photographs, digital files and collections of objects, significantly enables them to make informed decisions and interpretations when developing and resolving their artworks and bodies of work.

4. The physicality of matter

In today’s digital screen-based culture, opportunities to engage with the physicality and symbolic potential of diverse materials can inspire students to take positive risks in their learning. Manipulating mediums, objects, images, texts, spaces, landscapes and other sensory elements of the world through a range of techniques and processes, allows students to visualise and materialise their ideas and aims in meaningful, innovative ways, and explore the hands-on approach of many contemporary artists.

Setting up experiences that focus on students’ physical, bodily relationship with matter, in the form of experimental workshops, multi-modal lesson delivery, interactive resources, collaborative artmaking and hand-generated representations, allows for spontaneous encounters as well as intentional actions that connect materials and concepts by novel means.

5. Thinking about thinking

Developing in students the skills and mindset required to respond to situations that do not have known outcomes or ‘answers’, is an important goal of artmaking and lifelong learning. When students become aware of their own nature, habits and progress as learners, they become more empowered to make conscious choices and decisions towards activating their creativity, autonomy and critical judgment in challenging scenarios.

Embedding the ‘Habits of mind’ (2017) into everyday learning and teaching and the culture of the classroom, via modelling, direct discussion, using specific language, self-reflections and task design, can be highly effective in promoting students’ positive risk-taking, metacognition, motivation and wonderment in response to experimental artmaking investigations.

Assessment for learning

Across all tasks and units that I develop, student artmaking is directed towards the development of conceptual strength and meaning, as well as resolution or the synthesis of students’ conceptual and material practice, as reflected in the criteria for assessing HSC visual arts bodies of work and the HSC visual arts band 6 performance description.

The typical performance in band 6 demonstrates:

* a highly developed understanding of practice and a sustained reflective engagement informed by a knowledge of possibilities, conventions, processes and ways to proceed both practically and conceptually

* an authoritative understanding of the artworld acknowledging the complex and subtle relations among the artist, artwork, world and audience

* a sophisticated understanding of how different interpretive frameworks can be employed to represent a point of view

* a sophisticated understanding of how ideas and interests may be represented involving a synthesis of the interpretation of content/subject matter and the form of the work

* a highly developed understanding of how meaning is sustained at a number of levels through engagement with practice, artworld agencies and interpretive frameworks

* resolution, coherence, completeness which is outstanding, innovative and cutting edge.

HSC Visual Arts Performance Band description: Visual Arts, NESA, 2014

Throughout the artmaking process and at the conclusion of each artmaking task, students receive verbal and written constructive feedback and feedforward, aimed at developing their practice and artworks. Students also participate in self- and peer review activities to enhance their self-awareness as learners and understanding of task criteria and outcomes.

Example artmaking task

Preliminary Visual Arts – ‘Put a Stamp on It’ – Development of a Body of Work

Task description

In a digital age where a lot of images created on a computer tend to look like just that, many artists are using more traditional methods to visually interpret our ever-changing world. We are often nostalgic for the past and we are reassured by the familiar.

Collage is a medium that connects the past with the present, sometimes even offering a glimpse of what may be the future. From fashion show invitations to backdrops for music videos, from graphic design to book illustrations, contemporary collage has become a significant part of our visual landscape. The fusion of disparate and juxtaposed assemblage images provokes significant yet open-ended questions that we, as audiences, may not be able to answer in our postmodern world.

When did you last send or receive a postcard? Your task is to develop a series of four postcards that brings audiences back to the tactile, physical experience of a postcard with its traces of human touch, thought and communication. You are to develop an interesting concept for your series, inspired by a particular perspective or point of view based on a selected ‘frame’ - subjective, structural, cultural or postmodern. For example, you may wish to focus on:

* personal emotions, memories and experiences

* a visual language of signs and symbols to be decoded by audiences

* issues, beliefs or events in society

* recontextualising ideas, images or texts to challenge conventional meanings.

Artmaking process

In developing your postcard series, you are to consider:

* the role of collage and other related media in our digital age

* how artists have pushed boundaries through the medium of collage in historical and contemporary contexts

* sensory and aesthetic qualities of the medium

* how postcards can act as an accessible means for mass and/or experimental communication.

You are to experiment with a range of media and approaches to develop material and conceptual layers in your work, documenting your experiments and artmaking process in your Visual Arts Process Diary:

You may source materials from:

* original/found photographs, postcards or letters

* published media, for example, advertising, magazines, newspapers and/or posters from printed or online sources

* found textures and/or small objects.

In resolving your series, consider how audiences may interpret each of your postcards, and the visual and symbolic relationship between them. To create unity and emphasise your intended concept, you may choose to use visual or sensory cues, a metaphor, patterns or a particular motif to connect your 4 postcards. Also consider the final layout and presentation of your series to audiences, and how this may affect their interaction and interpretation of your work.

Example learning and teaching strategies for artmaking in Stage 6 visual arts

* Students learn about how artmaking practice requires an understanding of how a network of

procedures can be used to make art within the context of the art room. Through a sustained artmaking process and ongoing dialogue with their teacher, they develop their abilities to make informed judgements, decisions and actions.

* Students investigate the material, physical and virtual properties of different expressive forms and their significance and meanings, learning how to work in a range of forms and learn about the potential of materials, processes, techniques, styles and quality. Students are encouraged to think of their developing body of work in conjunction with theoretical course content.

* Students keep a Visual Arts Process Diary (VAPD) for their individual research, brainstorming, planning, experimentation and reflection. Students research and record connections to other artists and artworks.

* Students work individually, with regular verbal feedback and feedforward to guide their artmaking process. The VAPD acts as a site for ongoing exchange between student and teacher. It may be used to record discussions, planning and action lists to scaffold student autonomy and assist in the material and conceptual development of artworks.

* Work in progress is formally assessed and students receive detailed written feedback and feedforward to assist in developing and refining their body of work.

* Students evaluate their own progress and developing work on a regular basis to refine their intentions and approaches.

* Students visit current exhibitions independently and as a class, documenting their observations and thoughts in their VAPD, and considering how they may apply material and conceptual strategies, including the presentation of work to audiences.

* Full-day workshops or incursions to support students’ development and resolution of their body of work.


To conclude, I hope you find as much joy as I do in developing innovative artmaking investigations that engage your students in positive risk taking and empower their creativity and minds as genuine, lifelong artists.

References and further reading

Board of Studies NSW 2014, HSC visual arts performance band description: visual arts, NSW Education Standards Authority, (NESA), accessed 30 June 2017.

Board of Studies NSW 2016, Summary of the Visual Arts Stage 6 syllabus amendments 2016, NSW Education Standards Authority, (NESA), accessed 30 June 2017.

Board of Studies NSW 2016, Visual Arts Stage 6 syllabus, accessed 30 June 2017.

Brown, N. 2000, Bodies of work and the practice of art making, UNSW, Sydney.

Buck Institute for Education 2017, What is project based learning (PBL)?, BIE, accessed 30 June 2017.

Clarke, J. 2013, ‘Innovation’, Minds at Work, accessed 30 June 2017.

Gonzales-Major, J. 2017, Bloom’s digital taxonomy: overview, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH, accessed 30 June 2017.

The Institute for Habits of Mind 2017, 16 habits of mind chart, accessed 30 June 2017.

How to cite this article: Yip, H. 2017, ‘Developing innovative thinkers and positive risk-takers ‘, Scan, 26(3), pp. 31-39

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