Stepping Stones is a monthly column that breaks down seemingly daunting tasks into simple, manageable “steps” that any art educator can take and apply directly to their classroom. Stepping Stones will explore a variety of topics and share advice for art-on-a-cart teachers and those with art rooms.
MAKING MISTAKES IN THE ART CLASS by Heidi O’Hanley
We always tell ourselves that it’s human to make mistakes, and as adults, we’re used to them happening, big or small. We fall down, pick ourselves back up, brush off the dust, and carry on. As children, we felt horrible when we made mistakes and thought our worlds were upside down because things did not go as they planned. In school and at home, children learn from watching others, and over time as they develop into adult citizens, they develop the ability to cope with ups and downs.
Many times we have students in art that shut down or give up after making a simple mistake. They want to rip up or crumble their papers, and sometimes sneak them into the garbage without us knowing while asking us for a new one, too late to recoup the old paper!
As part of social emotional learning (SEL), we’re equipping students with the knowledge they need to be able to get back up when students fall down, and teaching students to learn through their mistakes is a key component in developing those skills.
1. Making mistakes teaches students that they are not perfect. Too often I hear students saying their work “must be perfect” and cry when one little thing goes wrong. When a student learns to shrug it off and work through their mistakes, they understand that they are not flawless and carry on.
2. Making mistakes teaches students to face their fears. In art, we teach our students to be risk takers and to think outside of the box. If a student is too afraid to push themselves in their creative abilities, they will always be coming to you asking to do their work for them. Students who face their fears are more likely to try new things on their own, even if they succeed or fail at their attempts.
3. Making mistakes teaches students to keep moving forward. How do we know what is successful without a few failed attempts? When making mistakes in art, we learn what can go wrong and how to avoid making the same mishap again. Also, picking yourself up after a failure is a good lesson to help students overcome their obstacles.
4. Making mistakes teaches students to take responsibility for their own actions. Sometimes when students make mistakes, they are quick to blame another. How often have you heard, “She took my good crayon!” or “He bumped the table?” Taking responsibility for our own actions is not fun, but students learn to grow from accepting their own faults.
5. Making mistakes teaches students about integrity. Students make more mistakes with their art when their goals are too high. It’s good to encourage students to take risks, but if their risks are beyond their capability, they will be let down with constant failures and give up on their projects. I see this happening quite often with drawing projects; the student’s vision is big, but they cannot draw exactly what they want to envision at that time. The end result is a half done project, or no project at all. When students accept the truth of their own abilities, they can push their limits at their own pace.
6. Making mistakes teaches students that there are multiple solutions to one problem. There’s a very good reason why Elliot Eisner added this sentence in his top 10 reasons why the arts are important in education. If you’ve observed your students at work, some students have what many art teachers call “happy accidents,” which are good changes that happen from little mishaps in art projects.
One book I like to read to my younger grades is Beautiful Oops. by Barney Saltzberg (Workman Publishing Co., 2010). In the book, students see how simple coffee stains, smudges, or ripped paper can become another beautiful piece of artwork. When students make simple mistakes in my art class (such as a smudge or line that can’t be erased), peers throw out ideas on how artworks can be altered. It’s a great opportunity for students to be a team and share ideas, or for individual students to use their creative thinking skills on a whim.
7. Making mistakes teaches students to inspire others. When students react to their errors, others are watching. Kids can be great role models for each other when they react to any situation in the classroom. They observe how we as teachers respond to their choices, and react in a positive or negative way. If a student works through their “happy accidents” congratulate them for thinking around their obstacles. Classmates are inspired when they see other being brave and taking risks.
Mistakes are powerful lessons in every part of our lives. As art educators, we teach children how to embrace their faults and to work with what we have.
Arts & Activities Contributing Editor, Heidi O’Hanley (NBCT) teaches elementary art for Indian Springs School District #109, in the Greater Chicago Area. Visit her blog at www.talesfromthetravellingartteacher.blogspot.com