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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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It's All in the Thumbs: What David Hockney Can Teach Schools About Technology

David Hockney's exhibit at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco is awe inspiring, jaw dropping and a tribute to what is possible with a phone or tablet. His imagination is boundless, providing the viewer with a journey into a wonderful world of color, space, expanse and tributaries into landscape and portraiture.

What is most amazing is that Hockney has rendered this visual banquet through the use of his thumb and the app Brushes. He shucks off the intuitive idea of using a pointer finger with the app and instead opts for the thumb. In the 2009 exhibition catalogue, David Hockney: A Bigger Exhibition (p.46), the artist explains to editor Lawrence Weschler:

Only the thumb has the opposable joint which allows you to move over the screen with maximum speed and agility, and the screen is exactly the right size; you can easily reach every corner with your thumb.

He has adapted to the technology and figured out a way to leverage it for great power and delight.

Using Mobile Devices for Mobility

As schools and teachers continue to adjust to the use of phones and tablets, Hockney gives us an important lesson: use the technology in a way that maximizes it to achieve the ends you desire. He is able to work with great speed and ingenuity on a very small screen, share his drawings with friends, "sending out as many as four or five a day to a group of about a dozen friends, and not really caring what happens after that" (p. 44).

Sound familiar? This is what kids are doing all day on their phones with Instagram.

Hockney has figured out how to be innovative with phones and tablets. His approach is simple, yet revolutionary.

One of the key things to keep in mind with phones and tablets is that they are meant to be used up and about, to give you the possibility of capturing small moments, documenting daily activity, breaking visuals down into smaller components to recast from different perspectives (like Hockney's Yosemite series with the iPad), and sharing and distributing these creations.

Phones and tablets are not meant to be used sitting at a desk in a school. Computers and laptops have that intent, with traditional keyboarding and word processing. Phones and tablets require a shift in mindset from the user. And kids already approach these devices intuitively, using their thumbs to write texts and posts. They don't bother with pointer fingers when they know that the thumb brings speed, as Hockney explained above. Kids carry their phones around with them everywhere they go, keeping an eye out for those "insta" worthy moments.

In a recent New York Times article, "Art Makes You Smart," Brian Kisida, Jay Greene and Daniel Bowen write: "We can conclude that visiting an art museum exposes students to a diversity of ideas that challenge them with different perspectives on the human condition." This is exactly what the Hockney exhibit succeeds in doing. It opens the viewer up to the imaginative, boundless possibilities that exist with technology, and it challenges the visitor to take a different perspective in viewing art. Cory Perkins writes for CNN:

Hockney's broader concern, which he's explored extensively throughout his career, is how technology has allowed artists to experiment with new perspectives, and thus create new ways of considering the world around them.

Actively Academic

Hockney's exhibit can also help educators figure out how to make sense of phones and tablets as in-school learning tools. Here are some possibilities to bring this approach to schools.

English Class

As students are learning new vocabulary, they use their phones to go outside and capture an image that defines the word. Or, after school, they are charged with creating a visual library of new vocabulary words. The class then creates an Instagram page with "insta" worthy vocabulary words. Or, the class designs a Pinterest page in the same way.

Math Class

The class goes outside to study proportional reasoning by taking photos of buildings and their own physical relationships to the buildings, and then they calculate proportions. One of our teachers at Marin Country Day School did this exact activity with great success.

Art Class

Students go outside to capture flora, fauna and natural vistas, and then take these images back into the art studio to render them through Brushes, or in different media like watercolors and charcoal. Again, the class could create a sharing page via Instagram or Pinterest.

These are just a few examples, but the possibilities are endless. The key for schools that hope to use phones and tablets for learning is to get up out of the seats and go outside. Start walking around. Be mobile.

David Hockney is in his 70s, yet he is forward-thinking enough to innovate with phones and tablets, using mobile media with all its capabilities. Schools can do the same.

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