George Lucas Educational Foundation
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There is a lot of talk in education about breaking down silos and doing interdisciplinary work, yet often we silo our students in how they work with and learn from others. I believe that focusing on participation as a subject of investigation in our classrooms will benefit our students' learning and foster collaborative efforts between disciplines.

But what does it mean when we ask students to participate? Beyond making sure students are doing what we are asking them to do, how do we help students understand the varieties of engagement so that they are directing their own learning, and are reflective about how participation broadens and hinders their particular learning styles?

In Art Class

I'm an art teacher and to help my students understand the possibilities of participation for learning and creativity, I designed a project called participatory sketchbook. While traditional sketchbooks are akin to journals and considered a private means for exploring an individual's creative ideas, a participatory sketchbook has a public face and allows students to share their creativity with others by including the creativity, opinions, and beliefs from the larger community.

In participatory sketchbooks, the students invite others to draw, write or add to the sketchbook by starting an artwork and asking participants to finish it or, through a written or verbal prompt, draw something from scratch. As an example, I passed around a photocopy of a simplistic black and white sketch of our school and asked my students to depict their feelings and thoughts about the school through images. I provided the art supplies, so that the simple black and white images were transformed into colorful depictions covering a full range of ideas and emotions.

The students were then asked to come up with their own ideas and prompts. I gave them a week to do their own project so that they had time for false starts and revisions. We helped each other brainstorm, and some students went through several iterations of different ideas before settling on one.

I also reminded them that the sketchbook ultimately belongs to them, and that they were free to change, edit or completely eliminate any artwork by other participants.

Once the project started, the original idea often evolved into something more creative because of the input from participants. Through this process of give and take, the students were often inspired to do the project differently or with more clarity.

Ways of Sharing

One of my students, Vanessa, asked others to draw a picture in her sketchbook in response to what they think about her. Vanessa knew that this could be a loaded question to ask people, but was clear enough about her idea to understand that bias, honesty, and obfuscation (she didn't use that word) would affect how the participants responded through their artwork. Throughout the project, Vanessa tried variations, such as leaving the room, or asking a third person to ask the question to see how her presence or lack of presence would affect the participants' artwork.

When presenting the work, Vanessa also reflected on how her presence in front of the participants, whom she asked to participate as well as their relationship to her were all factors that affected the results. She also thought it was an interesting way to investigate her relationship to the community.

Jamal, another student in the class, asked participants to draw a hole. He was interested in how other's would depict it, how literally or metaphorically they would decide to draw it, and how ultimately a hole -- something that that is defined by an absence of whatever surrounds it -- is partly a conceptual idea that reflects one's way of thinking. Yet another student asked participants to draw their concept of God, and through that process, provided the impetus for conversing with atheists, agnostics, and the faithful about their beliefs.

The idea of the participatory sketchbook can be translated to other mediums and forms of assessment such as journals, research papers, and visual presentations. What if, for example, instead of writing another essay, students did an essay through Google docs, thus allowing the direct input and revisions of a group of their choosing, such as recent immigrants or online gamers?

This form of collaboration reflects the way we work in the real world, and that while credit and ownership might be given to the film director or the Nobel scientist, behind their achievements are the lab technicians, actors, and writers who help bring the project leader's ideas to fruition.

5 Learning Takeaways

Here's what can be learned when students discover the power and potential of participation projects:

1. Power to decide: Students are empowered because they get to decide the level of participation, how others participate and what level of participation works for them. Students also learn about the type of editorial decisions that one has to make, and understand that they have the ability to decide what works and what doesn't work for them in this type of project.

2. Expanding ideas of collaboration: Students learn to let go of their personal silos and expand their notions of who owns an idea and where good ideas come from. They also explore how their creativity is inspired and nurtured within the larger social fabric of a particular community, and discover the connectivity that exists between process, idea and inspiration that comes from working with others.

3. A form of research: Students can use a participatory project as a means for doing research. While it doesn't produce hard data, participatory projects present a more nuanced, and perhaps a more holistic way of researching an idea or the opinions of a community. The students also gain knowledge from conversations that occur between themselves and participants.

4. A source of creative inspiration: Where do we get our ideas? Very often they come from other people, and while I encourage students to never copy ideas wholesale, very often we learn and discover our own creativity by working and conversing with others.

5. Connecting with their community: Finally, students discover a way of moving outside of their silo as an individual student and connecting with the larger community. Students are able to bring people together based around an idea or belief. Through this process, students are also honoring the ideas and creativity of others in their community and become one of the crucial links that holds the group together.

Assessing the Outcome

How do we assess the outcome? This type of project reflects the student's conceptual ability, their ability ask and reframe questions, make editorial decisions and finally lay claim to the final work by having it reflect their own creativity and ideas. Students find participatory projects both inspiring and liberating, and are excited to have a creative process for discovering more about their community and themselves.

What are your thoughts and ideas on this post? Please share in the comments section below.

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Gayle Allen's picture
Gayle Allen
Teacher. Learner. Leader. Researcher.

Terrific article! I really like how you give students time to work individually, as well as in collaboration with others. Also love the real-world aspect! It's such a terrific way for students to learn about works in progress and how so much of our work with others happens in that way. We learn how to start something, share it with someone else, work with it again in another form, etc. So real world!

name's picture

You really got something there! I think participatory teaching can definitely bring a new perspective on how students learn. Great article!

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