A couple weeks ago, as the final leaves were falling, I had a lovely opportunity to do some sensory painting with the students in my group time. We ventured out into the warm sun and examined our materials. Instead of traditional paint brushes, I provided the group with a collection of dead branches and plants. The group made some observations together and came up with a collection of adjectives to describe the tools: “Pointy, sharp, scratchy, soft, curly.”
Finally, after much anticipation, the group jumped in and began to paint on the shared canvas using their branches and twigs to paint. Right away the students began to notice some differences from their usual painting experience. Sharing space with friends required some clear communication. It took some practice getting used to how much paint to use with each branch. They began to notice that different tools made unique marks and strokes. “It’s splatting and splatting.” “Look, it’s all scritchy!” Ultimately the focus of the project became far less “product-oriented”, and far more “process-oriented”.
This change—from focusing on product (what are me making) towards a more process-focused approach (how are we making this)— allows for a profound shift to happen in learners. Instead of focusing on making a perfect horse or house, the students examined their paint strokes and talked together to see how the swirls could connect. They noticed that the thin branches made smaller, sharper marks and the curly wispy branches were great for splatter painting. This switch in thinking adds a level of cognitive planning to the creative process that will ultimately make students much deeper artists and learners.
While product-oriented learning certainly has a place, it also has the potential to shut learners off to a certain topic. When I was in school, almost all of the art projects offered were product oriented. I was an okay artist, but somehow my work never quite looked like my teacher’s or friends’ creations. Ultimately this focus on the final product as the most important aspect of the class led me to the conclusion, “I’m not good at art.” One of the joys I’ve had doing so many art projects as a preschool teacher has been finding out that I actually do like art. Conversely I had friends that grew up to do amazingly creative works, but back then were stuck working on the same boring project that I was. A focus on process over product offers students the opportunity to strive towards meaningful personal growth rather than competing against one another to reach the same arbitrary finish line.
As we finished our project the group gathered around the outside of the paper to examine their work. It was quiet as the children looked at each others work. There was a palpable feeling of pride emulating from the group, and as I asked “So, what do you think?” a large exuberant cheer went up!