Critical Making

I owe it all to my wife and a little bit of curious wandering. She is an artist. For a mechanical enginerd, Spock-like logical thinker, and excel spreadsheet fanboy, she might have well been an unicorn of cognitive disruption. I followed her on lots of dates to museums and galleries. I made the novice mistake of saying things like:

“Those are just solid colors. That’s not art!”

“A kindergartener could splatter paint like that, but you don’t see those in a museum.”

“That is just plain weird…and I’m a little uncomfortable.”

If I knew then what I know now, I would have been able to see the inquiry, experimentation, and fabrication that went into those works. Each artist was incredibly capable of landscapes, portraits, sketched figures, etc, yet they chose – with purposeful intentionality – to create the works masterpieces above. Rothko’s work reflects inquiry into how color can can affect behavior and moods and consume the viewer. Pollack experimented tirelessly to challenge the status quo of painting on an upright easel and instead explored a technique that allowed paint to meet canvas from multiple dimensions. Pras piled a bunch of trash in a way that…seriously…I don’t care who you are…that is awesome. He fabricated something from nothing while exhibiting extraordinary craftsmanship. Hmmmm..starting to sound like our Maker|Design|Engineering culture.

Years later, I hope I’m a little wiser and find myself leaning increasingly more on the art world for inspiration not just from a creativity standpoint, but on pedagogical one. I’m desperate to learn more about how to cultivate creative thought and action AND assess and provide feedback in a way that cultivates our value standards for Maker|Design|Engineering at MVPS.

A recent source of inspiration is the book Art of Critical Making published by RISD. I’ve read it, highlighted a ton, and initiated a book study with some of our arts faculty to better understand how to bring the ideas in book into actionable classroom norms. It’s that good, and I’m convinced that the art studio model of critiques and self assessment holds at least part of the secret recipe to meaningfully assessing MakerED builds. Additionally, I feel even more strongly that the maker community we imagined over a year ago along with the culture we hoped to cultivate is rooted in what I now know to call the Art of Critical Making:

Indeed, works of art are the result of inquiry, experimentation, discovery, and innovation, and as such, they offer the opportunity to develop and exercise these very same skills. (Art of Critical Making, loc 1775)

Below is a sampling of segments from the book that seem to directly align with our value and process standards for Maker|Design|Engineering at MVPS.

Fabrication:

RISD’s studio model is built around two key elements: critical thinking, the ability to process and evaluate information while challenging assumptions and employing multiple ways of knowing; and critical making, the process of creating things by altering materials and giving form to ideas. Critical making requires critical thinking and social consciousness along with embodied knowledge if it is to be distinguished from making in general. Critical making should also be understood as different than production where the thinking is complete before the fabrication begins. In critical making, the very process itself opens up new possibilities for deep, expansive thinking and the serious inquiry that stimulates discovery. (Art of Critical Making, loc 1555)

Craftsmanship:

RISD is a place where students are developing their own creative capabilities as professional artists and designers, learning how to use their own hands to craft diverse materials into objects. Walking around campus, one primarily sees students working with their bodies at easels, drafting desks, kilns, saws, and machines, and lots of things propped, pinned, piled, strewn, and hung. Yet contextualizing is always there. In expressive arts such as painting, ceramics, or sculpture, context is often fairly subjective. While most artists consider their work a contribution to society and social discourse, they frequently draw on personal experiences of the world as sources, trusting that unknown audiences will share their interests or appreciate their perspectives. In design fields such as architecture, graphic design, or industrial design, context is often made explicit in the creative process. Designers make things for particular people, places, and situations, whose qualities and meanings they study in order for their designs to be most relevant. (Art of Critical Making, loc 874)

Idea Exchange :

Artists and designers train to approach the lively aspects of the materials with which they work with multileveled engagement and creative play. They become absorbed in the conversations, dip in and out, and enter experiences of making collaboratively in working states that reject the question, “Where does your input end and the input of the material begin? (Art of Critical Making, loc 2118)

Observation & Judgement:

Critiques can be behavioral learning experiences that help participants learn about social interaction, expressions of support, and disagreement. Successful critiques are about perceptive, constructive feedback, not a judgment of good or bad, but an offering of “I experience this — was that your intention?” or “What if . . . ?” Critiques provide a pathway through which students develop a lifelong ability to self-evaluate and to reflect on improving, articulating, and evolving their ideas. The benefits of this kind of conscious awareness of how a work succeeds in communicating an intended outcome and the cultivation of honest response surely have applications not just in art and design but in multiple circumstances. (Art of Critical Making, loc 453)

I hope that readers (that’s you!) will comment on what they like, what’s missing, and how they might translate to their own classrooms or places of work. Steve Jobs said that “you can’t connect the dots looking forward you can only connect them looking backwards”. I’m at a place where I’m committed to the idea that self assessment a-la the art studio model should be considered an increasingly valid and reliable method of assessment especially for domains like art and design that are rooted in creative thought and action. I genuinely want to invite this reader community to engage in some discussion to help me connect some dots.

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