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Happy Mistakes: Art-based learning through failing

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The author of this article is the Director of CreativeKids, an organisation offering chargeable workshops to children and young people in Hong Kong. 

Fear of failure is one of the blocks to children’s thinking and can act as a barrier to learning (Fisher, 2005). Conversely, children’s curiosity can fuel exploration of possibilities. Art in particular can provide an environment and experience that encourages children to sketch out ideas, to paint without pain and to experiment without punishment. Children can take on more ambitious and riskier approaches to learning, instead of settling with mediocre success (Grammenos and Antona, 2018). In a learning climate where students’ and teachers’ relationships are secure, mistakes and failures are only natural consequences of problem-solving attempts.

The idea of ‘Happy Mistakes’ was initiated over 10 years ago in a private art and design studio called CreativeKids that conducts after-school creativity classes in Hong Kong. The goal is to instil a positive association with ‘making mistakes’ among children and parents; the paradoxical name is aimed at transforming the fear of mistakes into playful associations through art-making. This can be a particular challenge In a society that often values fast results and achievements (Chan, 2007). This article outlines the principles behind the approach adopted.

Art as learning process

More than just decorating products, art is a learning process to think and to create (Loomis et al., 2007). Art lessons do not always have to be ‘top-down’ and instruction-based but, instead, can be an open-ended process during which children take on challenges and embrace failure (How, 2018). By associating mistakes with positive emotions, children broaden behaviours (‘thought-action repertoires’) such as flexibility (Fredrickson, 2001) and learn to cope with learning difficulties (Ellis and Robson-Kelly, 2018).

In visual art, distinct from other school subjects, there are rarely standard answers (Hodge, 2010) but instead a series of trials and errors. In making choices among possibilities, children learn to ask questions instead of being asked by teachers. ‘Effective learning in any field is often a process of trial and error, of breakthroughs punctuated by failed attempts to find a solution.’ (Robinson, 2015, p. 146)

Visual art as a non-judgmental space for mistakes

The practice of making art, and making mistakes along the way, enables students to rehearse making choices and seeing the consequences. Exploring art media can help children to break through mental inhibitions. A good example is Chinese ink wash painting. When children observe the watery nature of diluted ink spreading over absorbent rice paper, the teacher can present this as an experiment on water-and-ink proportion and textural effects generated by brush speed and pressure. Chinese diluted ink tends to go beyond drawn outlines in unpredictable shapes and effects, freeing children from having to colour rigidly within borders. Traditional approaches to learning Chinese painting involve years of imitating master painters. Many children lose interest, dreading the repetitive efforts in acquiring skills. ‘Happy mistakes’ is a playful way for children to discover this art medium and style of painting. During one of the exploratory Chinese art painting exercises in the studio, a five-year-old student was painting loquat fruits and  – oops! – the paintbrush slipped, leaving an unwanted stroke at the bottom of the paper. Instead of starting all over again, the witty student turned the stroke into a fallen withered leaf, resulting in a lively picture that conveyed a sense of time.

Blobs and blotches

Another exercise that disarms children’s defence against mistakes is to turn ugly accidental marks into monsters. Small sheets of paper with blobs and blotches are given to children. Using humour and visual association, children are encouraged to turn these ‘undesirable’ marks into monsters, animals or scenarios. Children find new ideas by turning the sheets of paper around and looking at the ugly marks from different angles, with frequent ‘a-ha’ moments. This exercise is inspired by Edward de Bono’s idea of ‘po’, which stands for ‘provocative operation’, a term that he coined (De Bono, 1992). ‘Po’ is a mental operation that provokes thinking beyond ‘what is’ to ‘what can be’.

Another visual exercise based on de Bono’s ‘po’ is ‘a hole in the paper’. The ‘damaged’ part of the paper offers another dimension beyond the flat surface into an imaginative space. Some children drew a person peeping into or dangling from the hole. Some drew people or animals crawling out of the hole, which they perceived as a crack on the wall. Imperfections on the paper freed children from focusing solely on the problems to break-through solutions, from being obsessed with end products to an enjoyable learning process.

Design projects

Besides visual art experiences, design projects also support experiential learning by testing early and failing faster (Mosely et al., 2018). We find that children often cheer when bridges break and eggs crack. The apparent mischiefs in design projects such as ‘spaghetti bridges’ and ‘egg drop’ are in fact moments when children discover the weight limits, breaking points and the improvements necessary to strengthen bridge structures and protection in egg packaging.

Children are still developing cognitive structures to process and understand information. When they are not expected to think like adults, they can use their intuition to improvise with whatever resources and existing knowledge they have at hand. However, they often lack the technical knowledge and skills to realise their imaginative ideas. Adults can meet this need by offering technical help and relevant knowledge.

Not all mistakes are happy

Of course, not all mistakes are beneficial – there are different kinds of errors, sometimes categorised into two types (Bodrova, 2007):

  1. natural and beneficial errors that are part of children’s development and can be outgrown or corrected with adult feedback – for example, baby talk by toddlers.
  2. repeated and resilient errors that hinder development – for example, the conflicting directionality of left-to-right reading habits and right-to-left subtraction habits.

Conclusion

The benefits of these approaches may extend beyond just ‘Happy Mistakes’. Visual art experiences can also allow students to visualise learning: ‘When learners make connections between pieces of information, knowledge, and experience, by generating headings, summaries, pictures, and analogies, deeper understanding develops.’ (Bobek and Tversky, 2016, p. 2) Visual art provides a way for students to create learner-generated visual explanations of complex concepts and processes.

Although the phenomena and examples are drawn from Hong Kong, parallels can be found between this city and parts of the United Kingdom. A broad curriculum that integrates a range of learning experiences recognises not only knowledge mastery but also creative trial-and-error skills necessary to thrive in a world of rapid changes. In language and logic, in moral and ethics, there are more clean-cut rights and wrongs. In visual art, there is more room for exercising judgment. Learning to differentiate subtleties in shades and tints and making inventive combinations of media and techniques, children gain understanding of the cause and effect of their artistic decisions. In the ‘oops’ and ‘a-ha’ moments of an art experience, teachers and students become co-discoverers of extraordinary ideas by thinking ‘the unthinkable and the not yet thought’ (Bernstein, 2000, p. 31). ‘Happy Mistakes’ open up students to the possibilities of thinking beyond the structure of the curriculum and the hierarchy of teachers/students (Young, 2018) in order to build knowledge in unique, personal ways.

References

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Mosely G, Wright N and Wrigley C (2018) Facilitating design thinking: A comparison of design expertise. Thinking Skills and Creativity 27: 177–189. DOI: 10.1016/j.tsc.2018.02.004.

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