Beyond the Art Room: Remote TAB Studio Learning In Pandemia

By: Clyde Gaw
*Original blog post from:

K-12 educators across the World faced a new challenge at the beginning of Spring this March. With little warning, teachers reinvented or made major readjustments to their educational programs to accommodate remote learning mandates in a matter of hours. Instead of face to face interactions with teachers, fellow classmates, school settings and the natural world, children would now be learning in isolation away from their peers and teachers. Educational experiences would be centered on virtual and mixed reality through digital screen interaction.

Computer-based learning is not the educational program we signed up for but for now, it’s the one we must continue to utilize. From my perspective, #Covid19 did not significantly affect our learner-directed high school TAB art education program. We already had an electronic portfolio program in place. Kids basically kept adding on to existing portfolios through self-directed art making.

My adjustment was to integrate more online content and suggest more possibilities for creative self-expression. Despite the extraordinary circumstances of the global pandemic, over 70 percent of our students were responding positively to this arrangement. They worked regularly at contributing art work to their portfolios and reflecting on those activities. There was little need to make wholesale changes to our program or utilize additional behavior modification incentives to coerce children to make art. My main adjustment during remote learning time was to provide more open ended activities, more choices, daily content and more individual dialogue.

Because human beings are predisposed to use their hands, children of all ages are quite adept at mark making with all kinds of materials and can initiate this process on their own. Similarly, children can play, manipulate and make assemblages and sculpture with all sorts of materials and objects they have at home. We would use any materials or tools available to us, utilizing any ideas that came to us. We had our cameras, digital image making programs and desire. My interest with remote learning, was to help the children recognize their capacity for spontaneous art making, in which they would take the initiative with their ideas. Taking initiative without coercion is always a good thing.

Our emphasis earlier in the year to provide support and structure for the development of autonomy and the practice of freedom served our students well during remote learning time. Students were already on their way to becoming self-directed artists, practicing creative freedom in our studio classroom. Now they would do it in make shift home-studios. I believed the important thing would be to provide children a connection to humanity that would sustain their self-confidence, energy and sense of agency. 

We are now confronted with the distinct possibility of beginning the school year in a remote learning setting again. I think whatever one’s learning management platform might be, leading by example and establishing expertise in your subject matter is critical for the students to believe in their educational experiences and establish a relationship of trust. Understanding my students are unique individuals, instructional goals remain the same. Continue sharing new insights and pathways to art making and maintain dialogue with students about their work, ideas and creative process. Personal interaction between children and their teachers is critical for the process of intellectual development to unfold. 
During #Covid19 remote learning time, I did not want to burden children with tasks that caused undo stress. All activities were centered upon minimal portfolio contributions. I would accept most creative efforts by students, including their feral art, they could document through photography, video or other means. Our dialogue was mainly through written correspondence instead of remote meetup/interaction.

Questions going through my mind during the month of March centered around mental health, “What is the affect of distance learning on the child and the family? “Is distance learning benign or harmful to the family’s cohesion?” “Does distance learning have adverse affects on the relationships of children and their caregivers?” Anecdotally, conversations with busy parents who are participating in distance learning, lead me to believe there are serious problems when it comes to distance learning, tasking of children and remote education. Research reveals there are significant negative impacts to student’s emotional health when it comes to academic learning. Would these stresses be transmitted and experienced to other members of the family? I wanted our art experiences to have minimal extemporaneous impact on students and their families. 

Their are differences between traditional TAB inside a K-12 studio setting and #RemoteTAB but both forms can provide potent intellectual and creative learning experiences for children when facilitated by an art teacher who is willing to adhere to the TAB curriculum structure. These questions led me back to Kathy Douglas’ statement, “What is the least amount of information I can give children to support their autonomous artmaking?”  To answer that question, and facilitate TAB distance learning I continued to offer at least four activity choices every instructional day we were observing class. 

Could student’s remote art activities be self-generated and self-sustaining as they were in our authentic TAB art studio? Can children carry out remote, self-directed art activities at home without adult support?  Short answer: Yes! Can students generate ideas, realize them, reflect and report their findings back to me? Absolutely! With a Canvas learning management platform already in place we continued to communicate instruction in several modalities. I used text, images, video and live meetings regularly for demonstrations, criticism, art history and class announcements. Students need to be comfortable with photographing their work and transmitting the files back to their teacher. They need to be comfortable writing or recording reflective thought. From my experience with electronic portfolios back in 1998, children as young as eight years old can participate in this process. At the beginning of the 2020 pandemic, my goal was for students to continue to operate as autonomous agents just as they were in our regular classroom. 

I cannot understate how important the human and natural-world connection is during this extraordinary time. Human beings are biologically hardwired for experiential, hands-on learning. Personal interaction is critical to the development of creativity and intellectual capacity. 

Many of my colleagues were monitoring this educational paradigm shift on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. It is my view, this shift was successful, mainly because TAB and choice based teachers and their students are a resourceful group. Their efforts already three quarters of the way into the year, set the stage for a successful completion of home based artmaking experiences for hundreds of thousands of children in learner-directed art programs.

It seems that for now, remote learning will be a new normal. Having facilitated #RemoteTAB over the past eight weeks, I want to offer some observations and analysis.

Silicon Valley, Wall Street and other advocates of machine-based learning may advertise computer
programs as essential to the new educational normal, but as a long-term alternative to educate
children for participation in democratic society, there is the question of how behavior modification
methods written into these programs, debases a child’s capacity for critical thinking and agency while
reinforcing apathy and alienation. Then there is the question of how remote learning exacerbates screen addiction in the hundreds of thousands of children who suffer from this condition.

Make no mistake, there is no substitute for real-world interaction and authentic relationships with human beings. Altered reality, virtual reality, hybrid reality, mixed reality is not the same thing as reality. Interfacing with a digital screen for long periods of time causes atrophy of the mind, body and human spirit. I am not happy (horrified is more like it) living in pandemia and fear for the future of public education and art education programs. The pandemia has laid bare a national failure to imagine and prepare for this situation. I look forward to going back to school and working with children inside my TAB studio classroom. Art education is more important now than ever before. We cannot afford more future failures of imagination.

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