A new teaching model turns art education on its head

An art teacher has created a new model for teaching arts subjects that shifts the onus from the teacher to the student.
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Picture this: a teacher walks into the classroom and all the students have their heads down, deeply engaged in their own activity, exercising their creative muscles while learning.

The ability to motivate and engage students is ever more difficult in classrooms, exacerbated by a generation raised on smart phones, social media and short-cycle attention bites.

But an art teacher has come up with a brilliant way of turning the tables by handing over the learning process to the student via a Visual Diary Guide – a new model that not only engages students with their own creativity by bringing idea generation to the very start of the process, but also gets them to turn those ideas into sophisticated artworks, while freeing up the teacher.

‘Kids are born creative, but most of the time the education system channels them into more structured thinking that tends to limit creative experimentation. What we are doing is to try to stop that in part, and reverse it using the art class,’ said author Hilary Senhanli.

‘This is very timely because the future of work is changing rapidly and the demand for creative minds will increase sharply across many career trajectories,’ she added.

‘In primary schooling there is a lot of play-based education but in secondary school that immediately switches to more streamline education because they have to get used to that in life. Art is the one subject where you don’t have to do that.

‘If we treat kids from Year 7 onwards as little artists and designers, by the time they get to Year 12 they have that confidence and skills embedded. You are setting them up for success,’ she said.

‘We see that, for most kids across Australia, starting from year 7, a lot of Visual Diaries go home almost empty. For a Year 12 subject, where the visual diary process may account for as much as 30% of the final mark, this is a real problem,’ said Senhanli.

Hilary Senhanli was an art teacher for ten years and, over the years, has switched between teaching and practicing as a professional artist. She did her undergraduate degree in drawing, so the Diary is a natural thinking process for her.

She has been researching, trialing and implementing the Visual Diary Guide in schools since 2009, with exciting results.

Image Copyright and courtesy Mark Parisi

Shift in focus

The Visual Diary Guide works by shifting the focus to the “process” without losing sight of the final product.

It can be difficult to make the artistic process work in a “class environment” and to keep it genuine. This can only happen if the teacher is freed from the complex task of motivating students, and then keeping them motivated. ‘This practical Guide, owned by each student, takes care of that. Then the teacher, as the expert in the room, can attend to many parallel inquires,’ explained Senhanli.

‘Normally, the teacher prepares a topic – “this term we will do a project on the environment, here’s famous artist X or these are art works that show Y”. Yet, in a class environment, there are two issues with this approach. The workload is heavy for the teacher to prepare, and the teacher needs to sell the original idea to motivate the students. This second part is the hardest and can be the root cause of disengagement, at which time students face the prospect of being left behind.’

The Visual Diary Guide enables a seamless transition from one teaching model to another. It does that without major modifications to class programs while leveraging the experience of art and design teachers. 

The Guide addresses concerns about the simplistic ideas students tend to produce without proper guidance. ‘Artistic process involves making ideas more sophisticated through iterations and this is baked into the Guide without making it boring,’ said Senhanli.

‘Activities for building creativity are designed to be really short and work from the position of the student’s own research – to look at their life, their culture, who their favourite artists are, etc. This is all about the kid,’ said Senhanli.

Photo by Claire Sambrook

Building trust through self-published

The Visual Diary Guides have been self-published, ensuring that “the message” goes from art teacher to art teacher.

‘In 18 months, about 30 schools across Australia have signed up and are using the Visual Diary Guide,’ explained Senhanli. ‘We have been successful in getting the Guide listed as an annual booklist item at those schools. That is, the books can only be purchased by the parents through the school. It is not available in retail stores.’

Find out how to sign up the Visual Diary Guide in your school.

Making the visual diary intuitive

Teachers want students to take ownership of their ideas and come up with creative solutions and great artworks or designs. But visual diaries, today, are not reserved for students or art students alone.

Senhanl said: ‘The Visual Diary Guide is all about drawing. Engineers today are using Visual Diaries – the future of work is changing radically, so an environment that encourages drawing is a key skill for future.’

Visual Diaries were introduced into schools in Australia about 25 years ago, yet, how students have used them to date has been mostly as just a portfolio of the class work. The engagement factor has been low.

‘When asked to come up with ideas in Year 12, most kids sit there with their mouths flapping. But by starting with our Guide at Year 7, which helps student personalise their Visual Diaries, they will walk into Year 12 armed with many diaries under their arm bristling with ideas of what they found interesting,’ she added.

The Visual Diary Guide is aligned with the Australian Curriculum and addresses recently introduced Critical and Creative Thinking (CCT), which supports the innovation economy and education.

Senhanli said of her experience in piloting the Diary: ‘Something wonderful happened when I stepped into the art room. I saw my students avidly drawing in their Visual Diaries. A brief time dedicated to the Visual Diary at the start of each lesson was theirs; the children knew that and they did not need to wait for permission or instruction. My approach was working!’

To learn more about the Visual Diary Guide visit.

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina

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