We Live in a Material World
How often do you take the time to examine the materials that the world around you is composed of? It is not a practice that we are accustomed to doing consciously. Once we learn the names of things – that stuff is plastic, that is metal, that is wood – the examination of a material tends to stop there. We avoid any deeper dive into the nature (chemical, physical or aesthetic) of materials until we reach high school chemistry class. By then, materials have long since been ignored and materials are examined through the lens of the abstract, such as density, atomic mass and propensity for ionic, covalent or no kind of bonding at all. By removing the aesthetic from materials in science, we lose what can be a precious spark for inquiry, but early childhood education experts and artists have known this all along.
Practitioners of early childhood education and art would argue that introducing children to the world of materials as early as possible through open exploration and art, is key to fostering and valuing a place of inquiry and self-discovery. Since the 1960’s the preschools of the Italian town of Reggio Emilia have mastered the use of materials, light and color to invite children’s questions and curiosities (Strong-Wilson & Ellis, 2007). Learning theorist Loris Malaguzzi, developer of the Reggio Emilia approach to education is perhaps best known for championing the benefits of exposing children to the material and aesthetic world. By bringing in elements of the natural world, such as redwood tree bark, shells, pine cones, etc, along with filters for color and light play, Reggio inspired classrooms present us with the best example of how to use materials and art, as a wellspring for inquiry. From Reggio Emilia we learn that inquiry arises quite naturally when children form relationships with natural materials and learn to hear the particular voices of stuff.
By voices we mean properties, from a strictly scientific point of view. In a helpful makers book called Making Things move by Dustin Roberts, a material’s property “is just something about the material that is the same regardless of its size or shape” (Roberts, 2011). Properties that make stuff good or bad for making objects with might include how easily the material breaks under stress or heat. Properties might also include how hydrophobic or flame retardant a material is, or whether it conducts electricity. All of these properties are easily testable by learners of all ages in a controlled setting.
From a non scientific point of view, materials have an ability to engage us in ways that are beyond words or scientific definition. To learn more, I interviewed two working artists and maker educators, Erin Riley and Sean Justice. Erin Riley is a Stanford FabLearn Fellow, Engineering and Design instructor in Visual Arts and the STEAM integration specialist at The Greenwich Academy for all girls in Connecticut. Sean Justice, is former instructor and Digital Media Studio Coordinator in Art & Art Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. His writing and teaching address teacher education in the age of digital networks, the Maker Movement, and Material Inquiry pedagogy. When asked about the importance of a student’s relationship to materials, Riley had this to say,
“In the same way an artistic eye can identify and draw upon aesthetics in materials, we learn about material functionality through the act of making. Understanding elemental materials like clay, wood, cardboard, paper, or glue also gives insight into materials like concrete, Styrofoam, foam core, acetate, silicone, and so on. A pile of recyclables has the potential to uncover new and creative uses and applications as one gains an understanding of how materials work.” Sean Justice plays with the metaphor of materials having voices in his response to Riley, “For it to become wonderful, like a good conversation, the maker becomes open to chance and potential drawn with her partners, the materials. This is why I like the metaphor of voice. It reminds me that I don’t know what you’re going to say, or what I’ll say in response to you. We build the conversation between us, in real time, in relationship, as a gesture, as a co-mingling of mind and action.”
Using materials as a catalyst for inquiry is an idea not only valued in a progressive educational setting, it is also one canonized by art and trade schools throughout the ages. Modern art schools would revive this idea at the beginning of the last century with the craftsman movement and the modern art movement.
The Bauhaus Model
The philosophies of Malaguzzi as well as the current Maker Movement were foreshadowed in the work of Walter Gropius, founder of The Bauhaus (1919-1933), a former art school in Germany that still defines how we think of art and design schools today. Gropius wanted higher education art students at the early part of the last century to regain a fundamental sense of materials, and to unlearn what their previous schooling had taught them about art, design and creativity. Gropius envisioned “a union of art and design in the Proclamation of the Bauhaus (1919), which described a utopian craft guild combining architecture, sculpture, and painting into a single creative expression” (Griffith Winton, 2007). To address his vision, Gropius opened an art college unlike any other of its time called the Staatliches Bauhaus Weimar, or Bauhaus (build-house) for short (Droste, 2002, Griffith Winton, 2007).
The standard curriculum of the Bauhaus was based on arts and crafts, with a focus on mastering the manipulation of standard building materials, such as paint, textiles, wood, metal and ceramics. Courses and workshops were taught by “masters” or renowned artists and craftspeople the likes of Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944), Gunta Stölzl (1897–1983), László Moholy-Nagy and Marianne Brandt (1893-1983), to name a few (Droste, 2002, Griffith Winton, 2007). Despite being closed by the nazis only 13 years after the flagship Bauhaus building in Dessau opened in 1925, the Bauhaus model and alum managed to invent and influence much of what we envision when we think of art and architecture today.
The Bauhaus model of using materials to teach artists and makers is alive and well today in Art colleges. A modern example of leading with materials for inquiry comes from the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA). Two researchers and designers at MICA named Inna Alesina and Ellen Lupton published a book on the subject called Exploring Materials; creative design for everyday objects (2010). In this encyclopedia of everyday materials, Alesina and Lupton discuss case studies where students were allowed to begin the design process through hands on prototyping of ideas using available materials. The prompt? Make someone comfortable when seated. “The goal of these experiments was to unlock creativity by exploring the unique properties of materials,” explain the authors (Alesina, & Lupton, 2010). The result of the experiment is nicely documented in the book showing creations in felt, foam, cardboard and metal. “This exercise,” the authors tell us, “is a kind of game. It is also a tool for inventing, brainstorming and generating ideas” (Alesina, & Lupton, 2010).
It makes sense for art schools to understand the importance of materials as fodder for student learning, but what about early elementary, middle and high schools that do not focus on the Arts? When the Bauhaus model (see image) used by Gropius’ instructors was reintroduced to the west coast in a short paper written and shared by Dutch Maker Educators Arjan van der Meij, Per-Ivar Kloen and Marten Hazelaar at the 2014 Stanford Fablearn conference, many took notice. Maker educators attending Fablearn that fall have since used the inspiration of Gropius’ model to inform their own maker programs. Take for instance the program model at St. Gabriel’s School in Austin, Texas designed by STEAM curriculum coordinator Patrick Benfield. “Although we are still in the early stages of creating this framework,” admits Benfield, “the basic form is quickly taking shape and reflects its roots in the Bauhaus. For the younger grades, Junior Kindergarten to Fifth, the focus is on providing a wide range of experiences that over time will help develop the so-called “maker mindset” or to put it another way, design thinking, which is analogous to the Basic Course.”
Image: d.Lab prototype logo for St. Gabriel’s makerspace (Austin, Tx) adaptation of the Bauhaus Model by Patrick Benfield.
From Gropius and the Bauhaus to Reggio Emilia, a focus on materials and art have proven to be a pathway to curiosity and creativity for learners of all ages. Today we see a revival of these ideas in makerspaces all over the world.
For more reading on Materiality see the following:
- Learning to Teach in the Digital Age: Enacted Encounters with Materiality. Marilyn Zurmuehlen Working Papers in Art Education. Available at: http://ir.uiowa.edu/mzwp/vol2015/iss1/3
- Sean Justice, (In Press), Learning to Teach in the Digital Age: New Materialities and Maker Paradigms in Schools (Peter Lang).
- Miodownik, M. (2014). Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials that Shape Our Man-made World. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.