This post is in response to a post that has popped in my inbox several times in the last several days from different sources and has me thinking about the subtle difference between centers and provocations as we present materials to young artists.
As a bit of background, I work in a small independent studio where children come for weekly classes. Our weekly meetings are an hour to 90 minutes and the studio is set up to be choice-based. My centers based approach is inspired by TAB Choice Teaching as well as by the work of Reggio-inspired schools and teachers who share rich experiences with children through the books of Reggio Children and individual teachers blogs. Art at the Center is designed to be a working studio for children and families. We focus on routines and processes in different media and invite children to create from areas of personal interest. Classes progress from introductions to various media available to on-going work individually and in small groups on themes and stories. The goal is for children to explore, discover and make meaning in a materials-rich environment with tools, instructors and peers as supports for their inquiry and creation.
I was initially surprised to see the characterization of a provocation as more child-directed centers as more teacher-directed. I think in my initial choice to have a centers-based studio I was wanting the kids to decide the direction. Initially I also noticed that often I would think I had a great provocation or problem or theme for the day and would find it was just not where the kids wanted to work - I was too complex and they wanted to just explore materials or I was too simple and they were ready to do more.
I think the challenge of both centers and provocations is knowing your artists. Careful observation and attention to interests, developmental stages and use of materials can help tailor centers that will produce engagement, curiousity and wonder in both adults and kids.
It seems that when a material is first introduced just the material is provocation enough - what does it do? What tools can we use? How can we make a mark, shape or make meaning with this material? It is a delicate balance between staying out of the way for kids to explore and learn and stepping in to encourage observation, reflection and sharing to facilitate thinking about the process.
There is a need for a certain comfort level with materials in order to be ready to move toward a challenge or provocation. In beginning working with younger kids I found my mistake most often was to expect making meaning with a material when I hadn't really offered enough time to explore and reflect on the material itself.
The set up of centers can offer provocation by how things are presented, what tools are offered and problems to explore and engage. At times centers focus on techniqe but I find that more often technique is learned in the context of a story to tell or a problem to solve.
Recently I have had a group of 4 and 5 year old artists become so interested in map making that they come back to this theme in various media over several weeks. They are setting up their own provocation and sticking with it as new participants, themes and variations emerge.
I guess in some ways this is the real goal - moving kids toward self-starting on themes of interest to them.
So in thinking about the skills artists use and young artists working in a studio practice, it seems that centers provide a valuable way to teach routine and aspects of technique. The more kids take ownership of the use and care of materials they use, the more that can be done and them more smoothly things run for the artists - young and old. Centers provide a way to introduce routines, tools and care of materials in paint, clay, collage, construction and other assorted media.
The provocation is a way to stretch and focus the use and meaning making of that media. I often find that bringing a media front and center and setting it up in a new way can increase the focus and interest in a familiar center in the studio. Inviting students to explore as a group a concept or question can allow us to find themes of interest for work over several studio meetings. Building agency and encouraging intrinsic motivation are key here as our provocations allow us to collaborate with young artists, building on their interests and helping them to work as artists problem-finding and making meaning through the use of materials.
Maybe the difference also has to do with adult attention. In setting up centers, my goal is for kids to work independently with materials in areas of their interest. The centers are designed as environments to be a "third teacher" providing the resources necessary for meaningful work with a material and the opportunity for self-guided learning and learning from peers. Part of this is also to allow children to work in multiple media at once - to give them choice and make it possible for the adult to facilitate that choice.
When I set up a provocation, I often present something familiar in a slightly different way and my goal is to see how artists respond and how the group explores the concept.
Blocks are often a good example. Rich play happens in our construction center at every meeting. Structures transform and grow as groups do the groups of builders. I am interested and aware but just at the periphery of my interest as painters at another table often require more attention.
Bringing the blocks to the main tables and beginning a class with an invitation to focus on block play changes my attention as well as the children's. Now I can see and observe more carefully what is happening, noting patterns of construction and interaction. I can see who is more interested in shape and form and balance and who is using the blocks as the spring board for a story. Themes develop and children are invited to record these in drawings, photographs and oral descriptions.
This invitation might lead us toward additional drawing or toward sculpture or paintings inspired by the stories that emerge. It might even lead to more play with blocks. The provocation mainly enables me to gather information and to focus - the work I see on the day we focus on blocks is likely a continuation and/or beginning of work that will happen in more open-ended centers work in previous and future sessions. It is that balance between interaction and independence, choice and guidance. Ultimately we want children to take from both centers and provocations habits that will enhance their sense of competence and ability to figure things out, to discover and explore problems of their own finding and to share these interests and discoveries with others.