Timeless Pieces of Art for Purposeful Learning

With the many hats I wear (artist, curator, educator and historian), I consider myself a facilitator of other people’s creative endeavors, as well as their memories and experiential accounts of said artistic ventures. I think that a major reason why I was drawn to both studying and making art, is that art feels like a legitimate means of transcending both the constraints of time and place. Art made tens of thousands of years ago still exists for present generations to observe and analyze. It is amazing that we still find awe and inspiration in art made well before our contemporary era. Although not all art is object-based (nor does the final product truly constitute the entirety of a work’s persona), the overall framework behind making, discussing and presenting art is tangible because of the natural and cultivated ways we learn to communicate visually and symbolically.

Humankind has been adept at connecting with preceding cultures through a continuation and expansion of visual language. Making, studying and critiquing art is an inductive (part-to-whole) and deductive (whole-to-part) process. Through the arts, we learn to look at things closely in order to piece together the elements that make up the form and content of an artwork. When we have identified these pieces (known as elements of art and principles of design), we can begin to synthesize these facets in a manner that embodies the artwork’s symbolic meanings and narrative qualities. We also learn to utilize a reverse method, which is breaking down an entire composition into the elements of art. We do this when we want to communicate and hone in on specific details within an image, or to exemplify how abstract layers of media and mark making results in palpable representation. Both these processes are an essential aspect of thinking and acting artistically. Sometimes we come into an endeavor with the overall picture or narrative at hand, and other times we do not, and therefore need to construct replete imagery and meaning piece-by-piece.

Thinking like an artist means being imbued with the ability to shift seamlessly between these aforementioned processes for effective and symbolic expression. The same is true in education, where the capability to design curriculum using inductive and deductive reasoning can inspire deep, meaningful comprehension and reciprocity among a diverse student body. This is best exemplified through looking at the pedagogical practice of backward design. Backward design is a counterpoint to forward design, which has been the more established and utilized framework. Forward design is when educators plan for the entirety of a unit all at once to try and draw connections between each component and the overall learning goals of the course (Bowen, 2017). This means they will create all the lessons, assessments and activities ahead of time (those of us who have worked in education are familiar with painstaking hours developing these materials outside of the school day/semester). Sometimes this plan works without too many issues, but more likely it can be confusing and stifling to both teachers and students because it comes across as one-dimensional. Forward design typically leads to creating formulaic content and evaluations without acknowledging the differences in how we learn and the pace at which we develop and portray both understanding and knowledge.

Backward design helps educators prepare their overall curriculum, while accounting for the flexibility and differentiation of instruction that is needed to ensure all their students have an equal opportunity to understand the course material. It also enables educators to perform better assessments. At its core, backward design prompts educators to consider the goals and assessments for learning before enacting on the creation and presentation of learning materials and activities. Four essential questions to consider in backward design are:

  1. What is understanding and how is it different from knowledge?
  2. How do we ascertain the big ideas worth understanding?
  3. Why is developing understanding (rather than just imparting knowledge) a key teaching goal?
  4. How do we know when our students have attained understanding?

This pedagogical theory was introduced in a book called Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe (1998) who note, “our lessons, units, and courses should be logically inferred from the results sought, not derived from the methods, books, and activities with which we are most comfortable. Curriculum should lay out the most effective ways of achieving specific results… in short, the best designs derive backward from the learnings sought.” They add that In teaching students for understanding, we must grasp the key idea that we are coaches of their ability to play the ‘game’ of performing with understanding, not tellers of our understanding to them on the sidelines” (Wiggins and McTighe, 1998).

Backward design is a great example of an educational theory that also relates to the artistic process. Artists often follow a similar trajectory to realize a work of art. In order for a work of art to be successful, artists need their viewers to be able to understand and learn from their work. This is why backward design is apt for planning an artwork or artistic experience. As artists and art historians we also take on the role of an educator. We want cultural concepts and themes from works of art to resonate with whoever we are expressing them to. This requires making art engaging and interpretative enough for viewers to relate it to their experiences and develop critical insights and further inquiries in response to the artwork’s themes, the artist’s intent and any other elements. Furthermore, art is most potent and effective when it inspires viewers to react to it in some way, shape or form. Wiggins (2016) explains, “understanding involves something beyond mere acquisition for later straightforward use. To understand, students must do something with, adapt, and sometimes question what they (think they) know.”

In summary, the shared goal between artists and educators is determining and carrying out objectives that will provide evidence of enduring and differentiated understanding, rather than potentially forgettable facts, narrative and/or figures. Both disciplines necessitate defining the desired takeaway that is intended for viewers/learners, and working backwards to assess what materials and actions will provide the best outcomes indicative of mutual understanding. This empowers learners of all types to apply what they experience to their lives and gives the work of art or lesson plan lasting social, cultural and emotional value beyond the art gallery or classroom.

One of the more memorable experiences from my elementary school years was creating a school-wide time capsule. Our time capsule is full of objects that communicate information about our school community (the identities and interests of the faculty and study body) and a collection of objects and insights from the curriculum. A time capsule is a curated combination of visual expression and historical context that often is presented via fragments of objects, ideas and information that its participants consider to be important for future generations to understand. The process incorporates backward design, because the first step is to determine the overall objective, followed by an assessment of what is worth understanding and concluding by actively contributing items to the time capsule. There are several examples of time capsules created by one or more artists with the intent of helping subsequent groups of people understand and connect with important themes and cultural objectives that inspired and/or were important to the time capsules’ creators. Furthermore, the time capsule presents a broad spectrum of materials in a manner that represents social, emotional and cultural ideas. Understanding these expressions involves something beyond mere acquisition for later straightforward use. It requires an acute comprehension and synthesis of what we should understand as a result of intently interacting with a particular concept.

A submission form filled out by a participant of Ant Farm’s “Citizens Time Capsule.
Image by Chip Lord.

Art collective Ant Farm, founded by Chip Lord, Doug Michels and Curtis Schreier, is known for their large and ambitious projects like the Cadillac Ranch and Dolphin Embassy (see: “Architecture for All”). In 1975, they packed suitcases full of ephemeral materials into an Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser (the same models that they used in Cadillac Ranch), covered it in tar and buried the vehicle in a public park called Artpark in Lewiston, New York. The comprehensive idea behind this endeavor, which they called the Citizens’s Time Capsule, was to provide a contextual collection that if uncovered, in the year 2000, would provide the latter generation with an understanding of what was representative of the American zeitgeist during the late 1970s. Materials for the time capsule were sourced through a nationwide public campaign, where participants were asked to submit their physical objects along with a very concise written message explaining what the item meant to them in their time. Items were largely consumer goods such as cigarettes, chewing gum, condoms and pop culture magazines.

Like Cadillac Ranch, Citizen’s Time Capsule was a subversive and satirical response to what they perceived to be a collective preoccupation with cultural iconography, commercialism and mass media. It also poses a major pedagogical question and enduring understanding, which is how to experience life with purpose. They artfully utilized absurdity to show how temporal experiences with ephemeral and mass produced items are in flux and can lose meaning and relevance over time. Ironically, many of Ant Farm’s time capsule projects have been lost to time. However, that was due to the conscious objective behind their creation. Ant Farm’s time capsules provide both the artists and viewers with an assessment of what value (if any) can be derived from ephemeral objects and experiences that are supposedly indicative of an era. Art writer Claire Voon (2016) says it best, noting that “the capsule isn’t the point, but rather, the social situations it introduces.”

Pop artist Andy Warhol was also engrossed with the concept of time capsules and created many versions containing combinations of the objects he collected and artwork he made. These materials offer a substantial glimpse into what Warhol considered to be informative and inspiring, as well as quotidian items that were important to his routine. Many of his time capsules are archived at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania.

The Warhol Museum has also organized two collaborative endeavors in Warhol’s spirit, the Community Time Capsule and the Gen-Z Time Capsule. Each time capsule was made in collaboration with the local community and contains a myriad of personal objects that were collectively chosen to express an overall representation of Pittsburgh’s diverse contemporary culture. The Community Time Capsules are intergenerational constructions, while the Gen-Z Time Capsule is a collaboration featuring items compiled by participants born between the years of 1997 and 2012. While Warhol’s time capsules are physical, analog archives, stored in over 600 unique cardboard boxes, both the Community Time Capsule and Gen-Z Time Capsule are digital versions of time capsules, which means that they can reach an audience of anyone who has access to the World Wide Web. The shift from analog to digital is indicative of the evolution in how we archive and present materials in the contemporary era.

Screenshot of a frame from the Community Time Capsule.
Created by Pittsburgh residents via the Andy Warhol Museum.
Screenshot of a frame from the Genz-Z Time Capsule.
Created by Pittsburgh youth via the Andy Warhol Museum.

The Community Time Capsule has an array of objects that are considered meaningful and representative of Pittsburgh’s historic and present day metropolis. It focuses on the city’s renowned multicultural identity with essential contributions from immigrant communities from Germany, Italy, Eastern Carpathians and the African American diaspora. Together, these materials compose a portrait of Pittsburgh as a city with international connections and influences. The big idea that prompted the making of the Gen-Z Time Capsule was to represent a collective representation of a generational zeitgeist. The images that the participants submitted to the capsule address themes they considered important to their era, including: the arts, social media, politics and current events, fashion and mental health.

Art is so imperative to our humanity that there are ample instances of its use for hypothetical and potential communication with both future human generations, as well as possible extraterrestrial beings. An example of this is how art-centered time capsules have been made in collaboration with astrophysicists exploring the potential of interstellar life beyond Earth. A STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics) learning project called Breakthrough Message, is an international endeavor that seeks to determine how and what humans should communicate to extraterrestrial beings. The concept of the project falls in line with the principles of backward design because the main objective: “if we or others succeed in discovering another civilization, what – if anything – should we say to them?” serves as the initial prompt for a subsequent development of assessments and activities.

The project’s ethical aims underscore that deciding what and how to communicate with possible intelligent beings involves more than rote learning and straightforward responses. It requires understanding a vast range of human experiences, expressions and perspectives; and then being able to synthesize these overarching issues into tangible objects by working with, adapting and assessing what we think we know. Without explicitly mentioning backward design, the organizers of Breakthrough Message embody the core tenet, which is that big ideas lead to a range of manageable insights for innovative thinking and doing. They note their concern is to first define potential successes and constraints related to interstellar communication by encouraging “global discussion on the ethical and philosophical issues of sending messages into space, we pledge not to transmit any message until there has been a wide-ranging debate at high levels of science and politics on the risks and rewards of contacting advanced civilizations.”

Backward design is ideal because it makes learning akin to living purposefully and intentionally. It eschews and resists the didactic transfer of knowledge in favor of facilitating understanding and reciprocity. Our understanding of life’s endeavors should be full of purpose and relativity to our lives and the lives of our peers. The prioritization of intended learning outcomes opens up possibilities for more meaningful reflection and evaluations, which in turn empowers decision making and efforts that are important to both the individual and the group. When implemented conscientiously, backward design takes away the likelihood of performing activities for the sake of it and without understanding the meaning and implications behind our tasks. Doing and discerning with purpose is the essence of artfully living and learning.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Bowen, R. S. (2017). “Understanding by Design.” Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Retrieved from https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/understanding-by-design/.

Voon, Claire. “Revisiting an Art Collective’s Ephemeral Time Capsules,” Hypergallergic, 12 October 2016. https://hyperallergic.com/328929/revisiting-art-collectives-ephemeral-time-capsules/

Wiggins, Grant and McTighe Jay. 1998. Understanding by Design. ASCD.

Wiggins, Grant. You Have To Create Understanding By Design. Teaching Thought, 26 January 2016. https://www.teachthought.com/pedagogy/you-cant-teach-understanding/

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