A picture paints a thousand thoughts

Transcript of interview with Madonna King, Dr Lyndal O’Gorman and Dr Amanda McFadden

Madonna: Welcome to season two of Podclass, a series of conversations that delve deeper into the world of educators. I'm Madonna King and I'm excited again to be unpacking some of the important issues that face teachers and parents today.

Intro: Teachers help shape our children for the future. They develop the next generation of leaders, thinkers and innovators and they know better than most that learning never stops. Even for themselves.

Dr Chris Blundell: Technology is viewed as being part of learning now and so schools are moving in that direction. It's valued as something that's essential.

Alison Quin: It's certainly an Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander way of seeing the world where country is foundational.

Intro: This is the podcast for educators by educators.

Dr Lyndal O’Gorman: I think it's about communicating and understanding meaning, then that helps to step up our understanding of what art can do in education.

Dr Jennifer Alford: There could be 30 languages represented. Teachers don't need to feel that they need to speak all of those languages.

Dr Jenna Gillett-Swan: I think what are the key things is ensuring that students have an equal seat at the table.

Intro: This is QUT Podclass, and we look forward to diving into season two with you.

Madonna: What plays a role in success in the classroom? What challenges do teachers face? And what new opportunities can they embrace? There are so many important topics to cover, but today's episode is all about art with sustainable influence. And we often hear that a picture is worth a thousand words – it just might be, when it comes to learning about sustainability. Our guest today is Senior Lecturer in QUT’s Faculty of Education, Dr. Lyndal O’Gorman. Hello Lyndal.

Lyndal: Hello Madonna. Thank you.

Madonna: Can I ask a little about you? What got you interested in this?

Lyndal: I've always been interested in this. I think it's part of who I am. When I was a child growing up, I had one of those wonderful mums who washed plastic bags and turned off the lights and also gave me lots of opportunities to learn about nature and to be creative. So this is part of who I am and always has been.

Madonna: Are you an artist?

Lyndal: It's a scary question to answer. My friends would say I'm an artist but I'm reluctant because if I was to call myself an artist, I might worry that the roof would fall in. I certainly enjoy creating and making art, it's very much part of who I am.

Madonna: So how would you define sustainability? Because it is quite complex.

Lyndal: It's a very complex topic Madonna, I would agree with that. I think one easy way to define sustainability is to think about it in terms of using the planet's resources so that there's enough for all, forever.

Madonna: Yeah, and we're talking about sustainability and the arts specifically what kind of arts?

Lyndal: The arts is also a very broad topic that includes not just the visual arts, but also music, dance, media and drama. Most of my work focuses on the visual arts. So, when I'm thinking about sustainability and the visual arts, I'm thinking about how children and older people might explore and communicate their own understandings of sustainability by creating art. But also how people might learn about big topics like sustainability by responding to artworks and images.

Madonna: So we've defined both of them, then define for me the connection between the arts and the environment.

Lyndal: Well, this is where I think I'm the luckiest person in the world because I get to explore two topics that I'm really enthusiastic about. So for me the arts and sustainability come together because we can express our understandings about sustainability and environment through creating art that represents those aspects of our lives. But we can also learn about sustainability by responding to the artworks that other people have created to express their ideas about the natural environment, or pollution, or social justice issues because images can help us to understand and to prompt an emotional response in us about those topics.

Madonna: You might go through some specific examples soon. But our school children are so active in the sustainability space, at what age can you actually teach them through the arts though?

Lyndal: I believe that you can teach them through the arts from very young children. So, from you know, my expertise is in early childhood education, and the birth-to-five sector is a big focus for us, although my teaching experience was in school. But my belief is that we can introduce very young children to ideas about sustainability through images from when they're able to see and to communicate, from babies on words, really.

Madonna: So how might your start?

Lyndal: Well, young children from when they're very small, encounter images all the time in their everyday lives. So, my thinking is that teachers and parents have a role to play in terms of helping children to negotiate the meanings behind those images. Some of those images children might encounter deliberately, if a teacher or a parent plans to show children something. But other times children will experience an image incidentally. They might see a confronting image on a cigarette packet for instance, or they might be in an art gallery and encounter a painting that they haven't seen before. So our job as adults is to help children to talk about the meanings and to respond to those kinds of images and to make sense of them.

Madonna: What a big area. So, when do you determine what's appropriate? Let's say the amount of litter we see in oceans and what that might do to our fish, or our turtles, or at what point might you confront a child with images like that?

Lyndal: It's an excellent question and it's one that I really struggle with because I'm not sure where there's an exact age that you could say for all children. But I would say that children in the current context in which we live are seeing images of dead birds that have been affected by plastic, turtles with straws up their nose, whales with their bellies full of plastic - those images are everywhere and children are seeing them on TV…

Madonna: Social media?

Lyndal: Social media, that's right. We can't control all the time the images that children encounter, so my belief is that our job as teachers and responsible adults is to hold children's hands, if you like, as they negotiate those images and respond to them. And for me in my research, I'm particularly interested in the way young children might respond to images of, for example, a dead bird with its belly full of plastic and whether a conversation that takes place in response to an image like that might help children to think about the impact of, for example, dropping plastic on the ground.

Madonna: So have you tried that?

Lyndal: I have in my research currently. I'm working with children from around about four years old to round about 12 years old and I'm encouraging them to explore the artwork of an American artist, whose name is Chris Jordan, and his online art galleries, his website if you like, is full of images that help us to think about our consumption practices and the impact of litter in the oceans, for example. So, some of his images are of dead Albatross chicks in a place called Midway Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. And these images are becoming much more familiar to people now, they're quite well spread and so my research is about talking to children as they look at these images and to see what they think about them, whether they make the connection between that image and their own practices.

Madonna: So, you're saying the children are aged between four and 12.

Lyndal: That's right.

Madonna: Can you tell us what the early findings are in terms of what does a four or five-year-old say when they see that photograph as opposed to an 11 or 12-year-old?

Lyndal: The interesting thing is that both age groups, so far in my research, respond with a level of sadness because they're distressing images. But what's most encouraging about the research is that, in almost every case, when children see an image like that, they respond by wanting to tell people not to put plastic on the ground or committing themselves to pick up plastic and to put it in the bin so that these kind of environmental impacts are reduced.

Madonna: So, what happens when a photo is shown and a child gets upset? How does a teacher deal with that?

Lyndal: Teachers deal with these kinds of issues all the time in lots of different ways. When early childhood teachers, in particular, help children to grow physically, they might set up an obstacle course in the playground, for example, and a teacher would set up ladders and beams and hoops and so on to help children to develop their gross motor skills. My belief is that as teachers we are also negotiating emotional obstacle courses with children. So, in a similar way, we hold their hand, we know the children in our class, we understand their interests and their emotional capacities and we hold their hands through difficult times. And whether that's a physical obstacle course or a challenging image, then that's what teachers do. We talk to them, we help to understand their feelings and most importantly, we help them to think about what they can do to solve these kinds of problems.

Madonna: Beautifully said. You were actually an early childhood teacher I think for 13 years.

Lyndal: That's right.

Madonna: And I think teaching year one when 9/11 happened. How did you handle that is the teacher?

Lyndal: That was a really important day, wasn't it? And we've all reflected on what we were doing at the time that the planes flew into the Twin Towers. I had about three hours that morning to think about how I would deal with that with my year one class between when I woke up at six o'clock in the morning and when I turned up to the classroom and let the children in at 9 a.m. During that three hours, I thought about what the children in my class needed from me that day and I figured that what they needed was for me to recognise that this big event had happened and to give them an opportunity to talk about it. Because I knew they would have seen those images on their televisions and that their parents, families would be talking about this major event. But I also figured out that those children needed to understand that they were safe that day, that they were in a safe place and that this event was terrible, but it had happened a long way from where they were and that they were safe with me in that classroom that day.

Madonna: Your answer there just shows what an important role teachers have, doesn't it?

Lyndal: It does.

Madonna: I wonder how important this is to manage carefully from a parental perspective. Because some parents would be very protective at different ages about their children's exposure to different things. What's the communication between an early childhood or a primary school teacher to the parents of those in their class?

Lyndal: I think you've hit the nail on the head there Madonna, that communication with our families and parents and the community is critically important for teachers. And those relationships are what good teaching and understandings of children are based on. So first and foremost, I think teachers need to be aware of the parents and the community that are attached to their classroom and also to know their children really well, so that teachers are aware of children who might be emotionally challenged by those kinds of images and so they would be the children, if you like, who need that handheld as their negotiating these obstacle courses. But also good communication with parents. So, I've talked to teachers who have shown these images to children in their classrooms. And they have had, on the whole, very positive responses from their parental communities, but those positive responses are based on strong relationships of trust; parents trust the teachers, the children trust the teachers and of course open communication as well, so that if any issues arise, the teacher is able to have that open communication with the parent.

Madonna: Would it be okay or even normal for a child to feel uncomfortable viewing a photograph? And how do you gauge stress versus discomfort, perhaps?

Lyndal: It would be normal for a child to feel discomfort from looking at images, for example, of birds that have swallowed plastic and have died because of that. Adults feel uncomfortable looking at those images. Two things I would say, one, that often we need to be a little bit discomforted in order for our behaviours to change and if we sail through our lives never feeling uncomfortable about big issues, then nothing will ever change. So a level of discomfort, I think, is okay. But of course, we don't want children to feel distressed and to be emotionally damaged by these kinds of images.

Madonna: Yeah.

Lyndal: So it's so important for teachers to help children to understand that there are things they can do and that's what helps to mitigate those feelings of distress and hopelessness - is that actually this is a difficult image to look at, there are some tough things happening in the world, but there are things we can do. And I think this is where it's so important for parents and educators to help children to understand what they can do in their local area to solve an issue, such as plastic pollution, by using less and disposing of rubbish appropriately.

Madonna: I have a whole cupboard full of indecipherable art from when my children were small; there's a picture of a house, I thought that is allegedly me. But I'm just wondering whether we spend enough time learning through looking at art, because our children make art all the time, but they're two different things, aren't they?

Lyndal: They are. Making and responding to art are two very different things. The key idea that links both making and responding is that art is about communicating meaning. So I think if we bear in mind that whether we're making art or responding to art, it's about communicating and understanding meaning, then that helps to step up our understanding of what art can do in education.

Madonna: You are listening to QUT Podclass with QUT’s Faculty of Education lecturer Dr Lyndal O’Gorman. Can I bring Dr Amanda McFadden in here, Amanda's the director of the Red Hill Community Kindergarten. Hello.

Amanda: Hello.

Madonna: You were actually one of Lyndal’s students.

Amanda: I was and very proud about that.

Madonna: So could I ask you how important is it that your staff use art as a means of teaching about sustainability?

Amanda: It's incredibly important. If we think about art as a way of making meaning for young children, particularly at kindergarten, that age, they're starting to make sense of who they are in the world. That's their first, maybe, experience of being an autonomous being away from their family. The opportunity to make meaning through different ways including artistic expression is incredibly important.

Madonna: So how do you do this daily in practice?

Amanda: Yeah, we would like to think we do it in an embedded way. Which means that it's not done just on a Friday afternoon, it’s kind of making time. Art resources and the opportunities to engage in creative expression are part of our program. And an authentic arts program, it should be about that. So, that means the resources are always available. We are listening to children and talking to children about things that are important to them, posing provocations; is there a way we could explore that further, you know, maybe it's through drawing. Maybe it's through dance. But we would be thinking about art as a meaning-making experience for children all of the time.

Madonna: So, I mentioned my own children's art making, but does this mean that the art children are doing now actually carries more meaning, more about what they're thinking and how they feel?

Amanda: Absolutely, I think for teachers, art is a window into children's thinking. And when you think about it like that, it's not the product that matters so much, it's not what's made, it’s the process.

Madonna: So, what does it then offer teachers?

Amanda: Well a window into their thinking is number one, but an opportunity to share with children, expand their knowledge about the world, really listen to children. I think we're all guilty of making children do things in a hurried way. Through creative expression teachers can sit with children and listen to children and really start to understand the things that they wrestle with. Because children are inherently expressive. If you spend the time with them, you can really unpack that learning a lot more.

Madonna: Implementing it is a process. Have you made a mistake in doing that?

Amanda: Absolutely. I think we're all guilty of hurrying children through experiences and it's very seductive sometimes to be working with a child and to think and have an image of what they're making and what that end product might be. It's incredibly easy to go down there. But if we have an image of children as meaning makers and constructors of their own experiences, we have to give them time and resources to do that.

Madonna: For an early childhood teacher or primary school teacher listening, have you got any tips on what they should do?

Amanda: I always think start with the children in front of you, start listening to the children and really understanding what they're interested in, what they draw inspiration from. Children draw inspiration from little things and big things, but talking to them about that. But the image you have of children as creators and as thinkers is incredibly important, because you will ask better questions, you will resource children better - if you think of them as really rich and competent beings.

Madonna: How important is communication to parents?

Amanda: Extremely important.

Madonna: So how do you do that in practice?

Amanda: We do that right from the start. So, I believe when you choose a kindergarten or a school, it's about a value alignment. So, that alignment of values is really important. So right from the start we are talking about how we see children at Red Hill Kindy, how we want them to be immersed as active citizens in their learning. So we share that openly with parents and we have conversations with parents around that values alignment. And we have children who are very interested in the society around them and we think it's incredibly important, particularly the demographic of children we work with, who have a whole lot of social capital that they will be the leaders and they will be in workplaces where they are the leaders of those workplaces.

Madonna: That's Dr. Amanda McFadden. Let me bring back QUT’s Dr Lyndal O’Gorman. And Lyndal, do you think anyone can be good at art?

Lyndal: Yes, would be my answer. But it depends on how you define good and everyone has a different image of what good art is about. I think the best answer to that question would be that absolutely everyone can engage in the arts.

Madonna: Yes

Lyndal: As makers and responders. Some people will judge your work to be good, others may not. But everyone can engage in the arts.

Madonna: What about if children start to draw something really dark, is that a concern or how do you assess that?

Lyndal: That's a very good question. First, I'd say that teachers are not psychologists. We don't have the qualifications to be able to analyse in depth the drawings that children might create, if we are troubled by them. But again, if I was a teacher working with the child who drew something that was very dark and troubling, I would go to those strong relationships that I had with the parents of that child. And the first thing I would do would be to talk with the parent. Maybe something's happened in the child's life that I might need to know about or that I might need to alert the parent to.

Madonna: Should a teacher keep a learning journal and document something like that?

Lyndal: Teachers keep documentation about children's artwork as part of their daily assessment and documentation of children's learning and it would be part of that for sure. So that a teacher might see patterns emerging in the topics that children are drawing and if they were a concern, you'd have a conversation with a parent.

Madonna: You see art as a language.

Lyndal: Most definitely.

Madonna: How would you go about teaching, let's be specific, about trees?

Lyndal: Well, the first thing I would do would be to take children, because I believe in the intersection of environmental education or sustainability in the arts, then a topic like that opens itself up to going right outside and looking at trees. Feeling trees looking, at the colours of trees, helping children to explore the textures and the lines of trees and then to draw the tree by looking at it. We can encourage some very in-depth learning by helping children to observe trees, in this example, and to draw from observation.

Madonna: So let's broaden that, a child slightly older, how would you teach them about climate change through the arts?

Lyndal: Well, I would focus on both making and responding, to go back to something that I said earlier on. I would encourage children to use the arts to communicate their own understanding of what's going on in the world. And that gives me an opportunity to see where their thinking is at, in terms of climate change. But also to give those children an opportunity to communicate their understandings in a different language, if you like, that's different from writing. But I thought I would also in terms of that topic of climate change encourage children to respond to artworks that are already out there telling us about climate change.

Madonna: So, if we when we see images of floods and fires, does that prompt us, do you think, naturally to think more about our environment?

Lyndal: I believe it does, yes.

Madonna: So is the reverse true too, that we see a sunset or a forest, we actually feel good?

Lyndal: Absolutely. And that's so important, that we don't want to fill children's hearts and minds with negative images. It's so important when we're talking about education, for sustainability, to explore the wonderful positive and beautiful aspects of, for example, the natural environment without weighing children down with so much negativity that they don't enjoy what's around them. And particularly in Australia, in Brisbane where we live, we have access to beautiful natural experiences, and we need to encourage children to explore them.

Madonna: Dr. Amanda McFadden, at kindy, how do you teach children about our environment?

Amanda: Well, it's interesting, children already know a lot. So, it's about tapping into what they already know, and good teachers do that very well, and then taking children with them from there. So, the idea that we would be teaching them from scratch doesn't really exist. Children have knowledge. It's about unpacking that knowledge and talking to them about that.

Madonna: Is it important to be flexible in terms of the arts? Some children would like to draw, others might like to take photographs, or even audio plays a part, I guess.

Amanda: Absolutely and that repertoire of practices is incredibly important. And if we see it as a language, you know, some children prefer different medium to others and that's perfectly fine. But the arts offer a way for children, who might not have really strong dialogue for example, to express themselves in really powerful ways.

Madonna: Does the curriculum cover this in any way?

Amanda: In kindergarten we're so fortunate that we have a learning framework. So, it's an approved framework, that still means that we have a lot of scope to drive the curriculum around the children we have in front of us. So, at kindy, no two days are the same, no two years are the same. It's about the children we have and constructing a curriculum from them.

Madonna: Lyndal?

Lyndal: And in primary schools, the Australian curriculum is very clear that the arts, which include all of those strands of the arts, not just the visual arts, dance, drama, music, media arts, the arts involve both making and responding. And the curriculum for schools is very clear that the arts are a language, they’re about communicating. And the other point is that sustainability is a cross curriculum priority in the Australian curriculum. So, teachers have many justifications for bringing together the arts and sustainability.

Madonna: You just mentioned dance and drama, we have nature walks, music, how might a teacher embed learning about sustainability through some of those? What examples have you seen?

Lyndal: Well again, there are lots of examples of visual artists who are exploring ideas about sustainability. So, there are many opportunities for children to respond to visual artworks that deal with those topics. And for schools and early childhood centres, the most accessible visual arts examples come from children's picture books. So, there's wonderful examples there that are available to teachers all the time to explore how a visual artist has communicated a particular idea.

Madonna: Amanda?

Amanda: And I'd also I'd totally agree, and I think also thinking about this in terms of cultural diversity is really important as well. So, we talked to the children a lot about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s connection to country and what that means. And we do that right from the start with children. And that just means there's a broadening of this sense of connection to environment and sustainability, that there's multiple perspectives around that.

Madonna: Yes. Lyndal, how much do you worry about the environment? Your face lights up every time you talk about it.

Lyndal: I worry about it a lot, because there's some pretty grim news out there at the moment. And because I work in this space and because it's a personal passion of mine, of course I worry about it. And I think, increasingly, people are worried about what's happening in the world. But I balance that for myself by making sure I spend time enjoying what's out there; taking photographs of birds, walking in the bush, celebrating the environment that's around me, that natural environment, and also going on a climate strike march and so on. So, I think for me, I work through the worry that I have, by making sure that I experience joy in the natural environment, but also taking some action to try and make a difference.

Madonna: We see our high school students express their concern in a myriad of ways. Amanda at kindergarten, do you see the early concerns of children about the environment around them?

Amanda: Absolutely.

Madonna: In what ways?

Amanda: Lots of different ways. I think a really good example of this is a child who recently flew from Melbourne to Brisbane, on a night-time flight, while the fires were on. So they have a visual image on a very vast scale of what fire looks like. And the conversations we've had with that child have been quite powerful and they have written a narrative about that, shared it with their peers in the kindergarten group. But what's really heartening about that is that, I see with younger children, the idea that this human connection is really important. They’re growing up in a connected world, a sharing world. Which is not necessarily what we grew up in. It was more about things and stuff and we can kind of see how that's working out for us now. But children, I think, have this amazing capacity for connection to the environment, to each other, and we just have to nurture that because it's incredibly powerful.

Madonna: Beautifully said. Lyndal, you teach arts education to primary and pre-service teachers. What's the question they most often ask? Or what do they find most challenging in this space?

Lyndal: They find their own lack of confidence in the arts the most challenging thing and this applies not just to pre-service teachers, but also teachers who are qualified and in schools. Because people, many people, feel that they can't draw, they feel that they don't have the confidence to be a good art teacher. So, for me it's about breaking down some of those barriers that you can be a fantastic teacher of the arts, even though you might not feel totally confident yourself as an artist.

Madonna: But also it actually gives them a real opportunity for teachers to connect with children across a host of subjects, doesn't it?

Lyndal: Absolutely and for the teachers I'm teaching and for the children that they're teaching, emphasising that the arts are a language is an incredibly powerful message for people. Because if they haven’t used that language themselves for a long time and some of the people I'm teaching haven't drawn a picture since they were 12 years old or five years old, opening up a world of languages for them visual languages, movement languages ,musical languages, is an incredibly powerful gift to give to people.

Madonna: It strikes me this is as applicable at home as it is in class. Lyndal, what can parents do?

Lyndal: I think what parents can do is to encourage children to explore art materials in an open-ended way. Not so much colouring-in books, but simple materials; coloured pencils, crayons, charcoal. It doesn't have to be big and messy. Giving children the opportunity to practice that language of the arts.

Madonna: Amanda you’re a parent of four children. How messy is your house?

Amanda: Quite messy. I would just reinforce that it’s about giving children time and multiple opportunities to practice. It's not about what they can produce.

Madonna: Yes.

Amanda: It's about engaging with that sense of creativity that you get from using a different language to express yourself.

Madonna: What about children with specific learning challenges? Does this offer another real means of communication?

Amanda: Absolutely. So, in terms of being inclusive, this is a way for teachers to really expand their thinking about how children show their thoughts and learning and that it may not look different. It may look different from child to child.

Madonna: Yes.

Amanda: And that's actually okay and that we can value that.

Madonna: Lyndal?

Lyndal: I would totally agree with that. Every child, regardless of their ability or learning needs, has the opportunity, through the arts, to communicate meaning and if we limit children's opportunities for engaging in the arts, we reduce their languages. And I think that's a shame. So, helping children to communicate in different ways is incredibly important.

Madonna: What's the goal of your current research, Lyndal?

Lyndal: The goal of my current research is to explore whether images can help children to learn about sustainability and to prompt their action taking for sustainability.

Madonna: Lyndal, why is it important for sustainability to be taught across the curriculum?

Lyndal: Sustainability is an incredibly complex topic. There are many problems in the world that need to be solved and they can't just be solved through scientific knowledge, or mathematical knowledge, or knowledge of geography. The arts, for example, provide us with opportunities to understand sustainability through responding to images.

Madonna: And is that why, specifically, it needs to be taught as part of the arts?

Lyndal: I believe so, yes. Because children need to learn lots of languages to communicate ideas and to absorb knowledge in lots of different ways. And some people are visual learners and the arts provide them with opportunities to understand the world through responding to images and by making images.

Madonna: And through dance, and through music, and all those things.

Lyndal: Totally.

Madonna: One last question and this is from left field. You did a PhD at QUT, also on the prep year, on what parents expect.

Lyndal: That's right.

Madonna: What's the headline? What jumped out at you there?

Lyndal: What jumped out at me from my PhD research, was that parents expect and value very different things from a year of school like the prep year. So the takeaway message for teachers is that not all parents in their class are going to be expecting or wanting the same thing from that particular year of schooling; some parents will want their children to be engaged in a lot of play, while other parents might want their children to have a more formalised style of learning.

Madonna: I certainly look forward to talking to you about that at a later date, Dr Lyndal O’Gorman. Thank you.

Lyndal: Thank you very much, Madonna.

Madonna: That's Dr Amanda McFadden, director of Red Hill Community Kindergarten and Dr Lyndal O’Gorman, a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Education at QUT. I'm Madonna King and this is another edition of Podclass, the QUT podcast that focuses on teachers and learning. And remember, the more you learn, the more they learn.

Madonna: Thanks for listening to this episode of Podclass. I hope you got as much out of it as I did. For a little homework, links to further information and insight on this topic, see the details provided in the show notes. Or to continue broadening your thinking in the classroom, listen in to the other season 2 episodes.

Outro: Podclass is an initiative of the QUT Faculty of Education. To take your teaching potential to the next level, explore their range of professional development and postgraduate study options on offer. Because the more you learn, the more they learn.