Susan Riley | January 2013

5 Ways to Bring Balance To Student Work

This week, Deirdre and I have been writing about the art of balance in a variety of ways. It’s difficult to find that happy medium in all areas, especially at this time of year.  Everyone has made New Years resolutions that are hard to achieve without a complete focus on healthy eating and massive amounts of running at the gym.  We are a society that likes to take one item and zero in on it with laser-beam attention.  And yet this can have disastrous results.

How many people actually keep their New Years resolutions?  Will you still remember the news story that was on for a whole week, 6 months from now?  Is it any wonder that we burn out teachers in education within 5 years when we force them to focus intently not just on one thing, but on 5 or 6 at a time?

Balance is truly an art.  I have railed against balance before on this site and said that it doesn’t really live up to its name, that it’s impossible to achieve.  I’m not so sure anymore.  I think we can have balance in our life and in our teaching, but that we need to approach it like an artform.  We need to dedicate ourself to the practice of balance – to saying no more often, to giving ourselves permission to let some things go, to knowing when enough is enough.

The arts are full of balance.  When did DiVinci know that the Mona Lisa was complete?  When did Monet know he had used enough paint?  When did Mozart know that his music didn’t need anything else?  Sometimes, being creative means knowing when it’s time to stop adding anything more to the composition.  It’s the discriminate act of balance – not too little and not too much.  This is not an innate skill.  It takes practice to hone your eye, your ear, your thoughts, your limbs to know when a piece is complete.  We should be teaching this to our students.  Not just in their artful practices, but in their academic and social practices as well.  Developing this is critical for student innovation and creativity to thrive, as something that is too complicated for the end-user is never purchased and neither is something that is too simple.

Here are 5 ways that you can encourage students to develop their ability to bring the art of balance to their work:

Essential Questions.

Begin by asking students interesting questions about their current work.  What are they trying to convey?  What are they hoping to accomplish?  Then, have students use this same process with their peers.  Probing questions produce more refined results.

Brain dump.

Let students put everything down on paper or digital transcription.  Let them get every thought, idea, whim out of their mind and onto a visual surface that they can manipulate.  This allows students a visual means by which to sort out and curate the very best of the content in their mind.

Learn from the Masters.

Have students look at a masterwork of art or listen to a masterwork musical composition.  Ask students engaging questions about why they think the artists used certain elements and not others, what elements are most prevalent, what they message or intent is of the piece.  Have them compare this piece to another done by the same artist.  Is there a theme?  Would that help to answer the earlier questions?  What can they learn from this process?

Curation Time. 

All students to look back at their brain dump and begin their own curation process.  Ask them to critically look at their information and ideas and to carefully select only the pieces that will most clearly show their refined vision.

Arrangement and Review.

Students can then take their curated content and begin to put it together in a way that is both focused and creative.  Encourage them play with the arrangement and try different combinations.  Once they are happy with their arrangement, put the piece away for a day or two and then come back to it.  Students often find other pieces they want to add or subtract.  Repeat this two more times, allowing students to view the work of their peers as well.  Often, this will lead to the most developed and creatively balanced work.

You can use this process for anything – specific arts content, writing, solving math problems, or any project-based learning lesson.  The process can be tweaked to more closely match your objectives, but the importance comes in allowing students to develop a critical eye for balance in their work.

About the Author

Susan Riley is the founder and CEO of The Institute for Arts Integration and STEAM. She focuses on teacher professional development in arts integration, STEAM, 21st century learning skills, and technology. She is also a published author and frequent presenter at national conferences on Arts Integration and STEAM education. Susan holds a Bachelor of Music degree in Music Education from the prestigious Westminster Choir College in Princeton, NJ and a Master of Science in Education Administration from McDaniel College in Westminster, MD. She lives in Westminster, MD with her husband and daughter. Email Susan