5 ways to help students understand interpretation

Everyone in a complex system has a slightly different interpretation. The more interpretations we gather, the easier it becomes to gain a sense of the whole. — Margaret J. Wheatley

Educational institutions are definitely complex systems along with young people arriving each day full with their own experiential backpacks, they bring a wide variety of influences that determine their outlook; culture, parental, peer, religious, and so on. These personal perspectives are infinitely valuable to provide a ‘whole’ system. Each interpretation of events in the complex system has worth. We want youth to consider and create their own judgements but through an informed course of action. How do we install a methodology for students to be thoughtful and critical, yet remain subjective?

Installing the difference between us is the starting point. Recently while travelling through Albania we encountered locals shaking their heads as a sign for “yes” — this was initially confusing because how I read the signal has the opposite meaning (and for a “no” the Albanians give a slight nod). My interpretation is based on my cultural upbringing, which differs to others. It was a case of interpretation.

In the Arts we explore interpretation through an analytic approach and this interpretation is twofold. On one hand we have how we view art and the other, how we create art. Installing an understanding of how we observe and what constructs our views also provides the security and confidence when it comes to creating.

Interpretation is a subjective practice. In educational environments it can be difficult for students to hold on to their own perceptions as they are heavily influenced by peers (like or dislike) and educators (often, right or wrong). For example, I have my personal perspective of an artistic aesthetic which appeals to me. I try not stamp it on my students yet it is important they are exposed to what I appreciate, although they need to be free to decide whether they like it or not, and importantly, say why.

Figuring out what one likes and dislikes in the Arts comes with many advantages. Students have the opportunity to develop their own aesthetic preferences — their taste for art. We all know that our own tastes differ, teaching this to students is often difficult when they are so impressionable to peer pressure. A student must realise that their backpack, that they come to school with is not only fill of their lunch, device, books and pencil case but a history of who they are. All of the input that they have absorbed, seen, been told or actively searched out makes up their opinion, their worldly perspective. It may differ to the student next to them for so many reasons, and that is ok. Some simple ways to help students with establishing their personal perspectives can be easily installed through these exercises:

  • Listing classes at school from most to least liked with descriptions of why they enjoy (and don’t enjoy) those subjects.
  • List hobbies and extra-curricular activities — these are usually based on what they want to do with their time.
  • Favourite music, movies, food and places, and then inversely things they don’t like.
  • Short stories about their family life, rituals, daily routines and how the family has fun together.
  • Stories and songs that are specific to their culture and what the meaning of those stories/songs are.

These exercises do not need to be pen and paper activities either. For example: School subjects could be stations around the classroom, split the class in half, half go to their most favourite subject and the other to their least. In these groupings at each station they discuss why. Then the next subject, i.e. the second most and second least, discuss… and so on.

Alternatively, have little skits that combine eating a favourite food at their favourite place to their favourite song — make it a journey, where they encounter things they dislike along the way to get there. Perform them to the class and open it up to peer feedback.

By using some of these exercises and discussing them together an atmosphere of acknowledgement and acceptance can be formed about who we are, and why we are all different.

This sets a foundation for looking and listening to art and having an opinion. Most importantly is that students begin to be able to justify their choices — talking about how the artist used the elements of art to create the work. It requires observation plus the higher order thinking skills of analysis and evaluation; by using knowledge of the Art form to deconstruct and formulate judgements. These are transferable skills. Therefore, an opinion can be justified. For example, I like this painting because of the use of negative space, or I dislike it because of the use of negative space. Neither is wrong, both are right.

This then lays the foundation for the students’ own creation of art. Once they can analyse why they like or dislike they will be encouraged to follow their own path while interpreting a topic. It is essential there is an understanding that interpretation is what makes art. Art is nothing without interpretation. A personal point of view is what makes art imaginative. The same landscape can be painted countless times but it will always be done differently by different people, making it original.

An activity to reinforce this (and can be used as assessment) is to let students peer assess each other’s work by recreating it. Letting them try to better the work by evaluating where they interpreted the weak areas and how it could be improved. Providing an explanation for how and why they decided to change it provides the teacher with an insight to the student’s understanding of the work.

Understanding interpretation provides students with a confirmation about who they are and where they come from, their personal taste and the security that their preferences are valid. This in turn allows them the freedom to create knowing that their way of doing things is as authentic as the person next to them.

More about creativity and education on my blog.

Header image by Nela.