Yangtze doodle dandy

February 23, 1996

Self-expression or formal drawing lessons? Maureen Cox contrasts children's art in the UK with that of China. We know a good deal about children's ability to draw. Most of them begin by scribbling, experimenting with different kinds of scribble and many, but not all, construct distinct shapes. Then, at nursery school age, they begin to draw recognisable objects, the human figure being one of the earliest. Somewhere around the age of seven or eight years children begin to be much more concerned with drawing in a visually realistic way, depicting objects as they appear from a particular fixed viewpoint.

This change, from what Georges-Henri Luquet called "intellectual" to "visual" realism, may be more of a change in preference than a reflection of a shift in cognitive ability. Nonetheless, by the age of about nine or ten years, many children become demoralised and say that they cannot make their figures "look right" and, indeed, that they cannot draw. It has been suggested that the reason for this may be that their skills do not keep pace with their aspirations. This does not necessarily mean that a concern for visual realism has been imposed on them nor that drawing realistically is or should be considered the best way to draw. But, arguably, it is one of the skills children should be encouraged to acquire.

Before the second world war schoolchildren in the United Kingdom received formal lessons in drawing. But the early years of this century also saw a flowering of the view that, if left unhindered, children will automatically express their natural creativity and this should not be corrupted by the formal teaching of adult conventions of drawing. This view, associated with Viktor Lowenfeld and others, became widespread and art education, particularly in primary schools, became almost totally unstructured. Apart from suggesting the topic of a child's drawing teachers often feel it inappropriate to make any comment about how children might draw individual objects or a group of figures in a scene.

The consequence has been that although teachers have endorsed the importance of artistic activity it has been valued more as an opportunity for a child's self-expression and unhindered creativity rather than as a set of skills that needs to be acquired and practised. Although most very young children have continued to draw in a bold and uninhibited manner, by the time they have reached the upper end of the primary school their skill often seems to have stagnated and they have generally lost interest in drawing, claiming that they cannot draw. They may well have good ideas but often they do not possess the graphic skill to express them in an acceptable way - acceptable to themselves as well as to adults.

Calls for better provision and advice for art education in the UK were made in the early 1980s by, among others, HM Inspectorate. Even in 1990, however, the inspectorate was still lamenting the lack of any coherent practice in primary schools and it is only with the introduction of the National Curriculum that the teaching of art has been taken more seriously. Art is now a foundation subject in the curriculum, which means it is compulsory for all children aged between five and 14 years; it is timetabled in its own right and art is not simply to be used to embellish work on other topics. The National Curriculum Art Working Group was set up to advise on the objectives of the teaching of art as a foundation subject and its report in 1991 identified drawing as the activity central to all work in art and design.

In contrast to the standard of drawing among western children, we are often amazed by the standard of drawings by children in China. Kai On Li, at Bloomsbury College in London has been promoting Chinese children's art in a number of recent exhibitions. Usually, however, we see only award-winning pictures and we do not really know what the standard of ordinary Chinese children's drawings is like. In collaboration with Xu Fan at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing and with the aid of a grant from The Royal Society I have begun to collect drawings from Chinese children. With a new grant from the Economic and Social Research Council we shall also be collecting data from children in the UK. We want to find out whether ordinary Chinese children follow the same developmental path as do UK children and whether they show the same pattern of development but at an earlier age.

The status of drawing, painting and calligraphy is much higher in China than in the UK and many children as young as four years go to weekend art classes. Even in primary schools art is taught by art specialists and it is done in a very formal way. Indeed, some of the teaching is probably too rigid to be acceptable to many UK teachers; for example, children are often required to copy the teacher's drawing rather than to create their own. But many Chinese teachers argue that it is no use having creative ideas if you do not have the skills to give shape to them. On the other hand there are a few teachers in China who are interested in relaxing the formality and allowing more freedom into children's art. Chinese teachers are just as curious to see how art is taught in our classrooms as we are to see how they achieve such astonishing results.

Maureen Cox is reader in psychology at the University of York.

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