Fun Drawing – early years curriculum development and learning methodologies

FunDrawing is a China-based art education group. FunDrawing is committed to creating and delivering art education and providing international relevant art practical courses for children aged 3-12. The group has over 200 campuses nationwide, including Shenzhen, Beijing, Nanjing, Hangzhou, Chongqing, Haikou, Changsha, Kunming and other provincial capitals. Currently, there are over 40,000 students engaged in a range of courses through FunDrawing.

I was first introduced to Ms Chen Xueyan, the Founder and CEO of FunDrawing when I spoke at the Arts Education International Conference in Shenzhen in 2016. At the conference, the question “Can Creativity Be Taught?” was posed about early-year education approaches (key stages 1 and 2) and their positioning in terms of traditional skills acquisition focused learning. My response to the question was no, as it is not a subject or skill to be taught; creativity is an existing attribute or innate human approach to be unlocked and enabled. As educators, our role is to facilitate creativity through responsive and student-centred curriculum and pedagogy, opening portals to skills and knowledge acquisition instead of traditional, inflexible paradigms of wrote learning. As a result of my lecture, I was engaged as an academic consultant in 2017, charged with reviewing and redeveloping FunDrawing’s curriculum, core philosophy, teaching and learning, and delivery. 

I worked closely with the research and development team at FunDrawing, which comprised seven key academics with backgrounds in early years Chinese education and art and design models. I led the development and philosophy, drawing from Eastern and Western traditions responding to their synergies and critical differences. The focus and main challenges were the interfaces between creativity, positioning and hierarchy of importance between skills and knowledge, acquisition and student-centred creative engagement. Together we have repositioned and redesigned the curriculum based on three key age levels ( KS 1, KS 2 & KS 3).

The creative curriculum research and development stemmed from applying student-centred teaching and learning approaches embedded in UK art and design pedagogy more commonly associated with degree-level learning. This approach helped reposition and expand existing models, which focused on skill led engagement and secondary sources and paradigms, to concentrate on primary and experiential-based engagement regarding how students record and respond to materials and processes.

At the outset, the FunDrawing team focused on developing a core set of new learning outcomes that could be applied to all learners and adapted to fit their level and age-based learning styles and knowledge. The learning outcomes would provide the framework to generate and develop overarching projects and lesson plans. The team focused on two distinct action learning-based research approaches to constructing and developing learning outcomes generated from real-time teaching and learning experience based strategies. The first was teacher-focused training development and engagement. I flipped the classroom hierarchy and set small groups of teachers problems to engage with through specific process led creative engagement. I worked directly with the teachers, drawing on their expertise and sharing methodologies, techniques, and practices more commonly used in the university-level study of art and design, simultaneously engaging in primary and secondary sources. The second approach was through several real-time student-facing group projects. These group projects focused on traditional and non-traditional classroom teaching, research, and site-based learning using a mix of learners and staff from different centres and age groups; the sessions were recorded on video and collated with data from stakeholder and participant interviews. 

The first of these projects centred on introducing practice and material-based methodologies of both two-dimensional and three-dimensional image-making. These methodologies were drawn directly from historical and contemporary examples of artists and designers practices, focusing on assemblage, collage, sculpture, and performance-based approaches. The lesson’s introduction and embedding of technique and process led, not icon or exemplar dependant activities, giving the students a sense of discovery and ownership. This strategy established creative integrity, confirmed by introducing examples and further research evidence of specific artists and designers work at the end of the session. A reverse of the expected model using artists or designers work as an initial starting point or paradigm, an ideal to emulate. Introducing the relevant material and processes before introducing the artist or designer fostered a sense of creative investigation and ownership for the students, repositioning and questioning traditional wrote learning-based models.

The project also looked at integrating non-traditional classroom-based engagement as a critical part of the curriculum and learner experience. One approach was to investigate and situate the role and importance of primary and student-led engagement by developing teaching-based models integrating site and museum visits, a previously underused methodology and resource. One research project example centred around visits to the TeamLab exhibition in Shenzhen in 2018. TeamLab is an international collective of interdisciplinary practitioners, including animators, mathematicians, engineers and artists navigating art and science. Students visited the exhibition and engaged with the immersive approaches through drawing and photographs. On returning to the classroom, they developed 2D collage-based approaches to recording and transcribing their experience. The students created various outcomes combining large-scale printing and painting to mirror the multidisciplinary experience and develop personalised and imagined narratives. The primary informational focus of these visits plays an essential role in opening up dialogues around trans subjects and transdisciplinary crossover and content. This first-hand approach and its action-based learning approach opened up conversations between students, staff and parents around topics as broad as storytelling, science and engineering.

I used the first two years of development and identification of the core, curriculum and teaching and learning components within the FunDrawing creative curriculum to develop and inform A City in Seven Days, a project in collaboration with FutureLab, at West Bund, Shanghai, in November 2019. ( web link?). The groundwork for A City in Seven Days developed from a one-day project model as part of the curriculum development with FunDrawing. A notional city was formed from an approach of an hours creative activity and expanded to a day, each day being a different century or point in history. This action-based project was essential for mapping out both the delivery and rationale for the FutureLab project and engaging the team fully in the development. I invited the FunDrawing team to be part of the development of the seven-day project with staff co-leading on each of the days. Each day’s teaching session of A City in a Seven Days at FutureLab was co-developed and facilitated by myself and two members from the FunDrawing, drawn from different centres across China. I asked them to draw directly from locational and cultural references based on their cities, juxtaposed with a lexicon of specific vernacular western references. The crosscultural nature of each day allowed discussions around learning approaches with such a unique audience of international educators. 

A City in Seven Days was a vital initiative enabling and expanding the existing educational concepts and parameters of the future FunDrawing curriculum research. It allowed the expansion of the research field, now integrating both studio, classroom, and site-based learning specifically applied to transdisciplinary learning and the associated debates around the notion and application of the STEAM learning agenda (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics). This approach and opportunity have enabled action-based creative learning as both catalyst and platform to facilitate and inspire approaches to forming and celebrating transdisciplinary communities of learners and academics.