Elements of Effective Instruction and the Art of Mario Brothers

I’ve been doing a lot of drawing with my son lately. I love to draw and I always have, but I don’t think I’m incredibly good at it. A lot of my art in high school was pretty bad. But I think I’ve come a long way in the past couple of years. And so has my son. We love to draw freely, but sometimes we try to copy Pokémon characters from his books or Mario Kart Drivers from the Internet. And sometimes we do a guided video to learn to draw something new. We particularly like Art for Kids Hub * and because I am a teacher, I’ve given some though to why that is.

If only we could turn that analytic-teacher brain off!

But seriously, I’ve really learned a lot about what makes a learning experience good. And why it is that my son and I have progressed so much without any formal teaching lessons. Here are what I think are the key elements of effective instruction, at least as implemented by Rob from Art for Kids Hub.

My drawing of Paper Mario!
One of mine so as not to embarrass my son! Not bad though, right?

1. The instructions are very clear. Rob gives simple, clear, but specific instructions that tell you exactly what to draw. He always says things like “Draw a curve connecting that line we just drew to the arm,” or “We’re going to draw an upside U and then at the top, just come in a little bit.” You know exactly what you are supposed to be drawing and it’s easy to focus on your paper when drawing.

By contrast, on some of the other “how to draw Pikachu” videos, the artist is much less descriptive and clear. We did one the other day where the artist was just narrating what he was doing. He said things like “OK, I’m drawing a line, now another line, ok draw this over here” So you had to keep switching from watching to drawing to see how long the line would be, where it would go, what shape! It made it very hard to know what to do.

2. The instructions are broken down step-by-step. While some of the drawings are quite complicated, the instructions are always broken down step-by-step. That definitely helps keep the instructions clear. It also helps keep you on track and prevents you from getting overwhelmed. I never feel that a project is too difficult or complex for me, because I’m going along step by step, line by line.

3. There’s lots of time to work. Rob always draws with one of his children. This is a very clever and effective instructional strategy for a few reasons. One big reason is that it slows the drawing down. In most videos, Rob draws and explains what to do, and then watches as his child draws on their drawing. So you, the viewer, have extra time to do your drawing. And you often hear key elements of the instructions twice! It’s a really nice device that keeps the drawing at a reasonable pace.

4. There’s an emphasis on practicing. If you’ve watched a few of these videos, at some point, he will say or have his child say that the most important thing is to practice and have fun! He’ll point out that his child’s drawing may not look exactly like his, and that that’s ok. This may seem like the kind of thing that can sound “soft”, but practice really is the best way to improve at a skill. Focusing on practice over perfection is a great way to get students to improve. This may be where elements of effective instruction and elements of effective learning overlap!

I also really do think that making the videos fairly light helps keep the experience fun. That makes you want to keep drawing and do more videos. There’s some banter between Rob and his kids and some wackiness that is entertaining without being distracting! It keeps you drawing and enjoying the process. I was just noticing how much my son’s freehand drawings have improved and he’s filling 10-20 pages with doodles almost every day!

5. Experimentation is encouraged, and failure is tolerated. In the same vein, experimenting, adding on to the drawing, changing the details, is all very much encouraged. He often gives ideas for how to vary the drawings or suggestions for adding background details. And because he draws with his children, you have to models of art. Often, his children are not as technically proficient as he is, so it’s nice to see a sample drawing that is closer to what you are producing, warts and all! Yet he always finds something to note or praise in his children’s work.

6. There’s generalizable information. It would be enough if a video about how to draw a cute Valentine kitten taught you how to draw a cute Valentine kitten. But, he often throws in bits of advice or information you can apply to other drawings. I first learned about eye shine and how to draw it properly from some of Rob’s comments. He talks about proportion and demonstrates using guide points, which has improved my drawing in general. While the videos don’t get into complex techniques or deep theory, a lot of what you lean can be generalized, making you a better artist overall.

Whether you are an artist or not, Art for Kids Hub is really a wonderful model of the elements of effective instruction. If you have your own favorite models of effective teaching, feel free to drop them in the comments. And at some point, I may follow this up with some explicit ways these could apply to ELT, but feel free to note your own ideas here, too.

If you’re looking for more of my reflections on what it’s like to be a learner instead of a teacher, check out my takeaways from EdYouFest 2019 and learning pronunciation without the IPA. And for more weird anecdotes about stuff I learned while playing with my kid, check out Direct Instruction Works. I’ve also got a post on using art prompts in the classroom as well!

* Note that I am not sponsored by them or related to them at all and no one asked me to do this post

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