The Conversation Game
Learning to Develop Individual Self Lists of Ideas for Artwork 
Marvin Bartel, Ed. D. © 2002 updated 2004,

Page Contents: how this idea developed | why this idea was developed | game rules
idea generation homework | variations on the game

Introduction:  The Conversation Game is adapted from conversation that expresses interest in the other person. This conversation method makes strangers into friends. In this game the familiar conversation method of expressing interest in the other person has been given a narcissistic twist and is used to generate a list of attributes about the self.

Artists who are also socially aware and sensitive may be able to sublimate narcissism enough to avoid being a bore in social contexts. Not always. When challenged by his client about a leaky roof in a home he designed, Frank Lloyd Wright told the client, "What do you expect when you live in a work of art?" Wright had a strong sense of purpose. He was confident that his ideas were important enough to prevail in spite of a few mistakes. Many consider him the the greatest American architect.

Perhaps an egotistic attitude makes it possible for artists to take risks and make us all better and more enlightened through their selfish generosity. Because art comes from individuals that have confidence in themselves, art teachers do well to experiment with ways to help students discover the wealth of ideas that can be mined from their own experiences and interests - whatever they may be. Otherwise, their art risks being insincere mimicry and busywork. Obviously, students also need to learn the social consequences of a haughty disposition.

Goals:  The Conversation Game generates ideas from within each student. It is intended to provide relevant, meaningful, and evocative content, concept, and topic ideas for student artwork.  Students can use ideas developed in this way for media work to create any art form including drawing, painting, collage, sculpture, photography, etc.  By learning how to ask questions, students are reassured that content is not a constant or a given, but content in art is a dynamic individualized endeavor.  Using a collaborative format, students learn that they can often be most creative when they collaborate with others - if everybody works hard to creatively contribute to the team effort.

Great minds think with questions.  Learning to formulate questions is more useful and creative than formulating answers.  In education we talk a lot about teaching critical thinkingWhen students practice the ability to form questions, they are exercising their critical thinking abilities and skills.  Learning to ask good questions is learning critical and artistic thinking habits.

The class begins as a whole class while each student starts a self list based on the answers to questions asked by any student in the class. 
As soon as they understand the process (see "playing process" below), the class forms teams with three to five persons in a team.

game rules
playing process of page
In each team, take turns asking questions personal questions that would be appropriate to ask a stranger you want to become acquainted with.  Pretend you do not know the others in your group, and you are "making conversation" by asking questions to help you get to know the others in your group.  Sort of like in Jeopardy on TV, everything is stated in the form of a question. 

After every question, each person in the group writes down their own answers to the question. They answer about themselves. They are collecting self-knowledge. Artists use self-knowledge, self-interest, their own values, and their own beliefs.  In addition to writing, they may verbally share their answers, but nobody is required to share their answer - encouraging even the secret self ideas to be recorded for use as art material.

Example: Somebody asks, "What do you generally do on Saturday mornings if it is a rainy day?"
Joe writes: #1. I sleep till 11 or I might look at my comics.
Jim writes: #1. I watch cartoons.
Ella writes: #1. I go to my dance lesson.

Example: Somebody asks, "What pets do you have or do you wish you had?"
Joe: #2. "I don't have any pets, but sometimes I get to ride my aunts horse, Minnie."
Jim: #2.  "If I could have a dog, I would like to have a golden retriever."
Ella: #2.  "We had a cat named "Kate" until a month ago when she was hit by a car."

Every answer might be different but still be correct because every individual is different. Artwork that grows from this is even more tailored to individual needs and abilities.

first round scoring
As soon as a groups appear to be bogged down or finished, ask a group to read their list of questions.  Other groups need to listen and the group gets a point for every question that no other group came up with.  Ask each group to give questions that they used that have not already been mentioned.  If no other group used the question, they get a point for it. 

This encourages and rewards innovative and creative thinking. Artists are most interested in thinking that produces unique, but universally evocative ideas.

Idea Augmentation of page
During the scoring, every other student in the class (even those in all other groups) continues to answer every new questions that are shared by the other groups.

second round of scoring
Now that students understand the scoring, invite more questions. Again allow points for any unique questions (not answers - answers may be confidential) that no other group thought of.  When I administer this game with adults, I often offer this question if it has not been asked (I get a point for it), "When you are in a waiting room while waiting to see a doctor, what magazine to you select to pass the time?"  This often gets at interests that people do not readily acknowldg otherwise.

Again, offer to grant more points if anybody in any group can think of new questions.

immediate use of the game results of page
Ask students to study their own answer list of things about themselves.  Have them select one or more things from the list to use as subject matter for the art project they are about to work on.

learning qaulity, aesthetics, and values
This is chance for students to recognize and develop their individual value systems. Artists do work that reflects what they care about. Teachers can ask them to look for ideas in their list that show what they care about. Frank Lloyd Wright cared about nature, he cared about the integrity of materials, truth (avoiding fakery), he cared about proportion, and he cared about the effect of the size of the front door - to name a few examples.

Some artists are environmentals convincing us to be more careful, some are formalists and minimalists helping us understand the beauty of pure form, some are surrealists helping us understand the mysteries of our inner feelings and dreams, and some are expressionists showing us the value of being seen and heard. Our students will also be disposed to one or more of these concerns. Their need to be encouraged to sort their self-lists looking for the real values that they subscribe to.

future use of the game results - IDEA RITUALS
Students keep the lists in an idea box, idea vessel, idea book, computer folder, diary, journal, or sketch book that is always available in the class. There is a regular
classroom ritual time to add ideas and review old ideas. A short time is set aside on a regular basis for students to review their idea collection.

game homework of page
Assign homework that is no real work and that takes no real time. A mind that is taught to invent questions does not stop when it is doing other tasks. It sees art in the other tasks.

Students are asked to expect ideas to come to them at unexpected times. Tell them that their ideas for art come while they are eating, while they are sleeping, while they are sitting in another class, while they are riding in a car, or anyplace or time. Tell them that boring times can be the best times of all. That is when you have time for those really great daydreams. There are no wrong ideas. Artistic thinking is a continuing habit that needs constant cultivation - not something that only happens during art class.

The only actual homework is to jot down ideas, collect stuff, sketch ideas, diagram them, or make some type of effort to save the ideas long enough to bring them to the class idea ritual time. This is a regular time when the teacher asks them to add to their official creative list of things to work into their work. Artistic thinking happens when it happens - not on demand. Creativity requires incubation. The initial game helps establish the teacher's expectations. Stutends find out that the teachers expects students to think of ideas. Students learn to be aware and learn to ask open questions in any situation.

Variations on the Game of page
Artists use their memory, their imaginations, or their observations.  The first time this game is played, most students will use memory.  Once they are familiar with the game format, try variations that ask for them to ask questions that stimulate the imagination and observation. 

to get imagination going
Have them phrase the questions starting with: "If you could . . . . what would you . . . "
Example: "If you could be any kind of animal, what animal would you like to be?" or, "If you could be the President, what would you do to be helpful to people?" or, "If you could do something to help the environment, what would you do?" or, "If you could do something to help kids from getting into trouble, what would you do?"

to encourage observation
Have students phrase the questions about something they are observing. 
Examples:  "Where are the darkest areas?"   "How does the size of the head compare to the hand size from where you see it?" What if students had to each phrase a question like this at some point during the working period while doing an observation drawing?

Variations on the Game
 Artists approach their content when creating art by observing and responding to:

  • nature and constructed surroundings  -  How could these questions be phrased?
  • the emotions game    -  How many sets of emotional opposites can students list? -  How many art methods can we list that express emotional qualities in artwork?
  • the ordinary experience game   -  Children (and many adults) commonly feel that their everyday experiences could not possibly be art worthy.  Yet some of the most profound artwork is about ordinary experience.  We have direct first hand knowledge of these experiences.  How can students phrase questions that bring out how significant and relevant their everyday experiences are as content for art?

    Using the Conversation Game process for a Clay Box Assignment 

endnotes: of page

Why did I start using approaches like this?

I was looking for ways to help students to learn to use their own abilities. Too many of my students did not understand artistic thinking strategy. When they were asked to come up with their own ideas they tended toward clichÈ. It was either very derivative of other artwork, or often it was a repetition of a previous work.

If, as the teacher, I suggested or required my ideas for their work, it was not theirs. This was no way to help them learn to think like an artist. When they lack ownership and empowerment they also lack motivation. Very little good work and little learning happens when students do another persons work. When students become dependent on the teachers ideas they develop thinking habits more appropriate for slave work than artwork. Too often I succumbed to the temptation of thinking for my students rather than challenging and encouraging them to start doing their own thinking.

When students are given the responsibility to come up with their own ideas, many actually do the opposite. They go look for other artists ideas. When I assigned my students to look at other artists' ideas some were overcome with inadequacy. Seeing professional work, they could not imagine themselves inventing anything to compete with this. We hope they will be inspired, but many are intimidated. They learn to imitate the look of what the art mags or the web sites have to offer. As art teachers we like to call this 'research'. It may be research, but it is not artistic thinking. Imitations may at times achieve the look of art, but they do foster much creative problem solving. They do not inspire pride of ownership. The students are not achieving the thinking habits of artists. Nothing is more embarrassing to an artist than to be caught imitating another artist. Artists study the work of other artists for many reasons, but seldom to copy or imitate the work.

Students appreciate and benefit when we teach them how to generate their own ideas. Few things we can do are more empowering. Few things are more effective in raising students from slave status to being free and responsible citizens.

How did I invent this game? of page

For many years I assigned students to use various methods of decorating their clay forms with an emphasis on formal considerations, saying little or nothing about images or content. This was the way I was taught and it was the only approach I understood. I thought that teaching art was teaching various skills and techniques. This is not art. Yes, these things are used by artists and must be learned, but they are not art.

As I considered what was important in my own work, I was convicted by the notion that my work was much more than technical proficiency. As much as we enjoy our virtuoso skills, they are not essence of our work. Our artwork is what we express, what we say, how it expresses our values, our passions, our loves, and our concerns. Our satisfactions come from our insights materialized and communicated. Our joys are those of the imagination - not merely dexterity. As I looked at my own work and at the work of young children I saw that true art is autobiographical. Art content is a reflection of the artists mind, soul, experience, and values.

I had a problem. I was good at teaching skills, but teaching technicians was not enough. My teaching needed to find ways to communicate this autobiographical nature of art to students in a way that made their own mind, soul, experience, and values available to them and more important to them. Just assigning this was not enough to see it happen. I know there are those who say art cannot be taught, but that did not keep me from trying.

My own creativity can be very slow. It can take many years for me. But believing in my own creativity, I kept experimenting with several approaches and ideas. I always had a number of very good students that succeeded in spite of what I did or did not do. I made a practice of asking them to give me their ideas about how my teaching methods worked for them. I abandoned some very creative ideas because students did not like them.

I started using The Conversation Game method in my beginning pottery classes. In pottery class my students were asked to use these ideas to decorate their pottery. In their first throwing assignment they throw, trim, and decorate twelve bowls. They can be any size, any shape, but everyone has to be decorated and trimmed. Various decorating techniques are also taught by having students practice on paper and on pieces of clay. The content of the decoration is to be autobiographical in the sense that the pots may be ordinary in some ways, but unique in that something from their self lists ends up as part of the work.

When the twelve pieces are finished, but not yet fired, they are reviewed in small groups. Each student then selects from five to seven of the twelve bowls to be fired. The remaining ones are discarded in the clay reprocessing can. For each student all the saved pieces are above average and they reflect the students self lists.

I had been using this activity at the beginning of the course for several years. I was feeling positive about the results. No students were negative about the activity. I was still not inspired to write this web essay and share this idea with other art teachers. Then a very encouraging thing happened. A student who had been in the class a year earlier remembered and mentioned how well this had worked to help understand art making and how it helped her take ownership in her work. This was the nudge I needed to try to share the idea for other teachers.

Teaching art works best for me when I can find ways for students to learn new technical skills and access their minds for ideas at the same time.

If you have ideas or suggestions based on your teaching experience  to help improve this page, I welcome your e-mail.       -- mb

Page Contents: how this idea developed | why this idea was developed | game rules
idea generation homework | variations on the game

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Marvin Bartel 2002
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 updated: Feb., 16, 2006 of page