Kaizen and Pencil Erasers

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Erasers are the bane of my existence.  It’s gotten so bad, I’ve pretty much banned them from the art room. This is actually a controversial issue among art educators.  Some swear by them, and others hate them.  I may allow them for shading work, but for the most part, erasers are “no bueno.”  Here’s why:

  • Erasers take too much time.  Students with perfectly good pencils will want to swap pencils out for ones with better erasers.  If a student has 9/10 of an eraser on their pencil, they will want to swap for one that has a full eraser.  The eraser is like a status symbol, and since I do not have a virgin pencil for each and every kid, every class period of every single day, there will always be an issue with eraser quality. Since art class is only for 30-45 minutes every/ every other week, I really have to streamline everything down to extreme productivity.  No time for pencil drama.
  • Erasers become projectiles.  Enough said.
  • Erasers promote bad drawing habits.  Without erasers, students must learn to build up line work instead of trying to draw everything perfectly the first time.  “Draw light ’til you get it right” is my mantra.  Students start out drawing lightly and then darken the lines they want while letting the mistakes fade out as the picture progresses.  This is the way professional artists work, and it allows for spontaneity and more accurate work through editing.  When students have erasers, they simply erase and re-draw instead of developing the ability to turn sketches into drawings.
  • Erasers make students obsess on perfection.  Some students will draw, then erase, then draw, then erase, then draw, then erase… the same part of the drawing for the entire class, and get nothing else done.  Taking away the eraser is a hard thing for perfectionists to accept (I have seriously seen kids melt down when I won’t give them an eraser,) but I’ve found that this is a good way to teach students creative problem solving (and emotional coping) skills.  A mistake can become something new, or can be hidden with coloring, or can be blended in with shading, covered up with collage, etc…  99.9% of the time, the “mistake” that takes up so much time with erasing would have been unnoticeable or easily hidden, anyway.
  • Without erasers, students become more confident artists and better at editing their work.  They start learning that they CAN draw pretty well, and though they may make mistakes, they can deal with them as professional artists do.  A mistake isn’t the end of the world, and in schools where so much time is spent on getting the right answer quickly, it’s good to spend some time teaching students how to deal with mistakes, to rethink and edit their work, and to spend time to get to a finished project.  In Japan, this is called “Kaizen,” which means “constant improvement,”  — a concept that is highly promoted in fields like engineering and design even in the USA.  It’s a really good concept for students to get.  By teaching students to edit and improve their work, despite making mistakes, we are teaching them to value their work and strive to improve it throughout the process, rather than sticking with what we create in the early stages of a project.

I really think of my love/hate relationship with pencils as sort of an analogy of education, in general.  We want students to grasp concepts and be able to return the “right answer” quickly — especially in elementary school.  But we really don’t promote processes, like editing, creative problem-solving, and “kaizen.”  This is one of the reasons I think arts education is so important in students’ lives.  Creating a work of art (or writing a paper, or doing a science project, etc…) is great, but our work improves so much with more emphasis on editing.  In order to create true innovators in our society, we really need to create students who aren’t afraid to make mistakes, and who are willing to work through the process of creation and editing to get to their best work, not just “good enough.”


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