School: Hanoi Pt.5

The reason for my recent trip to Vietnam was an invitation from the art teachers of the UN school in Hanoi. UNIS is a lovely place with 2,000 students from preschool to 12th grade — and I worked with and spoke to them all.

Here’s a little film I made about my trip and my work with the students.

Corrupting the youth of Switzerland.

I’ve just completed the first leg of my European crusade: a week in Switzerland. Basel is a lovely medieval city along the Rhine right on the edge of Germany and France. It’s home to loads of banks and pharmaceutical corporations and two dozen museums — some with extremely contemporary contemporary art, one which is the size of a doorway.

I’ll tell you more about my visit to the city in another post. Today I’ll just try to summarize why I was there.

Important skills: focus and self-starting.

Last winter, I was invited to be an artist-in-residency at the International School of Basel this September. Perhaps you remember that a year ago, I was in residency at another ISB (the International School of Beijing) and had a lovely and illuminating time, so this invitation was very welcome. I was pumped to spend more time with kids, making art, and wallowing in their creative energy. Additional pluses: I’ve never been to Switzerland and, of course, Basel is a mecca for art.

My week began with a school assembly. Six hundred children under the age of 11 sat on the ground while I introduced myself and talked about all we would do in the week ahead.

The future.

Then each morning at 8:15,  I’d let a couple hundred kids and their teachers into my gigantic office/studio/lecture hall and showed them films and gave them creative assignments. We drew breakfast and lunch and shoes and upside-down bicycles and portraits and more. We made enormous murals that covered all the halls and stair wells. We ended the week with a sprawling field trip to the natural history museum to draw dinosaurs and endangered animals and then drew the cathedral and the twisting medieval streets.

It didn’t stop in my classroom. The kids went home at night mad for drawing. Each morning, moms and dads came into the school with stories of  kids transformed. They filled up sketchbooks at home, drew with their parents and teachers, insisted that nobody eat their dinners until they had been drawn.

Important skill: observation

After school on Tuesday, I met with all the teachers and showed them how art had opened my eyes. I told them that art is not just for art class — it’s for learning about the world and can be applied to any discipline, from literature to social studies to science to music to gym. I pulled out examples of my travel journals, of my investigations into homelessness, fishing in Manhattan, and dogs in coats. I showed them my maps and Koosje’s recipes and the SBS students’ instruction manuals.

Important skill: problem solving

The next day, an inspired math teacher asked her 4th graders to make drawings that explain the concept of ’rounding up’ numbers. She showed me dozens of stories and watercolors the kids made in response to her assignment. They were all different, all clear, all beautiful. She was able to see how well they understood the concept and they could use their pieces to teach the 3rd graders this concept.

On Thursday evening, I met with the parents and told them why I had come to Basel and why I thought it mattered that their kids had started keeping illustrated journals.

Important skills: collaboration and communication

It was to prepare them for the future — not a future as professional artists necessarily, but as successful people in an ever-changing world. The days of being able to assume that a well-educated person could finish school, get a corporate job, and rise up the ladder till retirement, are over. Instead, kids need to be prepared for the unforeseeable. Technology is upending every industry, traditional jobs are withering while new opportunities are springing up in surprising places. Change is the constant. Kids need to learn to swim in it.

Important skill: Innovation and problem solving

Parents can no longer assume that a traditional education in math, science, literature, language and history will be enough prepare a child for the future. A crucial new skill will be the ability to think creatively. That doesn’t mean dabbling in fingerpaints, but knowing how to spark innovations, to develop ideas, to present them clearly and persuasively, to find resources and collaborators to bring them to fruition, to build networks, to be entrepreneurial. I told them that’s why I supported my own son’s plan to go to art school, so he could learn skills I think will be essential to his future. If he had majored in English or pre-med, I wouldn’t have the same sense of confidence that I had given him the necessary tools.

I told them that they should look at art not just as a sign of being cultured, a middle-class luxury, but as a key component of their children’s total education. I suggested they insist the school’s administration support and look for ways to incorporate art and creativity into all aspects of the curriculum.

Important skill: optimism

If a student is encouraged to look everywhere for inspiration, to combine ideas into new ones, to replace competition with collaboration, to accept mistakes and ambiguity and learn from them, to have faith in the creative process, to know how to overcome its pitfalls, only then will he or she be prepared for a world full of self-driving cars, delivery drones, mobile apps, and Donald Trump.

Knowledge alone is no longer power — it’s something that pops up in your browser. Knowing how to use that knowledge to create new ideas and solve new problems, that will be the source of true power, a power that will serve all mankind.

The best drawing teacher.

A couple of days ago, I filled out the Sketchbook Skool survey we placed at the end of our most recent course, Playing. I shared it on Facebook but because FB is such a temporary place to store important thoughts, I am reproducing it here.

| Please fill your details below

What’s your name?
Danny Gregory

How did you find out about Sketchbook Skool?
My friend Koosje told me about it.

‘Playing’ | Your Experiences

Why did you sign up for this Kourse?
I have been worrying so much about perfection, about ‘getting better,’ about ‘making art’ that I was losing the pure joy of making. The idea of playing for a few weeks seemed like it would be fun. I didn’t want to just learn more new techniques, I wanted to reconnect with the spirit of creativity I had when I was six, a spirit that burned the hottest I’ve ever experienced and that made Picasso great.

Was the kourse what you expected?

What did you expect?
I expected some people to like it and some to be disappointed. I expected some people to let loose and dance the hootchy-kootchy and some to complain it was for kids and grumble that they had paid $69. I expected some people to grumble right off and then do one assignment that opened their eyes wide and they would go back and look back at the assignments they had just skimmed and suddenly find delight. I expected some adults to share their new found creative energy with kids, making sure that those kids never forgot how much fun art can be. I expected to be inspired by the enthusiasm and freshness I saw in the galleries.

Do you prefer the more shorter lessons, which is the style of Playing? Do you like more emphasis on projects than on lectures?
I thought the change was good. I’d heard a lot of people say they didn’t have time to do the more complex assignments they got in ‘Stretching’ and ‘Storytelling’ so I thought just screwing around with crayons would be a nice break.

If you’ve taken a Sketchbook Skool Kourse before, was ‘Playing’ a welcome change?
I loved learning from the great artists who teach at SBS. But the parts of the klasses that stretch me the most are the homework assignments. I learn a lot from doing them and from seeing what others do. I thought a kourse that was all about making stuff would be a cool change.

I have been drawing for twenty years and this is how I learned. I believe that it is the only way — to be inspired and to take my lit fuse and blast off in my own personal direction.

Sketchbook Skool | How do you feel about it?

At Sketchbook Skool we believe that the best way for you to learn is to be inspired, rather than giving you a lot of step-by-step instructions. How do you feel about that?
I have been drawing for twenty years and this is how I learned. I believe that it is the only way — to be inspired and to take my lit fuse and blast off in my own personal direction.

How do you experience Sketchbook Skool: Is it about exploring yourself or about community?
SBS inspires me to start and the community keeps me going.
The lessons make me challenge my assumptions, make me marvel at what is possible with just a pen and a book, and make me accept responsibility for my own creations and education — I am my own best teacher.
The community stretches me further, shows me more of what is possible, supports me when my monkey gets me down, pushes me to keep getting better and insists I stick to my creative habits.
I could draw alone. I could learn alone. I could evaluate my work alone.
But passion is so much better when it’s shared.

If you want to continue this face-to-face, come meet me in Phoenix.   I’m heading there now.

Brand new!

We are SUPER excited to announce our newest course, Stretching, is open for enrollment right now. Classes begin in a week!
We are also open for enrollment for Beginning, Seeing, and Storytelling. These kourses will begin every few weeks over the month ahead.

To get a preview of all the courses and to enroll, just visit

We are also very excited that all of our klasses* will now take place in our very own Sketchbook SKOOL HOUSE. Our programming team have built a lovely new environment for our classes which is easy to use and highly responsive. Our servers are now all over the world so you can get your videos and comments faster than ever.

The Skool House is also home to our new Student Union. This is a gathering place for everyone in the SBS community. Places to talk, share work, meet with others who live nearby or who have similar interests. There are even special groups for teachers designers, architects and more. The Student Union is open right now, so even if your courses doesn’t begin right away, you can still join the party.

All of our courses (including membership in the Student Union) are still priced at just $99*.

We hope to see you in klass!

*If you took previous semesters of Sketchbook Skool on Ruzuku, you will continue to have access to them in the future on Ruzuku.

**Due to recent changes in EU tax laws covering online courses, we are now required to add additional VAT for all our European students. Sorry!



Learning to teach beginners. On the teaching philosophy of Sketchbook Skool

What is the role of feedback in learning? Especially when starting to do creative things, things that are ultimately pretty subjective? When there are no answers in the back of the book?

The biggest obstacle we need to overcome in learning to create is the belief that we can’t. That’s especially true when we learn as adults. We have spent our entire lives believing that we cannot do this thing, and now, unless we are convinced that we can, we will never get to a point of any sort of mastery.

The most difficult and crucial lesson for beginners is the importance of failure. You need to make a lot of mistakes. You need to feel good about those mistakes and recognize that they are opportunities to improve. You can’t allow those errors to overwhelm you and make you feel hopeless.

The biggest obstacle we need to overcome in learning to create is the belief that we can’t.

The reason that people struggle with failure is because they believe that their failures are reflections on who they are as human beings. “Only failures fail.” The fact, of course, is that everybody fails on the path to learning, that failing is the most important part of any education. Researchers have shown that people learn far more from watching others fail than they do from watching extremely accomplished people do things without making any mistakes. You can sit and watch Lebron James shoot baskets perfectly all season but that won’t prove very instructive in developing your own game.

It is much more difficult to look at our own failings as educational opportunities if our egos and self-image are wrapped up in success and failure. When we watch other people fail, we are able to separate failure from ourselves, to see the failure as ‘other’ and thus look at it objectively.That is why it is generally better to learn creative things in a group environment where we can see others struggling and failing. We can see where the mishap occurred or how the problem was not fully solved.  The problem exists independently and facing it is an interesting challenge, rather than a demeaning disaster.

…failing is the most important part of any education

What is the value of a teacher’s comments to a new student?

In creative situations, where one’s ego and self-image are tied into the results of an exercise, any sort of perceived criticism can undermine that process. Because we are still so new at learning this new skill, it is difficult to accept that a mistake is not a reflection of who we are and an indication that we shouldn’t even bother tackling this lesson.  That’s why we need as much encouragement as possible in the beginning phase of learning, a phase that can actually last for years. We need to develop self-confidence and faith in our own creative abilities and sometimes criticism of any kind can thwart that  progress.

Students often ask for specific advice on how to improve their composition or how to use a certain medium more effectively, and some teachers are quick to provide lots of guidance, rules, and specific direction. I don’t know if that is especially effective. I find that most students are extremely vulnerable to the most benign sort of commentary — even if they asked for it. Simply telling somebody that they might want to consider a different composition, different medium, consider a slightly different approach, can be extremely undermining. There are so many open wounds as one is going through this creative rebirth that everyone involved must tread lightly. That includes the teacher, the student, and the relative looking over the shoulder.

I think it’s more effective to encourage students to experiment, to make more work, and to gradually developed their own answers to these questions. In fact, my experience is that almost all direct input from the teacher (inevitably an authority figure) is not particularly useful before the student has real confidence in their abilities. Instead the teacher should create an environment of trust, inspiration and fun. They should encourage the process, the experimentation and exploration, provide reassurance and safety, and do demonstrations in which they explain their own process, rather than making specific suggestions about the work the student has done. Turn the key, but don’t grab the wheel.

Turn the key, but don’t grab the wheel.

Many novice students believe that there are shortcuts available that once revealed will turn the student from an amateur into an expert. They want to know what brand of pen the teacher uses under the misimpression that the pen is the secret. The fact is that the student will do much better by discovering answers on their own, by studying the works of others, and by trial and error. There isn’t an accumulated body of knowledge that the student can acquire which will transform them. That knowledge only comes through years of work.

But that doesn’t mean the student can’t be delighted with their accomplishments almost immediately. Especially in the beginning of a creative education, progress happens quite quickly, simply by feeling empowered and free to actually make things. Sometimes that simple realization can wipe out years of anxiety around creative issues. And with that freedom comes an opportunity to continue working and develop one’s own style and techniques.

But that doesn’t mean the student can’t be delighted with their accomplishments almost immediately. 

Personally I find that students with the most technical skills alone rarely make art that I find very interesting.  Instead I’m far more excited by people who make mistakes and discover new and interesting ways to overcome them.

Learning the tried-and-true ways of making art is not necessarily the way to make great art. It is simply the way to rehash the lessons we’ve already learned, to make more art that is ready familiar. Instead you want to create new and exciting directions, to take risks, to see the world afresh, to find answers to new questions. Learning to draw is not like cooking Boeuf Bourguignon, a set of steps one can follow from raw ingredients to final delicious product. Instead it is a voyage, an excursion into the wilderness, an adventure that is mainly rewarding for its own sake, not for its results.

The teacher doesn’t have the answers.  Only the student does.