Art Or Not Art

A session I was having some fun with at Philosophy Wranglers and Philosophy Wranglers LATE which will work very well on Zoom or face-to face. I’ve sent out something similar before but the twist makes this work very well.

Warm-up: Elephant Art

Start by sharing a still of this video…


…paused at 4:52. Ask the question, “Is this art?”

Most will likely think it is. Then play the next thirty seconds or so of video, showing that it is being painted by an elephant using its trunk. Do they still think what they thought? Who is the artist, the elephant or the person who trained it?

The Experiment: Art or Not-Art?

Everyone is going to create or find something they can show to the others. They should have decided beforehand if the thing they show is art or not-art but not tell the rest of the group. Then we will see if the others can tell if it is art or not. Everyone has to promise not to be upset if they think their thing is art and others don’t – it’s just an experiment, not an art exam!

You might secretly assign people to the art- or not-art condition by having a few participants at a time turn towards you while the others face away, and giving them a thumbs up for art and a thumbs down for not-art.

Here’s one I made earlier – this is something I think it’s best for the facilitator to join in with, and to go first in the discussion, so as to model vulnerability and resilience. Art or not art?



Then reveal that I intended it to be art. This one tells a story, of a father with three sons, with the oldest ostensibly rejecting the closeness of the family, yet under the skin they are still deeply connected. The backdrop, which they mostly cover, is the Chinese character for “listen”. Most of its elements, those that mean “ear”, “you”, “eye” and “undivided attention” are hidden, leaving only the cluster of marks that mean “heart” still visible.Does that I intended it to be art make it art? Does having a meaning behind it make the difference?

If you only have a few participants, you can go round each in turn, hearing why people think it is or is not art before they reveal their intention. Or you could have a gallery with the art/not-art laid out and people can leave a vote and perhaps a reason.


The Discussion

Lots of characteristics of art may come up –deliberate, not functional, self-expression, makes an impression on an audience, has meaning, takes skill. It may be impossible to give a catch-all definition – it could be that this is a “family resemblance” concept, with overlapping similarities but without one defining characteristic, but such that we still know what we are talking about under our disagreements.


September: Making Up for Lost Talk

As (hopefully) further steps towards normality are possible in September, schools will feel huge pressure to make up for lost time in the 3 Rs. I would like to put in a plea for an emphasis on something where the growth in inequalities will be less measurable, but perhaps even greater: in talk.

It’s well documented that there can be a gap of up to a million words of exposure to language between some children starting school and others. Even more important than the volume of language is the number of conversational turns children have had. For some children, lockdown will have been a time of great family connection with far more conversation than usual. For others, it will have been a talk desert, occasionally varied by barked instructions and recriminations. Kids will need time to talk, structured and unstructured, and some will need a lot of help to find their voices again

I anticipate that a lot of schools will be limited in scope for full INSET days, but I can do a lot in a one-hour Zoom-based twilight (me on Zoom, staff in the room), sharing my principles for strategies to reach the “silent six” in most classes who may have become a “tentative ten” by September. Cost is likely to be £300 + VAT per school, to include a host of resources for better talk, with multiple schools able to take part in the same slot. It will be a fast-paced session with lots of practical take-aways.

Send an email to if your school may be interested, and I will send you a free copy of the PDF guide to the Help Me Find My Voice strategies (being updated over the summer, but will give you an idea). Just email me the name and address of your school, and then next week once I have all the requests in, I will email out the PDFs and further information.

Best wishes,




PS: Here are the same shirts enjoying their retirement in a wardrobe after their moment of stardom. If they were art, are they still? Were they art before I arranged them on my Zoom backdrop?

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