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Lesson Plans

Re: What's worth teaching in art? (long post)

[ Thread ][ Subject ][ Author ][ Date ]
Robert Alexander Fromme (rfromme)
Sun, 12 Jul 1998 23:16:24 -0500


At 08:27 PM 7/11/98 -0400, Craig Roland wrote:

>So, I thought I'd pose a few questions here to see what kinds of responses
they might stir up:

Craig's First Question

1. How do you determine what to teach in your classroom?

This will vary for some of us who are asked to teach different courses in
different semesters. On the high school and college level much of the
content is determined by the course name, such as Art I, Drawing II,
Computer Art II etc. For example, in our school Art I is intended to be a
prerequisite for all the II level courses and it is quite general. Each
teacher has freedom to vary the lesson content and projects but we are
somewhat tied together by using the same text and choosing many of the same
projects. The Art I course is intended to include a balanced regime of art
history, art criticism, aesthetics with art production. All of the other
courses on the II, levels (Drawing II,III and IV, Painting II III and IV,
Sculpture II III and IV, Computer Art II III and IV) have more specialized
content, concentrate on more studio production, and the advanced levels
often depend upon student decisions for independent projects/ study. Of
course as the level goes up there are raised expectations for advanced
performance and individual responsibility.

In our situation, the art department is seen as an elective experience and
unfortunately we are given several additional responsibilities. For
example, school councilors often place some students who are not being very
successful in the traditional core courses into our art classes. Sometimes
this is done against the student's will and the administrators do this
because scheduling becomes quite difficult when students begin to fail
required courses and their learning progression is out of synchronization
with the diploma plan for the majority. We also get a percentage of
emotionally disturbed and special education students who have been kept in
the self-contained classrooms or the small special education classes.
Frequently the art room is the first place for the student to "test the
waters" in a regular classroom after being in a restricted learning
environment in our school. Needless to say, teaching with the full range of
students in the same classroom can be a real "nightmare" or a real "hoot"
and is usually both.

The reason I mention this situation is that much of the curriculum in these
classes must be chosen based upon the teacher's judgment of student
potential. Many assignments involve several levels of difficulty and the
teacher is placed in the position of trying to assess each student based
upon individual expectations born of the student's prior performance in the
classroom. What we teach is frequently determined by what our "gut feeling"
tells us is within the student's range of accomplishment. Certainly this is
not the best of all possible situations and we always run the risk of
limiting student development by having expectations which are too low or
frustrating the individual by expecting too much. On the other hand, We art
teachers in the school have not chosen this situation, we do not feel that
it is a very good way to teach art, and we continue to try to communicate
the problem to those above us who could change the situation. On the other
hand, those who are in administrative positions must try to work within the
structure which has been imposed upon them by numerous exterior forces and
they, like those of us who teach, must try to make the best of the working
situation we are given responsibility for managing. The whole thing gets
quite complicated and I have come to believe that the roots of these kinds
of problems have been rooted in out past industrial age. I have been doing
a little research for a paper and will use some of that work to help explain
how our industrial past has made art teaching such a difficult discipline
for teachers.

Education in art must be viewed as part of the larger public educational
picture. Relics of our industrial past remain entrenched throughout our
schools and those vestiges are not indigenous to the art classroom alone.
Dr. Nancy Sulla (see has suggested
that the teaching procedures and learning frameworks that evolved during the
industrial revolution continue to be evident in schools today. She has
indicated that we can think of our classrooms as part of a factory for
learning where teaching has been separated into components, the disciplines.
Sulla has described our present schools as places where learners are moved
in groups from place to place, and we teachers "work" on them by stuffing
them with information. Dr. Sulla characterizes the traditional process as
one which disjoins the big picture into factored bits of know-how, and
which attempts to expound fragmented skills in isolation, hoping at the end
of the learning assembly line the finished products, our next generation of
productive citizens, will emerge.

After reading several books by the futurists, Alvin and Heidi Toffler such
as "Future Shock", "The Third Wave" I realize that Dr. Sulla has borrowed
much of her perspective from their writing. It is interesting to note that
the earliest lessons of American art education were to provide students with
eye, hand and perceptual aptitude conducive to productive work in industrial
society, and throughout the Nineteenth Century education yielded to the
demands of New England textile industries which influenced mechanical
teaching and tedious drawings in support of their commercial design
interests. (See Dorn's "Thinking in Art: A Phjilosophical Approach to Art
Education, 1994, p.2).

A look at industry's relics in our educational system is enlightening, but
some critical attitudes were changing in art education by the end of the
nineteenth century. Between 1872 and 1900, art teaching methods were moving
away from tedium and the mechanical toward a varied and progressive regime
which included subject matter from nature (see Logan's "Growth of art in
American Schools , 1955, p.67). By the beginning of the twentieth century
art education was absorbing issues of progressive education, the
child-centered movement, and a new attitude for art as guidance in refined
taste, shifting attention toward the individual learner (Dorn, 1994, p.3).
In the last half of the twentieth century, art education theory found
additional significance in the psychological value of art and in the
importance of social participation for children. (See Dewey's ,"Art and
Education" 1947). In 1962 Manuel Barkan predicted several developments for
the field, including the creation of courses in art history, art criticism
and the augmentation of future teaching materials (see Barkan's "Transitions
in Art Education: Changing Conceptions of Curriculum and Teaching", 15(7),
1962 p. 12-18).

The prevailing public attitude in our industrial past had promoted reading,
writing, math, science and social studies while learning in the arts was
elective, detached from the educational core. As art education moved away
from its early intent as a servant to industry, public education had a hard
time trying to arrive at an acceptable role for art in the industrial age.
The factory driven economy needed workers who could conform and who valued
standardization. In turn, art class nurtured the individual. Art
instruction placed value on unique thinking in the contemplation of art and
in the creative processes of studio production. When the educational system
in the industrial age was supposed to deliver focus and specialization, art
class nourished creativity and cultural diversity. The art discipline was an
anomaly, affirming a rebellious spirit while expounding the value of
personal feelings, intuition, metaphorical expression and lateral thinking.
In reality, art education did not appear to be synchronized with the
intended function of public education in an industrial age.

With this in mind, one might begin to think of the ED (emotionally
disturbed) unit, the special education unit and the art classroom as similar
to the places in a factory where those cans or bottles of an assembly line
end up when they do not meet the quality control standards of an acceptable
material for the system. The art room is perhaps the most confusing because
we are trying to meet the needs of students with a full range of age and
potential at the same time that we catch the problem students.

So, when the situation gets frustrating, I try to realize that there is a
reason why things are the way they are. It doesn't make the problems in the
classroom go away but it helps me accept that some of the mess in education
has been driven by mammoth cultural developments in the past age with
shifting ideologies and priorities set by external forces. Most of those
aspects which structure our working environment can not be changed by one
person. For now, many of us who teach art must adapt - accept those thing
which we can not change and make the best of our working situation.

Craig's Second Question

2. If you could teach only 3 things (ideas/concepts) to kids in a year,
what would those be?

1. No matter how successful my students are with their individual art
production, I want every student to finish my classes with a working
understanding of human vision, intuition, visualization, the human brain,
creativity and creative problem solving (first insight, saturation/research,
incubation, illumination and verification). These are things which will
help them make intelligent choices and deal with survival in the face of
constant change.

2. I want every student to finish my classes with a respect for the history
of art as a record of creativity and the human spirit. It is a different
way of knowing who we (the family of humankind) are and who we have been. A
history class will teach facts and a time line but I want my students to see
how art history captures the spirit of each age and therefore offers a more
humane perspective on our global past and the seeds of our present and future.

3. I want every student to finish my class with an educated set of
organizational criteria from which to make judgments about objects and
events in their lives. The experience of making good choices in art, as in
life, will serve them well into their future. The formal concerns (elements
and principles of design) and the experience of criticism and judgment helps
students develop confidence in their thought processes and in the process of
making choices based upon their analysis and evaluation.

Craig's Third Question

3. What are the "essential" ideas worth teaching/knowing in art?

Earler, when I mentioned Dr. Sulla suggestion that our schools were like
factories where students are moved from place to place, and teachers "work"
on them by filling them with information, she was talking about systemic
artifacts, the pervasive influence and demands of industry's epoch which
effected the foundation and early development of our educational system.
Writing of the industrial age, Heidi and Alvin Toffler alluded to
standardization, specialization, synchronization, concentration,
maximization and centralization as the hidden code upon which that epoch was
assembled. (See Toffler's The Third Wave, 1980, p. 46 - 60) According to
the Tofflers, these were the principles which shaped and sustained
factories, workers, and schools in our industrial past. Nevertheless, those
tenets suggest the antithesis of the principles which appear to be
structuring our future culture, just as they appear to contradict most of
the learning objectives which have found traditional value in our art

If we are to discover some indication of the foundational changes which
computers, the Internet and their information epoch will bring to education
we can look at current and forecasted shifts in business and the new ways
that work is being accomplished. Forward looking scholars our future filled
with speedy, adaptable and self-calibrating machines which manage the
shifting current of routine tasks and physical materials of culture while
men and women manage the flow of information, doing the intellectual and
creative tasks which will sustain the new age. (Toffler, 1970 p. 402). Don
Tapscott, president of New Paradigm Learning Corporation has stated that
older corporation structures are being disaggregated and replaced by compact
dynamic groups, or by individuals, making the nature of the new
internetworked business "as different from hierarchical factories and
corporations as they were from the feudal workshop." (See Michael Schrage, a
research associate with the MIT Sloan School and the MIT Media Lab has
identified three levels of information technologies starting with the
primitive design philosophy of distribution and transmission in a
point-to-multipoint exchange. With the rise of the Internet, Schrage
distinguished the client/server and peer-to-peer networks for sharing
knowledge, however, he currently sees technology as a collaborative medium
for the creation of ideas, theories and models asynchronously and on-the-
spot. (See

For a glance at changes on the horizon for art education, one can look at
characteristics needed by students preparing for work in a newer world born
of shrinking natural resources and technology's cultural sweep. That
individual must learn to thrive in an environment of hectic innovation and
adjustment beyond anything we have known in our past or present . The
objective for education is clearly one of increasing the individual's
ability to quickly accept, adapt and then thrive in the midst of continual
change. Teachers who are presently using technology in the art classroom
have already experienced the frequency with which hardware, operating
systems and the assorted imaging and animation applications must be upgraded
to insure that course content remains current. The ongoing attempts of
today's instructors to read, understand and apply a steady flow of new
digital tools and techniques is slight indication of the steady diet of
change and adjustment which are ahead for all of us in the age of
technology. Such in the future for which we must prepare ourselves and our

" It is no longer sufficient for Johnny to understand the
past. It is not even enough for him to understand the present, for the
here-and-now environment will soon vanish. Johnny must learn to anticipate
the directions and rate of change. He must, to put it technically, learn to
make repeated, probabilistic, increasingly long-range assumptions about the
future. And so must Johnny's teachers." (Toffler 1970, p. 403)

Other scholars are aware of the same critical objectives destined for
education's future and which will challenge its teachers. According to
Robert Theobald, all of us must learn to accept our increased potential for
choice as we face accelerated future change.

"Today's rate of change requires that both individuals and organizations
concentrate their efforts in particular areas. This statement may, at first
sight, sound like past calls to specialize. Our current needs are, however,
quite different. Previously we learned more and more about less and less. In
the future, people will need to know, in a very real sense, less and less
about more and more. The basic required skills will be to understand
patterns quickly and to make sense of their meaning in specific times and
places, rather than to solve problems within previously understood
approaches. The aim is to set inspiring and worthwhile goals; to develop
directions which will make a difference. The feasibility of the goals is not
yet the issue -- it is their desirability which should be our concern at
this point". (See Success
Chapter 5: The Spiral of Change by Robert Theobald)

Art teachers will be quick to realize that a critical ingredient of the
educational objectives which Toffler, Theobald and other futurists describe
has been common in art classrooms and studios for decades. Yes, they are
talking about the creative process. In other words, futurists see our future
demanding self motivated individuals who, working on the slippery ascent of
the Information Age, can acquire and understand a profusion of information
and then use creativity and creative problem solving techniques to visualize
and thrive. In tomorrow's world, art teachers will not find themselves
laboring alone in their efforts to cajole their learners to develop
flexibility, visualization, imagination and the confidence to work from
intuition as well as fact. Certainly art education will have a body of
valuable experience to share with other disciplines when students need help
considering alternatives and building faith in their creative freedom to
work beyond that which is known, in search of solutions and significant
contribution .

So, in response to Craig's third question "what are the "essential" ideas
worth teaching/knowing in art?"- I would say that these are in the process
of being determined as we give up our industrial traditions and look at the
evolving age of technology and information. I think art education's
contribution to our new global culture will involve the creative process as
a critical tool for future survival for in our future citizens must be able
to visualize and work from intuition. Art education can also help our
future citizens learn to work as a member in a goup effort, embracing
diversity and being tolerant of cultural variety. Art education can give
our future citizens of the age of information some valuable working
experience with adaptation which will allow them to thrive productively in a
working environment of change beyond anything we can currently imagine.
Perhaps art education, because of its past teaching objectives and
experience with creativity, art history, diversity, critical judgment and
change, will be in the best position to meet the needs of students in the
present and future epoch of technology.

Well, I need to get back to writing my paper.