What is visual arts education, and what does it provide? Why is it important, and what can art educators teach their colleagues in other disciplines?

In 1977, the National Art Education Association (NAEA) issued a powerful statement of its values, entitled What We Believe and Why. The document outlines compelling reasons to champion art education for America’s children as:
• sources of aesthetic experience,
• sources of human understanding,
• means of developing creative and flexible forms of thinking, and
• means of helping students understand and appreciate art.
The report states: Art is a rendering of the world and one’s experience within it. In this process of making art forms, that world and one’s experience with it must be tapped, probed and penetrated. The search is both inward and outward.

“With the arts, children learn to see,” said Eisner, Professor Emeritus of Child Education at Stanford University. We want our children to have basic skills. But they also will need sophisticated cognition, and they can learn that through the visual arts.”  What are the forms of cognition students can develop through the visual arts? Lois Hetland and Ellen Winner discovered an answer while studying five visual arts classrooms in two Boston-area schools for a year. “What we found in our analysis should worry parents and teachers facing cutbacks in school arts programs,” they conclude in their 2007 book, Studio Thinking. “While students in art classes learn techniques specific to art, such as how to draw, how to mix paint, or how to center a pot, they’re also taught a remarkable array of mental habits not emphasized elsewhere in schools.”  These habits include observing, envisioning, innovating, and reflecting, Hetland and Winner state. “Though far more difficult to quantify on a test than reading comprehension or math computation, each has a high value as a learning tool, both in school and elsewhere in life.”  These abilities develop children’s intelligence, argues David Perkins, Senior Co-director of Harvard University’s Project Zero. The practice of looking at art, he noted at the 2008 Aspen summit, requires thoughtful attention to what the artworks have to show and say.  And works of art connect to viewers’ personal and social lives. Thus looking at art “provides an excellent setting for better thinking, for the cultivation of what might be called the art of intelligence.”

In addition to developing students’ intellectual capabilities, visual arts instruction also helps develop young people’s sense of civic engagement. The arts stimulate or release imagination by bringing into existence an alternative “reality,” notes Maxine Greene. In that way, young people can envision a world that is different from the world they know, and thus art education opens the possibility for creating new worlds, rather than simply accepting the world as it is. “We know that imagination reaches toward a future, towards what might be, what should be, what is not yet,” she writes in a 2007 paper.  The artistic features inherent in new technologies also make possible new forms of social interaction. By creating a video and posting it on YouTube, for example, a young person instantly creates a new global virtual critical community, because viewers around the world can comment on the work and provide needed feedback. At the same time, the work creates an audience for future works.

Researchers have begun to identify the characteristics of effective learning environments and the ways that teachers can engage students to develop visual arts knowledge, skills, and habits of mind.  As skillful educators have found, teaching students to be creative is a deliberate process, much like teaching students to be literate or to be able to solve mathematics problems. It takes more than simply handing out materials; expert teachers break down the creative process to enable students to identify the problem, gather relevant information, try out solutions, and validate those that are effective.  In their study of exemplary art classrooms in the Boston area, Hetland and Winner and their colleagues found that teachers fostered a relationship with their students that was like that of a master craftsman with an apprentice. Teachers engaged in demonstrations and lectures to convey information; they created opportunities for students to work; and they encouraged critiques of the student work.  In the process, the teachers not only enabled students to develop their crafts and understand the art world, they also helped them see patterns, learn from their mistakes, and envision new solutions. In contrast to the conventional view that art instruction is focused solely on creating art products, the researchers found that skilled instructors engaged student thinking; they helped them understand the choices they and other artists make and the implications of such choices. Students are taught what high-quality work is and how to evaluate their work and that of their classmates against emerging standards.

For example, Hetland and Winner note: During class critiques, and one-to-one as students worked, teachers asked students to reflect: “Is that working? Is this what I intended to do? Can I make this better? What’s next?” At Walnut Hill School, Jason Green questioned individual students almost relentlessly as they began a new clay sculpture: “What about this form? Do you want to make the whole thing? Which part of it?”  Perhaps not surprisingly, these techniques are similar to those found to be essential for high-level student learning in other subject areas as well. The National Research Council (NRC) report, How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School, examined research on student learning and described the learning environments in history, mathematics, and science that produced student understanding in those disciplines.  The report describes effective learning environments in language that could be used as accurately to describe excellent visual arts classrooms. Effective learning environments are: learner centered in the sense that teachers build on the knowledge students bring to the learning situation. They are knowledge centered in the sense that the teachers attempt to help students develop an organized understanding of important concepts in each discipline. They are assessment centered in the sense that the teacher’s attempt to make students’ thinking visible so that ideas can be discussed and clarified, such as having students (1) present their arguments in debate, (2) discuss their solutions to problems at a qualitative level and (3) make predictions about various phenomena. They are community centered in the sense that the teachers establish classroom norms that learning with understanding is valued and students feel free to explore what they do not understand.

Effective teaching requires a substantial amount of expertise. It requires teaching by a skilled and experienced professional with extensive arts content background, a range of pedagogical approaches, and the patience and persistence to turn small advantages and unexpected events into major breakthroughs in learning. It requires the teaching of an arts education professional who is a continual learner throughout his or her career, and one who is an active member of the art, education, and art-education communities.  Along with great instruction there is also substantial evidence that high-quality education in the arts provides students with opportunities to develop a number of capacities that are not well addressed in other areas of the curriculum, such as visual-spatial abilities, self-reflection, and experimentation. In addition, visual arts education has been shown to motivate students who might otherwise be at risk of dropping out of school.

This is our goal: to educate the whole child in the visual arts giving them an opportunity to creatively participate in PERCEIVING, PRODUCING/PERFORMING and REFLECTING upon the visual arts.  Students’ emerging interests are at the core of arts literacy and an arts curriculum that promote voice and ownership in learning. Students explore and help to coordinate artistic processes that promote imaginative creation, realization and the process to refine ideas in both conventional and innovative ways.  We strive to have students engage in artistic production individually and collaboratively to address genuine local and global community needs.  These are our goals and we ask that you help as we seek to engage the students of the Willard City Schools.  Pablo Picasso once stated “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”  Our goal is to give the artist in your child the opportunity to emerge!


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