Learning vs. Product

Spending a few days surrounded by award winning student artwork can really get a person thinking about the qualities that set one work apart from the rest. For me, this means contemplating questions like: What really rises to the top? Does excellence stem from the teaching or from the student artist? Are we teaching and assessing for the qualities that result in excellent art? Is that even possible? And if so, is that the right work?

Mike's Road by Brandy Carter, art teacher
Mike’s Road by Brandy Carter, art teacher

These questions get to the core of art — Nay! ARTS education. What is the desired outcome? Student learning or a quality product? Sure, we say both, but do these necessarily go together? Do the right kinds of student learning outcomes work in alignment with, or counter to quality product outcomes?

There are two distinct voices that complicate the matter. For simplicity’s sake, let’s call these “Education” and “Audience.”

Education is the voice of standards-based education, experts in the field, and best practices for teaching and learning.

The voice of Education says this is a no-brainer. It’s all about student learning outcomes. If we are working toward helping all students make progress toward meeting the standards and benchmarks for the course, then we are doing the right work. But what are the standards? Each district subscribes to some set of standards, but they can vary widely and some arts teachers would argue they have so little guidance as to have no real standards at all. In the US, some districts have adopted the National Core Arts Standards (see NCCAS), many states have their own standards of learning, and some districts have a local curriculum that meets state standards but can go a good bit further.

Do any of these sets of standards say that the students will be able to create really great artwork? I doubt it! We know the vast majority of arts students will successfully meet the standards of the course without ever creating an artwork that is recognized as being really outstanding. Sure, it’s fantastic when a few of our students win an award, but the voice of Education reminds us that it’s not about a few of our students. It’s about all of our students.

Audience is the voice of our communities, parents, and school, including our own students.

There are many in our schools, including fellow teachers and administrators, we might like to think are the voice of education, but in fact, they can speak from both perspectives. The voice of Audience is a little less one sided. Our parents and communities know that student learning is important and they appreciate seeing evidence of that at exhibitions and performances, but when they are in the role of audience, they want a great product too. And who can blame them?

Audience wants to be able to say, “Our school has outstanding arts programs!” Parents, teachers, and administrators all want to be proud of the products that come out of their school, students are more likely to enroll in arts courses when they see quality products, and you won’t have to look far to find an art teacher who believes she should modify her instruction to get a product that suits the preferences of her principal.

So what’s an educator to do?

My suggestion is to share the responsibilities by involving the students — as best practice suggests we should. In this case, however, it is not just a shared responsibility working toward a single goal, but splitting responsibilities across the Education perspective and the Audience perspective.

An art teacher is certainly able to guide a student toward making great artwork, but as the educator in the equations the first priority should be to ensure that students are achieving the intended learning outcomes (the Education perspective) without confusing these with the creation of quality artwork. The question is, ‘which learning outcomes?’ but the answer is simple (at least simple to say): An educator must work toward the learning outcomes that are contractually required (the standards followed by your school system), AND any additional learning standards the teacher deems appropriate.

Whether or not these “others” are considered in grading is irrelevant to this conversation. What is relevant is that all outcomes are defined as learning outcomes — not product outcomes. What will the students know, understand, and be able to do as a result of the learning?

The students should be given a large part of the responsibility for satisfying the Audience perspective, and the teacher should involve them in this by being very open about it. Any artist or art teacher knows that highly developed artmaking skills take many, many hours of practice. The reality, however, is that we have them in class for far too few hours, and we should NOT be assigning hours and hours of homework in an attempt to gain the practice we wish for all of our students. (They have other responsibilities for cryin’ out loud!)

Art students must understand that the teacher will be focused on making sure they learn certain standards identified for the course, and that these are the foundation and the skills they will need to create great artwork.

They must also understand that it is up to the student to practice and refine these skills, and this practice can result in the creation of great artwork.

The really outstanding artworks that come out of our programs are not the norm — almost by definition. Our task is to support and teach all students and give them the skills and knowledge they need to be great if they choose to put in the practice. Not every student will win awards and gain recognition for artistic excellence, as it should be, but those students who commit themselves will reap the benefits. That’s what I believe.

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