Learning the Parts and the Whole

I’m going to be guilty, here, of two sins of writing – misquoting and missing attribution. A while back, I saw a teacher quote on social media that went something like this…

Headphones by Adam Sanchez, art teacher
Headphones by Adam Sanchez, art teacher

A good teacher breaks down learning into easy to understand parts. A great teacher helps put them back together again.

I have no idea who said this, where it came from, or how to find it again, especially since I am sure some of the words are a bit different from the original. (If you can help me, please do.)

The point, however, is that the ideas in this quote really stuck with me. I have repeated the sentiment several times in conversations and in working with teachers over the summer, and I’m sure this is because art teachers do this all the time!

The nature of art and art education is synthetic (not as in “artificial” but as involving synthesis). The act of artmaking draws on a whole range of knowledge, skills, and understandings including technical skill, media processes, design, art history, visual culture, personal experience, aesthetics… the list goes on. Art teachers help students learn to put all of these things together to communicate meaningful ideas in their artwork.

It is equally important to acknowledge the value of the first part of the quote. A teacher must break down learning into easy to grasp parts. Art teachers should address aspects of the curriculum separately to help students develop a deeper understanding of each part. Students should have opportunities to practice looking critically, practice media skills, practice decoding, and so on. Individual skills practice should be incorporated into an instructional plan that also includes an opportunity to synthesize learning in all of these areas at the highest level the student is able.

Art teachers do this every day. In the art room, we just call this instruction, but we (art educators) do not hold a monopoly on this approach. In other classrooms, we would call this project-based learning or performance-based assessment, and these approaches are becoming more prevelant. The education pendulum is starting to swing away from an emphasis on standardized testing back toward a project-based learning approach to instruction in all classrooms. As this transition happens, art teachers should be front and center offering to share our expertise in this approach to improve student learning in all classrooms and disciplines.


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