So, here’s a little quiz: Who should do the art making in the art classroom? The student! Of course! Did anyone at all have a different answer? I doubt it… But do we really mean it? Let’s give this question some thought.
Let me apologize to those who have seen parts of this story already. You see, it started on social media so some of my comments below have seen the light of day already. But this deserves elaboration!
Like many of you, I have made some attempts at connecting with other art educators online. I have followed some blogs and liked some art teacher pages, only occasionally finding some like-minded individuals. More often, I encounter what I would call (at great risk of offending) the unfortunate state of art education in our country. You can recognize posts in this category because they include phrases like…
…so excited to have my kiddos try this new product…
…love these [artist name] paintings by my students…
…found this idea on Pinterest…
…this is what my students will make…
A recent post that suggested something like this last sentiment went past me recently with four variations of the same painting made by the teacher. The text went something like this:
“I’m starting this lesson soon and made several samples to think it through. Which is your favorite?”
The paintings really were nice looking, each a variation of a swimmer’s face under water with a diver’s mask and snorkel. Cute idea, really! (I would show you the images, but it just doesn’t seem fair to use the teacher’s pictures in this post.)
Teacher samples are good, and “thinking it through” is good too, but if this is all that is said about the lesson you will start soon, what are we to believe except that you intend to guide your students to make their own variation of the self-same painting? I just couldn’t ignore it. I had to comment. I wrote:
You’ve worked really hard to design something. You tried some different variations and even gathered input from an authentic audience. All important skills for an artist. Teach the children to be artists. Don’t be the artist for them!
So, let’s go back to my original question. When you answered, were you thinking only about who is pushing the pencil or moving the paint brush? Manipulating media is only a tiny part — albeit the most visible part — of what an artist does.
Fellow art teachers… (No… Let’s make it bigger…) Fellow teachers, if we are to teach our children to thrive in the 21st Century, we cannot go around solving problems for them!
Any artist-educator worth her salt knows deep down that the visual arts are the perfect place for students to learn those skills that, by now, nearly all of our schools and districts have written into their mission statements. If we are to teach our students to be resilient problem solvers and creative and critical thinkers, we must give them problems to solve.
Art education is not what they do at those paint and wine nights! Sorry if I have crushed your dreams, but while I’m at it let’s try to clear up a MAJOR misconception.
(Image borrowed from www.paintandwine.com)
Art education is not about teaching children to create artworks!
(Did I blow your mind?) Honestly, it never has been. Even before all this “21st Century Skills” stuff, art was about teaching things like working with your hands, experimentation, play, communication, self expression, and understanding visual culture. Art students develop their art skills at the same time, and that is also a valued outcome. But, (and I am going to take another risk at offending) any teacher who thought artmaking was the sole or primary purpose was sorely misguided.
Let me step off my soap box and get back to this teacher that I called out.
I get the teachers inclination. Providing a sequence of steps that results in reliably attractive artworks can have its benefits. Administrators love pretty artwork in the halls. Many of your colleagues and parents who don’t know better will be impressed by you. And some of your students will even feel a sense of pride for making something that still doesn’t look quite as good as the one the teacher made. But how can we reframe the idea to create a foundation for a lesson that allows the children to solve the problem?
As I described above, the painting samples represented a snorkeler. So if the assignment should not be, “make a painting of a snorkeler,” then what should it be? It should, instead, be a challenge that could have many possible solutions. It should be a challenge that allows the students to find a personal connection, and it should expect them to practice specific art skills related to media and/or subject matter. There are several different ways to go with this, but let me suggest just one:
Create a portrait of you doing an activity you hope to do someday.
Do you think this fits the bill?
I invite you to share your thoughts and comments.