Perspectives, Serious Art Ed

Why Choice-based Art Education is Nothing Like the Old Child Art Movement.

The debate about creativity in education has usually pivoted on whether or not children can even be described as creative. By the late 20th century, Mihaly Csikszentmihaly (1996) had said no, children are not capable of true creativity because it requires that they contribute something new and useful to a domain of knowledge. Mastery must come first. He may have reacted against Lowenfeld’s (1975) view that creativity is intrinsic, in its purest form in children, arising independently out of the individual. Lowenfeld might say that the less mastery the better, as creative adults strive to free themselves of cultural influences. Differences in approach to creativity in education tend to bifurcate, but a nuanced view of creativity in education acknowledges that some amount of creativity is necessary to make any learning stick, and the Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001) places it at the top of the pyramid of cognitive processes because in the cycle of learning at any age or level of mastery, creating builds upon and requires handy access to all cognitive activities.

Kerry Freedman (2010) indicates a neglect of the topic in the field of art education while also recognizing the need for “scholarly skepticism” about creativity. She argues that starting the 21st century with a marked neglect of the topic of creativity in art education is evidence of the pressure on the profession to get serious “in the face of a new emphasis on anticipated outcomes.” (p. 9) Only a shift in political pressure towards 21st-century skills has freed up art education scholars to address creativity once again, and this time they are learning from the classroom teachers who have forged ahead without their support to refine a practical and effective pedagogy meeting needs only recently identified by art education academics.

Katherine Douglas and Diane Jaquith (2009), two public school art teachers from Massachusetts, take time away from their busy teaching careers to describe their progressive pedagogy in their book Engaging Learners through artmaking: Choice-based art education in the classroom. Their publication answers and yet antedates Olivia Gude’s question, “How can a busy public school teacher respond to the individual needs for support in developing deeply personal creative behaviors with a collective, common curriculum?” (2010, p. 32)

Choice-based art education originated in crowded public schools and has been refined over a period of four decades. Components of the pedagogy address public school needs for classroom management, materials management, curriculum mapping, and assessment while also addressing both Freedman’s post-modern understanding of creativity and the unique learner needs that Gude enumerates.

As with any multi-tool, choice-based art education does a multitude of pedagogical jobs reasonably well, and in elementary school it occasionally gets packed away when specialty tools are needed. A choice-based classroom may be interrupted with an intensive art history lesson, with what Jaquith calls a “skill-builder,” or with a teacher-defined problem to solve, realization of a collective vision for a project, or with thematic restrictions or a focus on interdisciplinary subject-matter. But these interruptions must be brief or a teacher risks undoing the environmental factors conducive to students’ independent inquiry habits and creative characteristics. (Gude, 2010, p. 36)

Choice-based Art Education, also called Teaching for Artistic Behaviors, is a refined approach to teaching independent inquiry and I anticipate that it may in time be seen as the default tool for teaching art to early and middle-childhood learners. It has developed with the belief in children as practicing, growing, developing artists, not in the modern era’s laissez-faire Child Art sense, but in the post-modern contextualized, social learning theory sense and in the 21st-century paradigm of creativity being essential to inquiry and learning at every age.

Rather than assuming creativity will somehow happen while art class focuses on skills, knowledge, and extrinsic motivating factors, all of which are now known to undo creative growth, in choice-based environments learners are taught to practice and improve creativity. In this setting, having developed in school the creative skills other pedagogies have valued but long assumed would develop parallel to art class, young learners may become better at the spiral process of creating: finding problems, defining problems, solving problems, sharing, leading, reflecting, perceiving, and evaluating. (Freedman, 2010). As a result they may also benefit from increased opportunities for specialization that come with phasing in more Discipline-based Art Education as they mature.

Artistic Development, Perspectives

After Modernism Can Lowenfeld’s Resistance and Activism for Social Justice be Preserved?

Paradoxically, children don’t have much to do with Child Art, a construct of modernist ideology according to Brent Wilson’s (2004) critique. Victor Lowenfeld’s (1975) modernist theories of innate creativity and universal artistic development have supported the construct of Child Art and have been largely dismissed in the field of art education. But focusing too much on Lowenfeld’s theories as misapplied to the child learner has resulted in neglect of the positive impact of his pedagogy among adults, as presented in Ann Holt’s (2012) revised narrative of Lowenfeld’s work. Guided by a modernist ideology, he empowered learners to become eminent artists, specifically adult artists from marginalized groups with whom Lowenfeld shared a spirit of activism for individual freedom and of resistance to oppression by a dominant culture.

Wilson (2004) critiques Lowenfeld’s (1975) developmental theory for imposing modernist ideals upon both children’s art and art of non-western peoples, conflicting with the artistic intentions and aesthetics of both the child artist and the non-western artist. He describes how, on the surface only, children’s and non-western artists’ styles fit a modernist aesthetic revering individual psychological freedom. While both types of graphic representation are visibly free of Western academic art influence and associated inhibitions, Wilson would argue that they are not free of cultural influence altogether. While Lowenfeld theorizes that art comes from within, that the creative inner self develops independently of external influence, Wilson’s theory, in contrast, is that as art comes from art. His model of artistic development recognizes all graphic schema as learned through imitation of visual conventions. Wilson rejects the idea that an artist might find a way of communicating that is not shaped by conventions of visual culture.

Art educators of today understand modernism as a movement that has achieved its own visual style rather than its intended primal, universal visual expression of the creative individual. We teach modernist, expressionistic style as one important part of visual culture, recognizing that the next generation of artists will incorporate knowledge of the past movement in their own contemporary remix. While I agree with Wilson’s (2004) analysis that human creative expression through art is neither innate nor universal, I also feel that a belief in the universality of human creative impulse or potential can benefit developing artists. This blended sensibility combines two theories: the theory that artistic development depends on cultural influence and the theory that express individuality through art is a universal human impulse.

The modernist ideal of expressive freedom seems to have had the greatest positive impact on adult art learners striving for freedom from imposed cultural values, and the least positive impact when applied to teaching art to children, typically driven by a hunger to imitate.  Perhaps the reason Victor Lowenfeld’s legacy has not been fairly recorded in the history of art education, as Holt (2012) suggests, is that art educators have clung to the application of his theories in elementary art pedagogy, where they are least applicable. Focusing on the empowering impact of his ideology upon adult learners, Holt shares the perspective of marginalized African American artists and art historians. In the first decade of Lowenfeld’s life as a refugee in the United States, working at the Hampton Institute, his teaching had a “transformative pedagogical impact on students through promoting individual needs and encouraging agency and self-empowerment” (p. 17). Lowenfeld’s anti-fascist and anti-racist activism synchronizes perfectly with his humanistic belief in the innate creative power of every individual.

With child learners, ironically, the overall impact of Lowenfeld’s artistic development theory has been restrictive, imposing upon them an aesthetic that denies them opportunities to learn by imitation of graphic schema. Wilson’s (2004) analysis of artistic development suggests that children are not stifled creatively by appropriate direction and instruction in visual art, but learn graphic representation by imitation and express themselves creatively by adapting, blending, remixing, and reinventing learned schemata. It follows that in order to develop artistically and gain the largest repertoire of graphic schema, children need exposure to as much of visual culture as possible.

Whereas the child artist strives to acquire a range of visual repertoires by imitating graphic styles in visual culture, an adult artist from a marginalized group attempts to escape imposed styles in order to find an individual voice. Rather than finding a voice in an idealized, rarified, formalist, modernist style, however, the adult artist may be encouraged to follow a universal creative impulse to combine styles in way that indicates individual voice and perspective. Does the theory of a universal creative impulse clash with a postmodern worldview? Can our postmodern view of artistic development accommodate a humanistic construct that inspires activism and aims for social justice? Is it possible to separate Lowenfeld’s universalist developmental theory, now dismissed, preserving the part of his ideology that is the source of his drive to encourage agency and empower marginalized individuals?


Scribblebot: Full STEAM Ahead

“Art classrooms that rely on students ‘playing’ with materials and discussing findings to create understandings, rather than teacher led discussions and demonstrations, can act as a starting place for design thinking. . . It is the reciprocity between student and materials, along with fellow students and teachers in the class, which helps students construct understandings.” (p. 38, Gross & Gross, 2016)


Three sixth-graders designed the scribblebot with a nine-volt battery in the circuit to increase the strength of the vibrating motor (hot glue stick off center on the spindle). They were impressed with the power their design showed and attributed the random change-of-direction shown in the clip above to the “OP” (game jargon for “over-powerful”) design. It took two courageous designers to pick up the bot and start the redesign process for the next iteration.

Reference: Gross, K. and Gross, S. (2016), Transformation: Constructivism, Design Thinking, and Elementary STEAM, Art Education Vol 69, No. 6.