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.

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