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.



Teleological Factors in Education: a Proposal

The intrinsic motivation factor in education is where each child’s individual telos, intention, purpose, or goal, intersects with the objectives of a lesson, the hopes of the teacher, the goals of administration, the standards of the state, and the ideals of society. How much do we understand about how student motivation intersects with learning? How would our field look through this lens? Would a study of purposes and cross-purposes of stakeholders in education, based on historical or contemporary documents or ethnographic observations, interviews, case studies, or narratives, shed light on economy of effort in educational reform?

Cross-purposes of stakeholders in education is an issue that seems to me to be at the heart of the struggle for all involved. In schools I see the most success when everyone’s purposes are aligned and the most discomfort when they are not. Experiencing moments of synchrony may be satisfying enough to keep teachers, students, administrators, governments, and society engaged through moments of conflict. Meanwhile, societal problems such as the current teacher shortages may come as a result of teleological dissonance. The issue merits analysis.

A literature review of the topic of intrinsic motivation would help to define the terms of the study, describing and classifying all types of motivation among students & teachers as well as all types of guiding philosophies of teachers and educational paradigms.

In any given educational situation the phenomenon of student motivation might be described qualitatively, resulting in specific insights, or quantitatively, leading to generalizations that may be more widely useful. The range of situations studied may include those sufficiently documented in history, such as the pedagogical efforts of Walter Smith or Victor Lowenfeld. It may otherwise consider the varying experiences of a single pupil across a chosen timeframe explored ethnographically, or the sociological implications of motivation in school among specific populations.

Artistic Development

Facing Multiple Pathways, the Choice IS the Curriculum: Starting From Where VCAE Has Left Us

Which path to choose for my art class? Will a lesson designing memes for social media using one-to-one Chromebooks engage students and give them opportunity to master the skills they need to succeed in the world of art?

Art education still seems to lean heavily on “universal” elements and principles of art introduced a century ago in the context of emerging modernism. More current guidelines for learning in art are at hand: Olivia Gude (2004) proposed a collection of principles of art for a postmodern era. Paul Duncum (2007) proposed 7 principles of Visual Culture Art Education (VCAE) for authentic art learning. Hetland’s (2007) Studio Thinking (ST) framework offered a new approach to teaching artistic habits of mind, or dispositions.

As a paradigm, the Studio Thinking framework seems to have gained the most mass and momentum. Whereas attempts to align art in school with a postmodern art world of “many truths with many narratives, and the blurring of the distinction between high and popular culture,” as Duncum (2009, p. 67) describes VCAE, may have had a destabilizing effect on art educators whose own love for the world of traditional “high culture” art motivated them to teach, Studio Thinking provided new perspective without prescribing an aesthetic or dislodging any anchors to familiar studio structures involving painting, ceramics, photography, design, sculpture and drawing. Its purpose was to describe real benefit of arts education taken seriously. Art teachers readily turn to a flexible framework based on established art programs rather than aim for multiple moving targets of praxis in the context of postmodern art broadly defined as visual culture.

The popular Studio Thinking framework doesn’t preclude postmodernism or visual culture art education. It accommodates diverse aesthetics, ideologies, and artistic purposes of both the past and the present, while meeting the need for articulation of arts education’s distinct contribution to human development. Teachers equipped with it have the freedom to choose a path into centuries-old art traditions as well as explore the breadth of art in visual culture. At this point, all paths are open, none is predominant, how does an art teacher select what to teach? What can art teachers do in support of students following multiple paths, growing toward multiple endpoints of artistic development (Duncum, 1999) ? How do we teach multiple aesthetics, ideologies, and artistic purposes?

What to teach next? The choice is the curriculum.

If selecting art lessons for their value in developing artistic dispositions, nearly any line of artistic inquiry will do. Artistic dispositions are the habits of mind that are well-developed among working artists and serious art students of any ideology. They are also believed to be essential thinking skills in the 21st century, and as a set, they overlap with the dispositions demanded of other domains, such as mathematics, science, engineering, and language.

But what lesson next? The decision is most difficult when it is monocratic, but when the next lesson is presented as one of many options for student artists, as a choice that is theirs to make, the teacher’s choosing becomes a model of authenticity in a domain of multiple trajectories, and students may learn to value a wide range of inquiry in visual art. The subtext of the choice-based curriculum is that visual art involves individual choices and aesthetics. The breadth of art lessons the teacher chooses deepens the curriculum.

Art education centered on student choice is authentic pedagogy, valid in a multidirectional art world, and appropriate for the contemporary art classroom works toward artistic dispositions. Teaching for Artistic Behavior (TAB), (Jaquith & Hathaway, 2012) a choice-based approach developed over decades, allows the students multiple paths of development toward acquiring artistic dispositions.

Choice-based art programs are fertile ground for authentically varied art learning. Worrying less about the implications of autocratic lesson selection, TAB teachers are likely to more freely incorporate art lessons on visual culture, contemporary art, and even architectural or engineering design processes. Taking a chance on an interesting new, unfamiliar, or possibly unsuccessful direction for learning in one’s class echoes the kind of creative risk-taking behavior expected in any art world and models the intellectual risk-taking expected of creative students in a creative stepping stone environment (Stanley & Lehman, 2015).



Artistic Development

Teaching with consensus about artistic development

How do artists develop?  An understanding of artistic development is a starting point of any plan for schools concerned with developing artists. A consensus on the topic may propel art education forward. Doug Boughton, in Research Themes in Art Education: Making Sense of the Discipline (2014), briefly summarizes a history of findings on the topic.

Universal stages of development in drawing

Boughton’s overview begins with Victor Lowenfeld’s stages of drawing development, which were widely accepted in the 1950’s, assuming a direct line of growth toward realistic representation in art (an end goal actually abandoned by many artists). Accompanying the theory was the notion that an artist grew from within, best protected from outside influences that might taint a distinct individuality.

Mapping nonuniversal development

The history continues in the 1980’s when David Feldman justified outward influences on development, challenging the universal development theory that all humans move through similar stages of artistic development of their own momentum. He recognized stages of growth specific to various domains of skill and knowledge, but he credited what he called “coincidental forces” of culture, family, and training, to name a few, “for all developmental change, successful or unsuccessful, optimal or less than optimal, universal or nonuniversal.” (p. 85, Feldman, 1985)

Feldman’s concept map placed artistic development in an outlying zone of knowledge beyond simply learning to draw. While all children attempt to draw and develop aesthetic sensibilities to some extent, to become an artist is a highly specialized path that wouldn’t even begin until early adolescence, “when the Lowenfeld stages have all but run their course.” (p. 86) Feldman perceived that beginning to draw is as universal as learning to speak, as if hardwired into the human brain, but argued that such universality ends at Lowenfeld’s earliest stage of representation. After that brief universal development of drawing in young children, outward influences begin to shape their artwork, according to Feldman’s nonuniversal model. First and most broadly influencing the development of art are cultural forces, as investigated initially by Marjorie and Brent Wilson (1982). Next come influences specific to the domain, resulting discipline-based knowledge, followed by idiosyncratic knowledge gained from intense artistic inquiry, and finally unique knowledge. Artists operate on levels of knowledge and skill beyond what is expected of other members of their culture. The eminent artist even finds unique knowledge that may reorganize or revolutionize the world of art.

Nonuniversal model of development prevails

Research into artistic development persisted for thirty years with interchanges between tests based on universal and nonuniversal assumptions. Lowenfeld’s universal theory seems to have resonated with some researchers who have elaborated upon the notion of universal development toward realistic representation of drawings, while others have worked to confirm the argument that outside influences play a significant role in the artistic development of children, as Boughton’s overview concludes.

Implications of teaching for artistic development

When we take art education seriously, with authentic learning and assessment that resembles the work and evaluation encountered in art beyond school, we can’t escape the need for a consensus about patterns of artistic development. Artistry is our goal for all.

Our serious art programs are pushing beyond the general requisites of our culture toward the knowledge and skill of the discipline. So, when we say we are developing artists in K-12 art class, are we planning only for the small subset of students who will take their knowledge and skill to the next level of specialization, and the even smaller subset who will make unique discoveries in visual art to redefine the discipline itself?

Focusing teaching for these few may be seen as regression for the field, since one purpose of the Discipline-based Art Education movement of the last three decades seems to have been to promulgate the idea that art knowledge is accessible to all, expanding the boundaries of what our culture expects everyone to know. But justification for maintaining the highest expectations for art class has been, ironically, that the dispositions demanded in the most specialized role in visual art are very similar to those demanded of all citizens of the 21st century, “with the potential to transfer to other areas of learning.” (p. 1, Hetland, 2007). The idea here is not that an accomplished visual artist, achieving a pinnacle of knowledge and mastery, has knowledge and skill no different from the general population. Rather the thinking tools artists master to get to that knowledge are shared and can be useful in any and all disciplines. (Root-Bernstein & Root-Bernstein, 1999) While Hetland articulates processes that are common across disciplines, they are accessed in unique experiences of creating and experience the visual in school, centered on what Samuel Hope (2004, p. 101) distills as the essence of the field: creating and attending to things visual. It follows that in order to contribute uniquely to education, art educators need not only to teach in a visual context dispositions shared with other disciplines, but also evenly and simultaneously teach a myriad of domain-specific knowledge and skills. Despite increased pressure on art education (Hope, 2004, p. 103), technique and craft can’t be boiled away.

A problem of assessment and pedagogy

A persistent problem with assessment in visual art has been the perception that we need to agree on a universal trajectory of development for the discipline with predictable, sequential stages as steps toward a singular goal. Observational drawing skills, for example, were once seen as universally valid in visual art (Clark, 1993) until strong arguments were made for Visual Culture Art Education (Dorn, 2005) arising from the postmodernist paradigm. Highly refined observational drawing skills are no longer as valid a foundation for new media artists of the 21st century as they had been for painters of the 19th century. Realistic drawing ability has lost validity in the discipline. The visual arts landscape encompasses many paths of inquiry in parallel, each with its own epistemology, aesthetic, and body of knowledge and skill.

The consensus we need is an acceptance of having no single universal foundational path of artistic development, but multiple trajectories, micro-disciplines and subdomains within the domain of art, resulting in pedagogy that accommodates multiple directions of knowledge and skill development while also teaching for universal artistic dispositions. We will be closer to consensus about stages of development toward mastery of micro-disciplines such graphic design, pottery, computer animation, fashion design, figurative art, or naturalistic drawing and painting. We may even agree on logical sequences of learning in each subdomain. Even so, there is still a problem of pedagogy. Without a universal foundation of discipline-based knowledge, what will we teach about art in elementary and secondary school? The best answer would be to teach a little bit of everything all the time, allowing school-based artists of all ages to choose their paths as do artists outside of school.

Teaching multiple art subdomains with Choice-based Art Education

Much has been said in the past decade about teaching for artistic dispositions. (Hetland, 2007) Now art education needs a pedagogy that will teach and assess the domain-specific skills and knowledge in many directions at once. The gap to fill is in the acquisition of discipline-based knowledge without prioritizing one medium or aesthetic over others. Teaching for Artistic Behavior, also called Choice-based Art Education, is a pedagogy that meets the need for a well-developed teaching approach accommodating multiple learning trajectories and teaching for artistic dispositions, (Jaquith & Hathaway, 2012) with current attention to matching the pedagogy with appropriate assessment strategies (Personal communication with Jaquith, 2016). Appropriate assessment will address the need for tracking and recognizing skills practiced and learned as well as knowledge gained and dispositions exhibited in as all students develop artistically.