Category Archive: art education

Web-based Assessment

In a recent Canadian Studies course, I had the opportunity to build a microsite as an alternative to the typical essay format. I observed that there were several major benefits to the web-based format, primarily that it is composed in a non-linear format that allows the viewer to explore the content in their own sequence. As important as traditional composition can be, I can imagine huge benefits of organizing information in a manner well-suited to a non-sequential assembly of written content. I also believe that this generation is much more accustomed to interpreting information from the web than they are with long-form prose or other types of persuasive writing.

Fortunately, I had a background in web design, but it certainly requires technical skills that would typically lie outside of the students technological abilities. I could see myself utilizing this alternative format in a class focused on media or graphics, where the format could build upon an existing knowledge base of the medium. It could be used to summatively assess student competence with web-design as well as to formatively assess their exploration of a contemporary concept within design.

Learning Through Sketching

In Learning Through Sketching, Danan McNamara examines the literal and figurative relationship between sketching and learning. She has broadly applied contour sketching as a technique of focused observation and study in her elementary classroom. McNamara has witnessed its power to establish a strong connection between the students awareness of their environment and their ability to develop their own interpretation of it. In their sketches, students are encouraged to focus on nuance, noting and considering details which they may have otherwise overlooked. This is especially apparent when using blind contour; the actual process of sketching trains their ability to make focused observations while ignoring the preciousness of the end result. Value is often mistakenly ascribed to the document rather than the process, an evaluation that is commonly encouraged in schools.



Blind contour sketch of a dying leaf in the University of British Columbia’s Nitobe Garden.

In that sense, sketching is merely a symbol of how critical observation leads to greater learning. Directed sketching from observation is used as a form of scaffolding which McNamara compares to her own development she has pursued through her continuing study of education. As sketches are developed further and subject matter changes, her students began bridging their observations into other formats, including those in spoken and written form. This process allows for a continuous cycle of observations are made, acknowledged, articulated, and acquired. Through experiencing this translation, as well as its deficits, the students may begin to develop a capacity to grasp abstract thought.

I agree with McNamara’s claims. Adults often lack the perspective required to understand how we have arrived at who we are and our ability to appreciate the macro and micro that we have been trained to do throughout our lives. We can have an intimate conversation in a noisy, crowded restaurant, or can try to appreciate the totality of the movement and life which occurs around us in a bustling airport. We have control, and in each moment can choose to consider either the field or the individual blades of grass. Artists often say that they strive to maintain a sense of childlike wonderment, and Zen Buddhists describe it as an attempt to maintain a beginners mind. While we often have little control over the events and environment that make up our lives, we can always aspire to focus on that which is beautiful. We can move past the negative, from the dreadful, overwhelming sense of anomie, to arrive at an awesome sense of wonder, acknowledging the beauty in the tiniest piece of lichen to the breathtaking enormity of human accomplishment.

Schools as Educational Spaces

In “What Our Cities Tell Us! What We Want To Hear!,” Langdon draws connections between the needs of a given generation and the effect those needs have on their environment. He supports these connections with a multitude of observations on what variables play into the ongoing development of these spaces and places. He then leads this into a classroom exercise where he has students examine and analyze the distinctions between ‘main street’ and consumer shopping malls, with the goal of leading students to become more aware and critical of how they are connected to the built world.

In “Take it Outside! A Place-Based Approach to Art Education,” Inwood makes a strong argument for place-based education and advocates its generous application in art education. The place-based education approach creates a strong tie between the curriculum and the real world, forming a powerful association between theoretical and practical knowledge. Much like Langon’s analysis of space, it also leads students to a more critical consideration of their environment. Finally, it has the added benefit of connecting students to their community and the community back to the students.

I agree with both authors in that there are many spaces in which education may occur beyond the classroom. At the same time, I believe that the untapped potential of school and the classroom are largely overlooked. I think its naive to assume that the appearance of the classroom has flexed to perfectly suit the needs of modern students. Langdon talks about a ‘tipping point’ where an old office building may be demolished to make way for a high-rise apartment building to accommodate an expanding population. Most schools in North America are somewhere between thirty to one-hundred years old, and many practices in education can be dated all the way back to ancient Greece and other early agrarian societies. Although the intended function of these buildings remains the same as it always has been, the rigidity of structure and allotted budget has prevented these spaces from adapting or being redesigned in any major way. Projectors may have replaced blackboards and we might be more sensitive about bullying or aware of the importance of nutrition, but other major aspects such as class size, the number and skills of educators, the duration and structure of lessons and holidays, and even such details as desk type and configuration are largely unchanged. North American society has a major lack of foresight when it comes to recognizing the long-term impact of underfunding schools and acknowledging what we stand to gain by increasing the way we prioritize education. I am hopeful that I will see this culture of apathy towards education continue to change over the course of my career.

Discipline-Specific Academic Language

Academic language can be adapted to many different uses. Each discipline uses its own discipline-specific variations of academic language. Sometimes the meaning of this language overlaps between disciplines, while in other instances it may carry an entirely different meaning. For instance, there are multiple uses of the word perspective in art, and although some of these uses may be similar to how it might be used when discussing science or history, there are certain uses that are entirely unique to the discipline. In addition to shared language, there is academic language that is entirely unique within a given discipline. It may eventually become so specialized within their discipline that it could become entirely unrecognizable to those outside the discipline.

Ensuring language competency cannot be the sole burden of English teachers but must be emphasized across all disciplines, a contemporary expectation that isn’t yet being universally adopted amongst educators. The danger is in that educators are experts in their discipline, and in many cases may overlook properly introducing complex language or its discipline-specific application simply because it seems rudimentary to them. It is crucial for educators to understand how students think and what they may be challenged by, and to become more aware of the way in which they reference existing language to explain new terminology.

In the language arts, the student’s ability to convey a literal understanding, to develop an intertextual reading, and to identify and explain recurring themes demonstrates understanding and thoughtful engagement by the student. In the language of history, it is used to establish context, content, and to interpret ideas and events from a particular time and to develop both a critical and empathetic understanding of how it is related to that which precedes and follows it. The language of science is often represented in ways that have little crossover with other disciplines. It is highly technical, empirical, objective, literal, well-organized, and hierarchical. The language of mathematics is perhaps the most distinct as it shares almost no academic language with other disciplines; it uses unfamiliar symbols and unusual methods of organization. It’s abstract nature makes it heavily reliant on a thorough understanding of prior concepts.

Academic language doesn’t always need to be overtly explained, and can often be inferred and reinforced in dialogue with students. Because of a lack of appropriate language to express an understanding, students will often provide fragmented answers to questions posed in the classroom. Demonstrating appropriate use of academic language specific to that discipline by neutrally rephrasing these statements is perhaps the most popular method to subtly develop academic language, and seems to be widely employed across many disciplines.

In many ways, language is more important than that which it describes. The books, facts, theories, and subjects will continue to change for students, but the specific language and the general linguistic ability that it develops will be a relatively static asset in sustaining an ongoing understanding of the world around them.

There are certain words that are used with great frequency that elude general definition. In the arts, perhaps there are no words quite as vague and yet loaded with meaning as the words creative, beautiful and abstract. What do these words mean to you? How do you use them in colloquial speech? In what ways are they used in your particular discipline?

Leaving Students

There are many types of short-term positions available to educators beyond that found in the typical classroom. There are summer camps, tutoring centres, after-school programs, and many more. While many of these run for a very fixed duration, issues around separation may begin to occur in situations where students are enrolled indefinitely while educators may come and go.

Fortunately this is not an issue in long-term school practice. Typically, it is the students who must depart from the classroom. Teaching positions within BC are generally stable, and with the added backup of ever-expanding social media, students will always have a format to reconnect with their mentors. With practicum and community placements looming on the horizon, I’ve begun to wonder: what is the proper protocol to follow when leaving students? Is there even an agreed upon answer?

In order to return to university for my studies, I had to resign from my position tutoring art and design at a local pre-college art studio. Faced with the challenge of determining the healthiest way to depart from my students, I had to consider all of my options.

The first possibility that was considered was to make an event of my departure. While it may have been disruptive, this would have provided the students who needed it with an opportunity for closure. While I would have liked to have considered this option further, the director didn’t want to risk upsetting the balance of the studio.

The next possibility was to simply disappear one day without a trace. Unfortunately, this is the method of choice at the studio. The rationale is that there are enough instructors and enough turnover with staffing that students won’t be detrimentally effected by the disappearance of a staff-person. I felt that the abruptness of the departure could be damaging for some students, many of whom are already have known issues with abandonment.

I finally settled somewhere in between. Over the course of weeks, I would taper off my presence in the classroom, slowly reducing my shifts, enabling a more gradual transition for the students towards regularly working with other instructors. Shortly after my final shift, I sent a farewell letter to the studio to let them know how impressed I was and how much of a pleasure it has been to work with them. While I know that most students wouldn’t be substantially impacted, I hope that I have left doors open to any students who may be interested for closure or followup. I know they are destined for great things and I would be thrilled to continue to hear from graduates and to offer my ongoing mentorship when appropriate.


Applying Methods of Reading Visual Culture to the Interpretation of Art

In “Reconsidering Critical Response: Student Judgements of Purpose, Interpretation, and Relationships in Visual Culture,” Freedman and Wood conduct an inquiry into how students develop an understanding of art and visual culture. Their findings indicate that the majority of secondary and even post-secondary students struggle to move beyond the literal representation, emotional impact, and technique found in a work of art and to begin to interpret greater meaning from an image. By the time most young people have reached secondary school, they have already been exposed to a diverse range of visual culture. Much like how new language is acquired, assimilated or adapted to fit an existing scheme, processing new pieces of visual culture requires students to relate their interpretation to their existing understanding of the contemporaries and precedents that it may be in dialogue with.

This common way of knowing seems to have a detrimental by-product. When young people begin to be exposed to traditional artworks, they must reference their existing understanding of how to read visual culture that they’ve largely developed as a result of their exposure to popular culture. The unfortunate complication is that the images of visual culture that they have been exposed to generally have a specific, agreed upon reading backed by a particular agenda. In the case of advertising, political campaigning, or popular consumer culture, these images are meant to persuade and are not necessarily open to greater individual interpretation.

In Freedman and Wood’s experiment, a mixed group of secondary students were shown four popular culture images and four traditional fine art images which depicted similar subject matter. When prompted to explain what each image reminded them of, their responses were categorized as being either predominantly internal or external interpretations: In other words, interpretations that relied solely on examining internal content as opposed to relying on outside references or knowledge. The students in this experiment were generally inclined to believe that the traditional fine art images were simply meant to communicate a message or emotion that the artist was trying to express, and could rarely recognize the artists’ intent to influence, capture, or explore in fine art pieces. At the same time, students were able to quickly identify a singular reading when examining images from popular culture. They had been trained by the images presented in popular culture to develop very confined, shared readings.

Young people have been equipped with advanced tools to read visual culture, but are novices when it comes to exploring meaning when interpreting a work of art. In the experiment, the students had trouble looking beyond the ‘thingness’ of a work to discover visual metaphors, and were much more reliant on visual cues. Young people struggle to recognize that there may be multiple meanings of equal value in an artwork. They are not taught to continue to look deeper after finding a serviceable reading of an image. This disengagement is supported by polling which suggests that the students did not believe that the practice of art held much if any crossover with other disciplines. This frightening trend shows how young people have difficulty finding significance in art and typically consider it to be ancillary to a developed understanding of their world.

I believe this struggle to openly receive a work of art is indicative of a much larger issue. Why is it that considering art as more than a means of communication is not a notion that society tries to introduce until such a late stage of development? It seems that the failure is on the part of the societal inability to see the potential for children to develop a multitude of thoughtful, if not necessarily articulate, interpretations of art. The fact that young people can quickly and efficiently read a work popular culture reveals their untapped intellectual potential they hold to achieve equally sophisticated and personalized interpretations of art.

Work Cited

Freedman, K., & Wood, J. (1999). Reconsidering critical response: Student judgments of purpose, interpretation, and relationships in visual culture. Studies in Art Education, 40(2), 128-142.


Art Education and the Inescapable Self

Unlike most other disciplines, there is little standardization throughout art curriculum in British Columbia. Art educators are afforded a great deal of flexibility in what, and how, they teach. To a certain degree, perhaps this can be attributed to a lack of understanding in the part of the administrators. It is more likely, however, that it is because they have recognized that the medium has become secondary to the message.

We recently had the pleasure of receiving a guest lecture from Kit Grauer, one of the most experienced Art Education professors at the University of British Columbia. In her work, she often explores what artists bring to the profession when becoming educators. Individual skills, values, and perspectives are not something to be concealed but celebrated.

I have struggled with feelings of deficiency in certain subject areas that I would very much like to be able to teach. Independent study may allow for a certain degree of competency with a given medium, but it will never rival my proficiency in other areas. For instance: although I come from a photography and design background, I would love work with ceramics in the classroom.

It would be a disservice to the students to ignore whole fields of creative study just because they aren’t of great interest to me as an educator. I hate to think students might be judged for their inability to quickly learn three-point perspective in the future because I had glossed over perspective drawing in my classroom. I want to provide a baseline level of exposure to as many mediums and techniques as possible. Hopefully, the increased exposure might help them to more quickly discover their area of passion, be it within the art classroom or otherwise.

At the same time, it would also be a disservice to the students to have a teacher with a mastery of the photographic process skipping through photography in order to teach students the basics of watercolour. Reflecting on my own experience, I have been shocked to find that one of the best teachers and one of the worst teachers I’ve ever had were in fact the same person. In one case they had been obligated to teach a survey art history course, while in another they taught within their focused area of historical interest. These two courses were taken concurrently so it clearly had little to do with their abilities. This incident demonstrated to me how much easier it is to engage students in areas of your discipline that you are truly passionate about.

I struggle to remedy these two ideologies and come to a functional synthesis of the two. Ultimately, we don’t even have the choice to separate ourselves from our educational practice. Individual skills, values, and perspectives cannot be removed from the practice of art education and the field of education as a whole. We are obligated to recognize our strengths, while trying to be as inclusive of other media as possible.

Summary of Curriculum Change for the 21st Century

Examining Freedman and Stuhr’s “Curriculum Change for the 21st Century: Visual Culture in Art Education,” I agree with the authors that there has been an undeniable shift from a study of fine arts to that of visual arts. Visual arts is more inclusive by definition, with a much broader application across culture. It is the role of art educators to update curriculum to reflect this change. It is the role of contemporary art education to teach students to critically consider their environment and not just the necessarily technical skills that are required to become a practicing artist.

Art education has always changed to reflect the cultural values of its time. Most recently, the changes which have occurred are a result of the ubiquitous availability of technology, which has not just changed the reach of visual content but bridged cultures for an expanded audience. The study of art theory has already begun to acknowledge these changes. Now art education, curriculum, and assessment must adapt as well to meet these changing circumstances.

Freedman and Stuhr consider visual culture to consist of “fine art, advertising, folk art, television and other performance arts, housing and apparel design, mall and amusement park design, and other forms of visual production and communication.” This new definition opens up art across the disciplines. I would propose a broadened definition: Visual culture includes everything made or arranged by humans that is visually perceptible and made with intention. It’s worth noting that doesn’t necessarily require that it was intended to be elevated to the realm of art.

The dominant change that Freedman and Stuhr propose is that the medium should not precede the message. The post-modern curriculum should focus on social issues and issues of identity as a starting point. The classroom needs to be a space where images and objects are examined and produced to lead to deeper understandings of ideas, issues, identities, and more. The goal should be betterment of students through art, rather than a goal of realistic art production while simply integrating social issues as a secondary objective.

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