|so and so
Joined: Jan 28 2001
Location: Boston, for now...
Purpose of Education in General
People have debated the purposes of education in America for hundreds of years. Some see it as a process of elimination, where excellent students surpass their peers and go on to colleges and make careers in their field of choice, and bad apples are weeded out. Some see it as a preparation of all citizens into the labor force. Some see it as a means of instilling values and ethics into society, as children learn what it means to be a mature adult, and active, productive citizen. Some see it as a means of promoting religion. Some see it as an agent for democracy, while others see it as a system of oppression. At different points in our history, under the direction of various people, education has been all these things, and probably still is today, somewhere in America.
I believe that education has the potential and obligation to spread greater opportunities to all students. Our schools should develop them into skilled experts in a variety of subjects, prepare them for higher education and the real world, and teach responsibility, maturity, and empathy, all of which are required to become a wise, adaptable, and content adult. I believe students should be introduced to all subjects of study, so that they might develop a passion for them, and open new opportunities for their future. I believe that it is not enough for students to memorize the content of their subjects, but be able to evaluate for themselves what they find relevant, why it matters, and how it may be of use to themselves and others. I also believe that it is shameful to focus only on the easiest to teach, those students that are highly gifted, while ignoring the problem of how to educate all other students. I believe that the vast majority of our nation’s youth are fully capable to take on careers in all major areas of business & industry, and are far too young to rule out any possibilities. It is up to us as educators to keep them from doing so.
The Purpose of Art Education
There have been several large movements to guide the focus of art education in the last century. The Expressionist movement, based partially on Freudian psychology and the Expressionist Art movement focused on the power of art to understand oneself, one’s inner feelings, and interpret them visually. Detractors complained that, through this approach to art education, there is no way to assess skills. The Reconstructionist movement used art as a means of putting society under a magnifying lens, with the aim of transforming it, under more egalitarian principles. Detractors of this movement complained that, with this focus, art would become a tool for other fields of study, rather than an end in itself. The Scientific Rationalist movement tried to legitimize art education by breaking it down into quantifiable steps of progress, based on skill. Detractors of this movement complained that limiting art education to technical instruction would ignore too much of its potential. Today, many art education curriculums are based around different art materials and design concepts that coincide with these materials.
I believe that art education has the same purposes as other educational fields, which is primarily to teach and develop skills that students can use later in life, in college, in professions, and on their own. Art education gives students new options for what they can do with their lives. The four skills that I believe are most helpful to students are drawing from observation, understanding human anatomy, understanding and using color theory at a high level, and sculpting from observation. There are many other artistic skills including photography, ceramics, painting techniques for various kinds of paints, animation, printmaking, computer arts, fashion design, jewelry design, plaster casting, etc, that also give students more artistic options. I believe these skills are also valuable, and should be taught based on student preference, but the four primary ones are most helpful because they can enhance the work produced in all other fields of visual art. They open the most options. Anatomy alone allows for art involving people, illustrations, portraits, historical depictions, etc. Even if students decide they want to go on to make art totally unrelated to realistic drawing, painting, sculpting, or art involving the figure, the familiarity that they will gain with the materials and the ability they will have to perceive shape, size, proportion, and color will help them with any artistic project they ever take on. For me it is not important that students make any particular kind of art, but rather that their senses are refined enough to truly create what they want. These four skills are also the most challenging, and form a barrier which many students feel they must overcome to consider themselves capable artists.
However, art is not just skill. Art is a means of communication, and some thought must be put into what students are saying through their art. All art lessons must allow for students to say something on their own about their topic. Courses in general must insist on students choosing their own topics for artistic creation at some point in their syllabus. Besides making art, any student who wants to become a professional artist, connoisseur, historian, or theorist must learn to speak and write about art. To do so they must have a sufficient understanding of history, artistic and social movements, design and aesthetic principles, and various critical theories and uses of art. Art education must broaden students’ definitions of art and its potential, not just as a selling point to motivate them to learn, but also because it is essential to understanding the subject. In the process of developing students’ voices, students will also increase skills and knowledge related to history, reading and writing, giving speeches and presentations, debating concepts, and higher order cognitive skills such as critical thinking, evaluation, and self reflection. These are all valuable abilities to have, and some art educators claim the acquisition of these skills as a justification for art education. I, however, do not think these skills constitute the ultimate goals of art education, but rather they are the means by which students can become artists (professional or otherwise), which should be the ultimate goal.
Creative Subjects, Especially Visual Art, Are Different From Other Subjects
In an effort to impress upon others the importance and validity of art education, some educators have emphasized how it is different from other subjects. Art education is crucial because it develops certain cognitive skills such as visual communication, experiential learning, longitudinal thinking, problem solving, qualitative judgments, and other concepts that only art education can teach. What I have not heard mentioned is that art education is also different in several other major ways. While World History, English Literature, Algebra, and Chemistry may limit themselves to a relatively small set of skills, visual art consists of literally hundreds of skills and techniques, anywhere from drawing an apple to weaving a Navajo rug or casting a Nigerian bronze mask. Unlike other subjects that agree on a few skills to build, art education is open to teaching any and all of these hundreds of skills, with only some vague guidance from standards as to what may be more valued. Unlike the skills and knowledge given in other classes, which often involve more lecturing than practice, artistic skills must be practiced over and over, like scales in music, to gain mastery.
Besides this, school art programs in general have been relegated to a marginal status in schools. In elementary and middle schools, most children only receive an hour or less each week to art instruction. Art programs and requirements in high schools can vary widely across the United States, but in general they are not required for graduation, not even for a single semester. While students in all grades may be held back for not meeting requirements in math, reading, or science, none are ever held back for an inability to draw, paint or sculpt. Art programs are usually poorly funded, and the first cut during budget crises. Some school systems and schools do not even have an art program. Prevailing attitudes toward art maintain that it is more of a gift than a skill to learn and develop, and that there is no way to fairly and definitively assess work created. The result is that students in any given school and class may have a wide variation in artistic ability. Some students may doubt their own artistic potential, while others may not see any value in a subject apparently not valued by the school system itself.
To counteract this, certain other educators have tried to push art education to be more like other subjects, complete with quizzes, terms and definitions, standards of assessment and even state exams. Art directors and graduate schools push for art teachers to use the same models for curriculum (understanding by design & depth over coverage) that are used for other subjects. Students are given number grades each semester just like any other class. For me this presents a dilemma, because if art education is really so different from other subjects, why should we treat it like the rest? I also want art education to be more respected and equitably represented in schools. But, I feel that the differences of art education and its inability to be so easily quantified like other classes is part of what makes it so special and vital to education.
Furthermore, trying to make art courses seem so much like others kinds of subjects may hurt the educational process when practices do not mesh with reality. For example, art teachers are now being encouraged to focus more on depth than breadth. It is not enough to cover all the available art materials. Teachers must give several lessons in just one material until students master them. This is a wonderful principle, used successfully in high schools and colleges throughout America. However, what happens when it gets put to use on a class of 8th graders, most of whom are about to have the last art instruction of their lives? Is it fair to them to spend half a year going into depth on watercolor or charcoal drawing, or fabric art, so that this is all they ever know about art? At some point you have to stop and realize that, with art education’s marginal status, you have to go into covering an enormous amount of material just so that students will know it exists. Once students have their last required art class, that is their last chance to gain an appreciation for art, and your last chance to encourage it – and not everyone likes the same kinds of art.
I do not see this as a defeatist attitude. I just believe that, especially for young students, covering a wide variety of arts and practices will excite and motivate them, whereas if they get stuck doing one thing for too long they will get sick of it, whether they really understand it or not. Besides, a twelve year old does not have to understand painting perfectly. He or she just needs to love doing it. Children have their whole lives to master the art processes. If art educators ever want their programs to get on track, there must be a motivating impulse beyond simply knowing the material. Probably, the greatest contribution to art education in America over the last few years were the reality shows American Idol, and Project Runway. Millions of viewers tuned in every week to see regular people work towards getting famous just for having artistic skills.
Assessment & Grading
As mentioned above, visual art consists of literally hundreds of skills and techniques. Professional artists devote their entire lives to mastering just a few of them. In general, it takes a lifetime to master any artistic skill. A professor of mine once said, “It takes twenty years to be a painter, thirty to be a sculptor.” One could argue that it is premature to be assessing the work of young children who have just started. However, it would be folly to say that assessment is not possible. Some people may be averse to assessment because they feel it unfairly labels students, and is based on personal preferences of the teacher. One concept that must be emphasized is that there is a difference between assessing the art work and assessing the student. A student who makes one horrible mess with papier-mâché might very well impress the entire class next week with his drawing of a bowl of fruit.
Another even bigger concept is that assessment is not just a tool for teachers to use to judge students. It is possibly the most crucial skill that students can learn in viewing and creating their own work. If a student is ever going to look past his or her initial frustration with an artwork, he or she is going to have to learn how to look at it and determine what looks wrong with an otherwise good artwork. How can it be changed to look better? What colors would work better? What needs to be blended better, and what needs to stand out? Where is the center of interest? Is there one? Why does this one area look unresolved? These are not scary questions. They should not be used to make a student feel unskilled or unintelligent. They should be used everyday along with kind advice to help a student create impressive artwork. They should be said so that students can learn to ask themselves these same questions.
And there are answers. Not every art exercise looks great, or finished. Everyone has a right to their own opinion, but art exercises are not the same as artworks. The main purpose of art education is not to make great art, but to learn how to make great art. Exercises produced in class can have specific goals and requirements and can be judged according to whether they fit those requirements. An exercise might look wonderful but still not fit requirements. When this happens, the teacher should make a value judgment as to whether the student understands the concepts involved, so that a certain degree of artistic freedom is always allowed. But in general, judging an exercise based on the criteria of the lesson is pretty straight forward, and not open to much interpretation or debate.
While assessment can be straight forward, especially a written assessment, how do grades fit into art education? I believe this depends on the title and aims of the course. If you are teaching Drawing, a 94 would indicate, presumably, that a student is fairly proficient in drawing from observation, creating various kinds of exciting & descriptive lines, expressing volume and other design concepts through the medium, working well from memory, and using drawing to create imaginative, expressive, possibly abstract artwork. These are all presumptions, and are further complicated by the teacher’s possible grading curve. But, what about a 94 in an Art Fundamentals class? What does that mean? Can the student draw, paint, bronze cast, weave, etch, make jewelry, or carve wooden masks? What exactly did the student do in class? In this case, ascribing a number to the course to describe the art created just seems ridiculous. Even looking back at the drawing course, ask yourself, what would the difference between an 84 or a 86 look like? Would you be able to tell who got the higher grade from looking at the work? Maybe? Does that seem right to you? This is one of the many ways in which art is not like math or reading. It can be assessed clearly, astutely, and in detail, but not with a number.
So how does one go about appeasing the system, which requires number grades? Well, first ask yourself, what are these grades for? Who wants to see them? So far as I can tell, there are three groups: parents, school administrators, and colleges. Parents want to know if their students are applying themselves and understanding the principles involved. For them, a written assessment for their child would be highly valued. For school administrators, grades are a way of measuring teacher performance as well as that of students. They want to know that students are applying themselves and learning, and that the teacher is being a good facilitator. For school administrators of art programs, grades are about the only indication of success available, since there are, as of yet, no standardized tests on the arts. Other indicators are teacher evaluations, student exhibits, and public projects such as student murals and art fairs (note none of these measures of assessment involve number grades). When colleges look at a grade, what they are most interested in is the student’s ability to work, to understand what is required, and to complete the required tasks – skills related to success in academia and in the business world. Since grades from different teachers and different schools are almost impossible to compare, all you can deduce from them collectively is how close that student came to doing what the teachers wanted him or her to, and being what the teachers wanted him or her to be. Another way of putting it is grades are a measure of how much pain and suffering a student can put up with (depending on the school). Even then, grades are only a very rough estimate.
In my view, students should all be given a written assessment of their strengths and weaknesses, and a number grade that can give some indication of their potential to succeed in the real world, not as an artist, but as a professional. It should reflect a willingness to work, to do research, to grasp new concepts, and to develop over time. Any letters of recommendation sent to a college should explain what this grade means, and include a written assessment of the student’s artistic ability and the strengths of certain artworks.
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