Using New Resources for Teaching Art History

By Erickson, Mary | School Arts, April 1994 | Go to article overview

Using New Resources for Teaching Art History


Erickson, Mary, School Arts


Many art teachers have been committed to teaching art history as long as they've been in the field. For years, a paucity of resources made that commitment difficult to keep. In the last decade or so, this commitment has received support through state recommendations and mandates specifying art history content, and through national initiative advocating broad-based art education goals. Increased commitment has translated into increased market as publishers compete to meet increased demand. Textbooks, poster series, slide programs, laser disks and other resources are competing for our art-history dollar. How can we best use the resources we select?

What's the Big Idea?

Though rich with potential, art history can seem like a complex maze of details through which we must find a comprehensible path for our students. In cutting our way through, I recommend two principles: look for big ideas, and focus on developing inquiry skills. Although small, even trivial, bits of information can motivate students' interest and flesh out rich narratives, teachers and students need to know the big picture that the details embroider. And students need to practice their inquiry skills so they can use them in other contexts.

No elementary art program can address all the important art of all times, across the globe; nor can it address all the interests of our culturally diverse students. Empowered with big ideas and inquiry skills, the art-historical understanding of our students need not be limited to our curricular choices. Students should be encouraged to use big ideas to guide their looking, and inquiry skills to ask their own questions about the art that interests them.

Here are six questions we can ask as we consider our selection and use of art-history resources. The first three focus on big ideas that organize art-historical information. The last three focus on inquiry skills, encompassing questioning, speculation and evidence gathering.

1. Does the resource present basic information about artworks of the past from many cultures?

2. Does the resource explain what artworks mean in the context within which they were produced?

3. Does the resource explain how and why art has changed through time and across cultures?

4. Does the resource teach how to use evidence to help determine basic information about artworks of the past from various cultures?

5. Does the resource show how to propose and support interpretations of what artworks mean in the context within which they were produced?

6. Does the resource teach how to describe and propose explanations of changes in art through time and across cultures?

Space does not permit a full analysis of resources using these six considerations, and other issues come into play in a teacher's, school's or district's choice of resources and their use. Let me at least offer examples of each consideration.

Basic Information

The range of basic information about artworks from many cultures has increased dramatically in recent years. Brommer's Discovering Art History includes cross-cultural time lines at the end of each chapter. Hobbs and Salome's The Visual Experience includes maps throughout its two non-Western and two Western art history chapters. Shorewood publishes a multicultural program with reproductions. Briere's Art Image series organizes information around themes, many of which are cross-cultural. Chapman's Adventures in Art series is packed with artworks from around the globe and throughout time.

Change and Difference

At one time, art-historical resources tended to be organized in one of two ways: chronologically (usually comprehensive surveys of Western art), or virtually without regard for art-historical context (i.e., illustrations of art elements or processes).

Many resources now provide general ideas about how and why art has changed over time and across cultures. …

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