Moving toward a New Philosophy of Art Education

By Michlein, Lee | School Arts, September 1999 | Go to article overview

Moving toward a New Philosophy of Art Education

Michlein, Lee, School Arts

We face challenges, both old and new, in the artroom and within the system of education. The value of art education is perennially in question. New challenges come in the form of change. The politics and goals of education are changing. Some change comes as a result of our understanding the brain and how it responds and learns. Still more change comes from society and the workplace. But is change always bad? Changes have occurred, yet we continue to meet art education's challenges with the same old philosophy.

Art is the Work of the Mind

Art teachers should be able to train the mind tO develop creative ideas. Instead, we have concentrated on the work of our students' hands. Even in the trend toward process rather than product, we continue to emphasize the physical process of creating rather than the mental process of creative thinking. Too often our lessons begin with a focus on media. The artwork may have become more technically complicated, but often the creative idea motivating the work is dictated by the lesson.

In studying art history, we concentrate on the works that were created, while we often neglect to speak about the artist's creative intention and how he or she developed the idea behind the artwork.

While few people need to develop advanced technical art skills and become well-versed in media for a happy, successful life, everyone needs to develop an advanced capability to create innovative solutions to everyday problems. We need the ability to seek new options to old problems. It is what success is about today.

Challenges in the Classroom

All of us use a specific thinking process to develop new ideas and to solve our problems. The process varies for each individual, but generally is employed by the subconscious mind. Some of us are more effective than others. Most of us, however, could not explain the process we use when we come up with a new idea or a solution. Consequently we never develop the skills that allow us to consciously and deliberately develop solutions or ideas on demand. One of the difficulties that confronted me as a beginning art teacher was my students' inability to develop ideas for their work.

What Should I Paint?

I began to wonder if the stereotype of art as the "dumping ground" was tree! Did I have a class full of students who couldn't think? Of course not! All my students took English, Math, Science, and Social Studies too. Convergent/divergent, right brain/left brain ... these theories, no longer current, were not enough to explain the `problem and they didn't offer me a solution. On a typical day, I'd demonstrate the ways in which the media of the moment could be used to create effects. But my students had no need for the information I shared. They sat armed with the tools and some knowledge of how to use the materials, but they couldn't think of what to paint, draw, or sculpt.

They wanted to be successful, but they needed an idea to begin and they didn't know where or how to get one! All their potential technical skill was stalled while waiting for an idea. The frustration grew for all of us. Obviously, change was in order!

The Need for Personal Expression

I spent a major portion of that first year coming up with ideas for my students. I devised lessons with the ideas built in. I was getting better at coming up with ideas all the time, but my students still couldn't come up with their own. It was exhausting and unfulfilling and my students were losing out on the most important aspects of art communication and personal expression.

I began having conversations with them about what they were interested in, felt passionately about and what they liked to look at in life and in artwork. It didn't take long to discover the root of the problem--most of them didn't know! Others knew but weren't confident enough to acknowledge their thoughts. They could, and would, "borrow" someone else's art ideas verbatim and attempt to replicate them, but they couldn't discover what they liked about another's work and apply it to their own ideas. …

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