Problem-Based Learning: A Concrete Approach to Teaching Aesthetics

By Costantino, Tracie E. | Studies in Art Education, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Problem-Based Learning: A Concrete Approach to Teaching Aesthetics


Costantino, Tracie E., Studies in Art Education


This article presents a concrete strategy for the teaching of aesthetics: Problem-based learning (PBL). More than an isolated activity, PBL is both a curricular organizer and an instructional method that develops students higher order thinking skills as they investigate ill-defined problems drawn from real-life situations. The article begins with an example of aesthetics as implicit content in an upper elementary grade art lesson followed by an introduction to PBL, including its history and theoretical foundations. The challenges of implementing a PBL unit using an example of PBL in an elementary school setting is explored. The article concludes with an illustration of how PBL can be applied to teaching aesthetics as an explicit part of the art curriculum.

Aesthetic philosophies are implicit in what teachers do as they guide students in the creation and appreciation of art (Anderson & McRorie, 1997; Parsons, 1994; Stewart, 1994). For example, a teacher's selection of a particular kind of art to discuss art with students draws on a specific theory on art-whether it is canonized by a Western European aesthetic philosophy or, taking a pluralist view, is drawn from diverse cultures (Hamblen & Galanes, 1997). In discussing these works, the method of criticism employed by the teacher, such as Broudy's (1988) aesthetic scanning technique or the Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) (Housen, 2001; Yenawine, 1998), also presents a specific philosophy about the nature of art (formalism, in the cases of Broudy and VTS). By not discussing the tacit assumptions about what constitutes art inherent in particluar approaches, students miss the opportunity to grapple with definitional issues or to consider the various roles art has played in different cultures throughout history. If we expect students to have a substantive understanding of art and its contribution to human experience, it is not sufficient for aesthetic philosophies to remain implicit in an art teacher's curriculum. Aesthetic content needs to be made explicit, by highlighting philosophical issues or theories as they arise naturally in a preexisting unit or, preferably, by implementing more concrete strategies.

In this article, I will present a concrete strategy for the teaching of aesthetics: Problem-based learning (PBL). More than an isolated activity, problem-based learning is both a curricular organizer and an instructional method that develops students' higher order thinking skills as they investigate ill-defined problems drawn from real-life situations. In the most successful applications of PBL, students are challenged to think deeply about complex situations.1 Like any method or theory, however, its effectiveness depends on the way it is applied.

Aesthetics as Implicit Content in a Lesson on Artemisia Gentileschi

Although aesthetics is identified as an essential subject in a discipline-- based approach to art education, many art teachers do not include lessons focused on aesthetics in their curriculum. Instead, much of aesthetics-- related content is implicit in other activities, such as studio projects, or discussing works of art. For example, the following lesson on Artemisia Gentileschi was presented by an artist-in-residence to a class of upper elementary students in an inner city school as part of a history of painting program. For this lesson on Gentileschi, which was part of the program's section on female artists of the 16th and 17th centuries, the artist showed students several paintings by Gentileschi, including Judith Decapitating Holofernes (Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi). Gentileschi's depiction of this biblical story from the Book of Judith2 is characteristic of the Italian Baroque in that she portrayed the most dramatic moment of the story-- Judith, with determined countenance, slicing Holofernes's neck with a large sword. The story of Judith and Holofernes was a popular pictorial subject during the 16th and 17th centuries and this particular depiction is especially significant because it was painted by a woman. …

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