The Big Idea: Service-Learning and Art Education

By Buffington, Melanie L. | Art Education, November 2007 | Go to article overview

The Big Idea: Service-Learning and Art Education


Buffington, Melanie L., Art Education


In this article I explore the big idea concept, service-learning, and offer a specific example of a service-learning project involving preservice art teachers at a middle school. Following the description, I address what the preservice teachers learned through the experience as expressed in their reflections about the project. The impetus for this project came from the preservice art teachers' in my classes who shared stories about the art lessons they saw during their school observations. The teachers they observed worked from different orientations including Discipline-Based Art Education (DBAE), creative self-expression, formalism, holiday art, and make-and-take. The lessons and artmaking that the preservice teachers saw related closely to their personal experiences as students, although they did not overtly connect to course content.

The textbook that I used with preservice art teachers was Sydney Walker's (2001) Teaching Meaning in Artmaking. Introducing preservice teachers to the big idea concept as the focus for artmaking was exciting; preservice teachers shared with me how this concept improved their understanding of their own artmaking and other preservice teachers expressed their interest in using a big idea as the focus for their lessons. However, some preservice teachers explained their hesitation to accept this concept because they did not learn this way, had not seen this in practice, and did not know what it would be like to teach from this approach.

These discussions with preservice teachers prompted me to investigate ways to provide them with concrete experiences that related the conceptual content of the course to the reality of public school teaching. At the same time, through conversations with local teachers, I became aware of the significant reductions in funding for visual art in the local public schools. The combination of the status of art education in the local schools and the need to involve preservice teachers in meaningful teaching experiences, led me to think about how the preservice teachers could provide service to students in a local school, while giving them an experience working with a big idea in a school setting. This led to the development of a service-learning project for preservice art teachers to involve them in working with a group of students at a local middle school.

Big Ideas

Within art education, scholars advocate teaching with big ideas, also called enduring ideas, key ideas, or themes (Daniel, Stuhr, & Ballengee-Morris, 2006; Stewart & Walker, 2005; The Ohio State University TETAC Mentors, 2002; Walker, 2001). Emanating from the interdisciplinary/integrated curriculum movement related to the work of curriculum theorists, including Jacobs (1989), Burns (1995), and Beane (1997), big ideas organize curriculum around important topics. According to Walker (2001), "Big ideas-broad, important human issues-are characterized by complexity, ambiguity, contradiction, and multiplicity" (p. 1). Examples of big ideas include measurement, power, community, heroes, family, celebration, environment, human diversity, nature and culture, violence, and social order. Walker (2001) explained that many artists work with a particular big idea over the course of many years. Though the subject matter, materials, or form of the art may change, the artist is still investigating ways to understand the big idea. When teaching from this perspective, student artmaking, like the work of professional artists, relates to issues in the world. Instead of a teacher presenting students with an example to copy or focusing artmaking on technical exercises only, artmaking should function as a way to connect student experiences in the world to the big idea. Through developing personal connections to the big idea, practicing techniques, and approaching art as a meaning-making endeavor, students can move toward what Roberts (2005) described as "real" artmaking. Few of my students previously encountered big ideas; after introducing them to this concept, I also introduced them to service-learning.

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