The Potential for Meaning in Student Art

By Gnezda, Nicole M. | Art Education, July 2009 | Go to article overview
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The Potential for Meaning in Student Art

Gnezda, Nicole M., Art Education

At the end of the 20th century, dialogue in art education shitted the goals of art teaching primary from a primary focus on studio production to an aesthetics and culture driven curriculum (Chapman, 1978; Duncum, 2001; University of North Texas, n.d.). Discipline-Based Art Education (Clark, Day, & Greer, 1987) and Jnore recently, Visual Culture Art Education (VCAE) (Duncum 2001) have provided students with a rich background for intellectualizing about art and images, especially those produced by others. ( For many art students, now presented with expansive academic substance, art-production has become less significant, if not sometimes insignificant im their art classrooms. For others, however, the primary focus is still skill training and the "disciplining: of perceptual-cognitive processes" (Atkinson & Dash, 2005, p. xi) with little attention to the contextual and ideational aspects of art. At their extremes these two approaches to art teaching address separate, sometimes pedagogically conflicting (Efland, 1990), aspects of art education, i.e. academicallybased and studio-based practices. This article, recommends an approach to art teaching that integrates academic and studio studies (University of North Texas, n.d.) by emphasizing a third and essential organizing principle: the potential for meaning in student art.

Authenticity, Relevance, and Substantive Response

Despite the recommendations of Freedman (2003). Atkinson and Dash (2005), and Anderson and Milbrandt (2005), art educators do not talk enough about rationales and methods for teaching artmaking. Art production is commonly used to teach design and technique, as well as to reinforce lessons about eminent artists and cultural images. Yet, there are higher values associated with teaching artmaking: the authenticity of creating personal meanings in art, the relevance of art education to students' lives, and substantive responses from adults and peers to the messages and images in students' artwork.


Art in the adult world is often created as a meaningful response to personal and cultural experience. However, it is not unusual for student artmaking to be primarily the fulfillment of assignments developed by teachers. Students should also have opportunities to make art from ideas processed by the creative sources within their own minds and psyches (Heilman, 2005; Gnezda-Smith, 1994).

Teaching and learning that engage students in their own real-world experience and meaningful knowledge construction are known in the education reform movement as "Authentic Instruction" and "Authentic Learning" (Mims, 2003). Authentic instruction delves students into exploration and inquiry, reaches beyond the school context, and replaces objective measures with original products that are created as part of the academic pursuit. Through this process, students not only accumulate information, but also actively participate in the construction of knowledge. Mims cites constructivists who believe that bringing the real world into the classroom environment is "key to promoting learning" (p.l).

The art room is a natural setting for authentic learning because art is an expression of individuals' real-world encounters with self, history, and culture. Students, like adult artists, should have opportunities to deal with their potent experiences through the sensory, creative, and manipulative process that is art. By teaching artmaking that asks our students to deal creatively with their authentic experiences, we help them to make constructions - both cognitive and concrete - of their knowledge about self and world.


Authentic learning requires that the meaning construction involved in learning be relevant to students' lives and based on real-world connections. In addition, the learning tasks should be real, i.e. production of tangible end products (Mims, 2003), rather than the more artificial tasks of memorization, recitation, and tests.

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