Beyond Traditional Art Education: Transformative Lifelong Learning in Community-Based Settings with Older Adults

By Lawton, Pamela Harris; La Porte, Angela M. | Studies in Art Education, Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

Beyond Traditional Art Education: Transformative Lifelong Learning in Community-Based Settings with Older Adults


Lawton, Pamela Harris, La Porte, Angela M., Studies in Art Education


Quality community-based art education programs for older adults over the age of 50 should exploit the broad range of interests and cognitive abilities of participants by utilizing adult education theory, brain research, and the best practices of adult art education programs. We consider a developing paradigm on the cognitive abilities of the mature mind and incorporate transformative learning theory to engage the creative potential of older adults participating in these art programs. Older adults have a wealth of knowledge and experience, a broad range of interests and cognitive abilities, and a unique vantage point: the wisdom acquired with age. The reinterpreting of past experiences and understanding them in a new way may provide meaningful creative inspiration. Transformative experiences can occur for adults across cultures and generations through activities such as storytelling, social interaction, and collaborative artmaking.

Quality community-based art education programsfor older adults should exploit the broad range of interests and cognitive abilities of participants by utilizing adult education theory, brain research, and the best practices of adult art education programs. The National Art Education Association (NAEA) Committee on Lifelong Learning has long been committed to advocacy and arts learning beyond pK-12 education. The committee has promoted quality art education from "womb to tomb" and has focused on the importance of art learning opportunities for adults, particularly those over age 50. During the half century since the foundation of the committee, a dramatic aging of our population has become a demographic fact in the United States. Census projections have indicated that within the next 40 years, the number of Americans aged 65 and older will more than double from 40.2 million in 2010 to 88.5 million in 2050 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2011). Some will want to explore beyond traditional art appreciation and studio art into curriculum that reflects the diversity and history of their own community and personal interests.

In this article, we consider an evolving paradigm on the cognitive abilities of the mature mind and incorporate transformative learning theory to engage the creative potential of older adults participating in these art programs. Creative pursuits benefit older adults psychologically, physically, and socially (Cohen, 2006a, 2006b; Schmidt, 2006). Older adults have a wealth of knowledge and experience, a broad range of interests and cognitive abilities, and a unique vantage point: the wisdom acquired with age. Cohen (2000) asserted, "as we age, some key ingredients of creativity-life experience and the long view-are only enhanced"(p. 10). Transformative learning theory (Mezirow, 1991) has been founded upon the reinterpretation of past experiences and understanding them from multiple perspectives. It may provide meaningful creative inspiration in adult art education and "involves reflexively transforming the beliefs, attitudes, opinions, and emotional reactions that constitute our meaning schemes or transforming our meaning perspectives (sets of related meaning schemes)" (p. 223). Cranton (1994) added, "through critical self-reflection, an individual revises old or develops new assumptions, beliefs or ways of seeing the world" (p. 4).

The transformative learning approach is well suited to intergenerational art programs that focus on reciprocal learning in which the participants have an equal share in the decision making and shaping of the project, suggesting that teacher/learner roles are flexible and will shift according to the task at hand and the expertise required (Perlstein & Bliss, 1994). Reciprocal learning can foster a sense of empowerment for adults (La Porte, 2011) and improve young people's "self image and self-esteem" (Cohen, 2000, p. 34). Transformative experiences can occur for adults across cultures and generations through activities such as storytelling, social interaction, and collaborative artmaking.

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