Children at the Center of Art Education

By Olson, Janet L. | Art Education, July 2003 | Go to article overview

Children at the Center of Art Education


Olson, Janet L., Art Education


In 1960 I was certified to teach art in grades K-12. In preparation, I majored in studio art at a small liberal arts college in the Midwest. It was and is a very good school with high academic standards. My minor was education, including psychology courses and basic education courses. Just one course in art education was required, and only one course in art education was offered. This course was taught by one of my favorite studio teachers, my painting professor.

Unfortunately, he knew nothing about the field of art education at the elementary or secondary levels. Being young and non-tenured at the time, he was probably assigned the course because no one else on the art faculty wanted to do it. This course was organized entirely around student presentations, each of us designing a lesson and presenting it to the class. We were not introduced to any art education literature, nor did we address any of the current issues in the field. It was as though the discipline of art education did not exist. During the semester that followed this course, I completed my student teaching requirement at the high school level only. I had no student teaching experience at the elementary level, even though I would be certified to teach art in kindergarten through 12th grade.

My first teaching job was at the elementary level. Being in a state of blissful ignorance, that is, not knowing what I did not know, I simply drew upon the models of instruction that I myself experienced in elementary school. Since I always loved making things, I was an uncritical student. I never questioned the value of hands-on experiences, no matter what the activity was.

One of my most vivid memories was a sixth-grade project. My art teacher, whom I admired enormously, introduced our class of 35 students to the medium of papier mache. Step by step, we learned how to make a papier mache sculpture of a wire-haired fox terrier, right down to the proper way to tear a white napkin into small pieces, put a small spot of paste in the center and apply it carefully to the body so the torn edges stood up, emulating the breed's rough coat. Imagine, 35 nearly identical fox terriers! There was no personal choice or experience involved, no problem solving on the part of individual students, and no encouragement of personal self-expression. Was this activity art? I don't think so, but this was my elementary model. I remember that I went home following this experience and made myself a papier mache dachshund! I fashioned it after a neighbor's dog, Cookie, who was very much loved by all the neighborhood children. Was this art? Yes, I think it was.

I look back on my first few years of teaching with some embarrassment. Following this model, my students learned primarily to follow directions. I was the problem solver and the artist, so to speak, and my students were the tools. Students were directed through one activity after another, activities that often related to the seasons of the year or holidays. Students were evaluated primarily by how well they were able to follow directions. I regret this confession, but I suspect that I am not alone. Even today, I know of state-approved programs that require just one art education course before student teaching and certification to be an art teacher. If the course syllabus indicates that it touches all the state requirements, the program is approved. In other words, if one class period is devoted to technology or special needs, for example, the requirement is satisfied, rather than devoting an entire course to the subject, which is the case in more comprehensive programs. Consequently, there are still great differences in the preparation of art teachers.

My REAL Education

After several years of teaching in three different states, I moved with my husband and two young daughters to Massachusetts. I continued to teach art at the elementary level in Brookline, and I began a MFA in Art Education at Boston University. …

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