Ceramics Curriculum: What Has It Been? What Could It Be?

By Sessions, Billis | Art Education, September 1999 | Go to article overview

Ceramics Curriculum: What Has It Been? What Could It Be?


Sessions, Billis, Art Education


Two primary approaches to curriculum are clearly described by Anderson and McRorie (1997) -formalist and contextualist aesthetics. The authors explain that a formalist approach emphasizes the elements and principles of art and design, and manipulation of materials for "well crafted" art for art's sake objects. A contextual approach is founded on the premise that objects can be employed to help us understand our world; they reflect our experiences and assist us in making sense of our experience. From a contextual viewpoint, works of art or artifacts engage an arena of information that can instruct us about the world and about the experience of making art.

Anderson and McRorie (1997) also remind us that most art educators practicing in the field today received a formalist art education and that "we" often maintain this approach in our teaching. So, like most others I was a student and eventually a teacher of the formalist approach. A few years passed between student teaching and signing my first teaching contract, therefore I had time to think about how I would design an art curriculum. I felt very progressive as I developed a curriculum that included an extensive art history component. Since art history was not a part of my high school experience, I thought that by adding this "content" I had really pushed the envelope! Perhaps, for that point in time, I had.

Nevertheless, a "funny thing happened on the way to the ceramics room." When I taught my ceramics classes I never considered including a ceramics history component, or for that matter, anything beyond processes and how the principles of art played out with functional and "art for art's sake" clay objects. After a while I asked myself why I taught ceramics differently than how I taught my other art courses? It didn't dawn on me to teach any differently than how my college ceramics courses were taught-production information, demonstrations, and critiques based on the elements of art and design. Critique questions would be posed, like "does the handle work with the foot" and "does the glaze work with the form?"

College ceramics courses were and often continue to be, strictly based on processes and skills. Even though I had several ceramics classes, at different universities, nothing was introduced outside of process and technique. Additionally, like so many other future teachers of ceramics, I had no ceramics history in college. Ceramic education research was scant, and there were few visual aids available for my classroom. It's no wonder I taught a strictly studiobased ceramics curriculum.

The curriculum I developed consisted of information about ceramics processes, demonstrations illustrating construction techniques, and assignments designed to practice skills. Reproductions of a variety of brightly colored ceramic objects were clipped from monthly ceramic journals and hung around the ceramics room to inspire the students to create well-crafted and "good-looking" objects. By showing a few filmstrips and videos on ceramics from around the world I felt I had designed a progressive ceramics curriculum. Things went great. For years, the demonstrations and assignments produced prize-winning objects that helped secure college scholarships for students and praise from the school community.

One question kept gnawing at me, why was I teaching my ceramics classes in a way that is different from my other classes? When I considered how the students were engaged with works of art and art history in my other art classes, I realized that so much more could be learned in ceramics than "how to make a pot." As Wayne Higby (1998), Head of the Ceramics Department at Alfred University said, "Clay is an ageless medium with boundless possibilities for art education" (p. 66).

My students were well-versed in process and technique, however did they know any fundamental ceramics history? Had we ever participated in any type of conversation about their objects other than formalist dialogue? …

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