Why Study Classroom Art Talk?

By Cotner, Teresa L. | Art Education, January 2001 | Go to article overview

Why Study Classroom Art Talk?


Cotner, Teresa L., Art Education


More Talking in the Art Classroom, Please

Talking about art is a relatively new curricular and pedagogical component in art education. Until recent decades, K-12 art education focused on development of studio or technical skills and on the psychological development of children through art-making (Efland, 1990). Since the 1960s,1 educators such as Bruner have called for curricular and pedagogical shifts in all school subjects towards increasing relevance to professional practice (Dom, 1994, pp. 4-7). In Bruner's (1960) words, the difference between school practice and professional practice in related subjects should be that of "degree, not kind" (p. 14). Art educators attended to this reform effort Barkan (1962) called for curriculum development in the arts to shift away from the childdevelopment models and to focus instead on professional practices including studio, art criticism, and art history (p. 14). Including non-studio practices in art education extended the role of discourse about art in the classroom. Talking about art became a curricular and pedagogical concern in art education.2

High School, Old School

Getting young people to engage in discourse about art has proven to be a daunting task for teachers (Efland, 1976). High school teachers in particular seem resistant to adding language-oriented components to the traditional studio curriculum. However, since teachers and students are commonly called upon to try something new as times change and curricula, in turn, change, we should not assume that the relative newness of talking about art as classroom practice is solely responsible for the difficulties teachers and students experience. For reasons unknown, high school art teachers have participated very little in professional development training in discipline-based approaches to arts education and persist in providing studio-based courses (Wilson, 1997). Currently little is known about the extent to which high school art teachers teach in the non-studio domains of art or about the role discourse plays in teaching and learning in art. This is an alarming deficit given that as of 1998 in the United States, 32 states recommend visual arts as a requirement for high school graduation (NASA News, April, 1998).

Looking for Models of High School Classroom Art Talk

How should teachers and students talk about art in school? At one time or another most of us have experienced how difficult it can be to describe in words, spoken or written, the various kinds of responses we might have to a piece of art Whether participating in a studio-- based or discipline-based curriculum, art teachers and students must regularly find words with which to talk about their responses to art as well as other issues that arise in art, or at least, issues that arise in art classrooms.

We often look to professional practices as exemplars, and this poses some problems. In two studies that present lesson plans for high school art, professional practice in art criticism is considered an appropriate model for adolescents (Leshnoff, 1995; Lee, 1993). Conversely, in his comparison of professional art criticism to K-12 classroom art criticism, Barrett (1991) notes that art critics, drawing from artworks themselves as well as from external sources, use literate, colorful, and provocative language; are motivated by an awareness that their writing is data for recorded art history; and seek to convince (p.91). In contrast, Barrett cites Feldman's well known method for art criticism in school (description, analysis, interpretation, and evaluation) that recommends that classroom criticism should be as "unloaded" as possible and should not hint at meaning or value (Feldman, 1987). This comparison strongly suggests that what is acceptable in professional practice is unacceptable in the classroom. Such findings leave many questions regarding classroom practice unanswered, especially pertaining to high school art talk, in which student artwork and art discourse may be compared to professional standards. …

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