Academic journal article Studies in Art Education

The High School Studio Curriculum and Art Understanding: An Examination

Academic journal article Studies in Art Education

The High School Studio Curriculum and Art Understanding: An Examination

Article excerpt

In recent years, teachers and school administrators have become increasingly concerned about the assessment of student learning. Reform movements, cuts in federal funding, and reduced state subsidies require school districts to verify levels of student achievement in all areas of study (Davis, 1993; Twigg, 1986). In core areas, teachers whose students fail to perform at or above national norms often face demotion or dismissal. In elective or "special" areas such as visual art, teachers who are unable to provide "hard evidence" of substantive learning risk program elimination and termination of teaching responsibilities (Davis, 1993; Twigg, 1986).

Providing hard evidence of student learning poses few difficulties for teachers in core subject areas of mathematics and science. In these highly structured subject areas, concepts can be applied consistently across examples, and problems have only one correct solution (Shulman, 1992; Twigg, 1986). When only one "right" answer is possible, evaluation is straightforward (Spiro, Feltovich, Jacobson, & Coulson, 1991).

In the domain of visual art however, concepts cannot be applied with uniformity. Visual art is an "ill-structured" domain where concepts vary from one application to another making evaluation difficult (Efland, 1995; Short, 1995a; 1995b). Courbet (1819-1877), for example, used genre subjects to portray the heroism of women and men as they pursue everyday activities (Beaudelaire, 1956). To convey the heroic character of his subjects, Courbet selected a traditional somber palette consisting primarily of neutrals (De La Croix, Tansey, & Fitzpatrick, 1991). In contrast, Renoir (1941-1919) utilized genre scenes to portray life's beautiful and pleasurable moments (De La Croix, Tansey, & Fitzpatrick, 1991). To represent the pleasant aspects of life, Renoir adopted a rainbow palette of "quivering brightness" (Beckett, 1994, p. 298).

Courbet and Renoir were contemporaries. Both were interested in depicting genre subject matter. However, their differing viewpoints and artistic solutions create an evaluation dilemma for teachers: how to assess students' conceptual understanding of genre. It would be inappropriate, for instance, to ask students which artist used the "right" approach in representing genre subjects. The approach of each artist can be considered "right" when his or her intent is understood. When two (or more) "right" answers (such as these) exist, development of valid reliable assessment tools is problematic. Yet, without such tools, art educators are unable to provide "hard evidence" of student learning (Davis, 1993; Wilson, 1986).

Lack of valid and reliable assessment instruments to measure art learning also hinders research into the nature of a substantive art education (Davis, 1993, pp. 36-37). Lacking evidence to validate claims made by various curricular approaches, teacher practitioners must rely on their own experience and the persuasiveness (rather than reliability) of various theoretical arguments. Consequently curricular approaches chosen by teachers vary from studio-based programs, where evaluation is based on production, to comprehensively designed programs employing multiple assessment strategies. All approaches claim to promote art learning but few are able to provide "hard data" that learning has taken place.

The Studio Curriculum

In a studio curriculum, assessment of student learning is generally based upon the completed studio product. Inferential evidence of this kind may or may not be a reliable indicator of art learning. The following personal experience will serve as a case in point. For a number of years, I was one of five art teachers in a large western suburban high school. Our art program could be considered "traditional" in nature, offering a wide range of studio experiences for students. Courses were available in drawing, painting, printmaking, sculpture, ceramics, photography, and jewelry. …

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