Academic journal article Studies in Art Education

The Configuration of Meaning: Learner-Centered Art Education Revisited

Academic journal article Studies in Art Education

The Configuration of Meaning: Learner-Centered Art Education Revisited

Article excerpt

As my title suggests, I want to revisit one of the most enduring of the 'chestnuts' that have given life and controversy to our field. I want to bring together some threads of new, and not so new, thinking in order to place the learner, whether child or adolescent, more securely at the heart of our discipline. I want to move from a child-centered to learnercentered position and suggest that the traditional theory of mind that has long informed the notion of child-centeredness is both too simplistic and too exclusionary to be useful. The concept of learner-centeredness, albeit in refashioned garb will, I hope, capture more fully the thrust of this article.

This project is timely and raises questions about the theories we hold in art education and how they are rooted in the actuality of classroom experiences for many young people. As my colleague at Teachers College, Maxine Greene (1999),l has pointed out, young people are too often bored in schools because we do not offer them meaningful challenges, we do not invite them to bring their own experiences into the arena of learning, we do not ask of them the kind of reflection and exploration of possibilities that engages their thinking, and we do not offer them insights and skills in those non-verbal languages of the arts where imagination can open up new corners of reality. In short, we do not help them construct a continuity between their own creative efforts and the culture in which they live in a way that accords distinction and respect to each.

Perhaps we do not offer them these things because we have lost sight of the learner-the child and adolescent; we have disengaged them from the heart of the educational enterprise. We have treated young people as the objects of education rather than as participants in a shared enterprise, involving exchanges between young and old, experienced and inexperienced. In losing sight of the needs of the learner, we may also have lost sight of the significance of learning in and through the arts. For the kinds of visual narratives youngsters construct not only make meaningful their own sense of self, but also establish a continuity between their personal lives and the experiences they share with others. It could be, thus, that in losing sight of the learner we have also abandoned the belief that the construction of meaning in visual form is a fundamental feature of being human and that art itself is a normative function of the human mind.

Child Centeredness

Theories about how children think and learn have been debated by philosophers, psychologists and educators for centuries. Indeed, historical influences that have shaped contemporary views of children and their artistic learning can be traced back to ancient Greece. We still debate, for example, whether the artistic content in children's works derive from historical precedent or individual experience, the degree to which sociocultural or psycho-dynamic forces determine artistic style, and the relative status of sensory against conceptual knowledge in the fashioning of visual images. We have also been endlessly perplexed about the outcome, or telos, of development and whether it assumes singular or multiple forms (Kaplan, 1994). Is there a normative strand to artistic development which stretches into adolescence and beyond? If so, how are the upper reaches of development constituted-by realism, abstractionism, or by less obvious underlying structures of thought, conceived in terms of complexity or simplicity?

Threading through such debates has been the perennial question of "child-centeredness" in art education. Harking back 200 years to Rousseau and Locke, protagonists have inherited the dichotomous views that children are naturally creative if left alone and untrammeled by social and educational influences or, alternatively, are creative only if their predispositions are nurtured by the direct intervention of teaching. Variants of these two positions have emerged over time as the naturalist view found support from the emerging field of psychoanalysis and later psychology and, in education, became centered in studio practice and work with materials. …

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