Making Theories of Children's Artistic Development Meaningful for Preservice Teachers

By Luehrman, Mick; Unrath, Kathy | Art Education, May 2006 | Go to article overview

Making Theories of Children's Artistic Development Meaningful for Preservice Teachers


Luehrman, Mick, Unrath, Kathy, Art Education


It is important for art teachers to understand how children develop artistically. This kind of knowledge is essential for choosing age-appropriate teaching strategies and content for the units and lessons that the art teacher develops.

Beginning art teachers study developmental theory in educational psychology classes, but it seems that this is often a textbook, lecture, and exam approach that does not "stick" or, in any case, does not seem practically relevant to many pre-service teachers. Over the last few years in the art education programs at Central Missouri State University and the University of Missouri-Columbia, we have collaborated to develop an action research activity that seems to make developmental theory more meaningful to our students by connecting it concretely to children's artmaking. Judith Burton (2004) says, "Very few studies that look at practice, either explicitly or implicitly, begin by staking out the developmental abilities and needs of the youngsters who are their subjects; nor do they set their subjects in the context of the classroom or their out-of-school lives. Instruction, thus, emerges as a set of activities involving the arts that are applied to young people, rather than engaging them at their own level and on their own terms" (p. 572). Like Burton, we value the opportunity for our preservice students to work with children in order to construct and validate their own knowledge of developmental theory.

Before outlining the details of the research assignment carried out by our students, we offer a brief overview of some basic issues in the field of children's development. We begin by looking at stage theory, the idea that there are stages of development that all children pass through. Then we consider the effect of other factors such as culture and social context on children's development.

Children's Development: Theoretical Issues

Stage theories hold that children progress through a series of stages of development and that there are sets of characteristics that can be identified and are typically found among large groups of children within broadly defined ageranges. Stage theories of development describe characteristic milestones that delineate passage from one stage to another, and explain how the majority of children progress in a similar way through a developmental sequence.

Piaget's theory of stages of cognitive development and Erikson's theory of stages of psychosocial development are commonly found in texts used for educational psychology courses (Borich & Tombari, 1997; LeFrançois, 1997; Slavin, 1997). Piaget described characteristic behaviors, including artistic ones such as drawing, as evidence of how children think and what children do as they progress beyond developmental milestones into and through stages of development. Specific to art education, Lowenfeld (1952) proposed stages of artistic development that generally paralleled Piaget's stages of cognitive development. Kellogg (1970) researched and described a generalized sequence of visual characteristics for children's development of symbols in their drawings during the early childhood years. Gardner (1980) theorized a U-curve for artistic development. He described an apparent expressive peak in the aesthetic qualities of children's symbol-making during early childhood, followed by a gradual deterioration of these qualities during the middle years of schooling, and a rebound that can come as adolescents consciously reacquire aesthetic sensibility through study and working with symbol systems in the arts.

Developmental psychologists and art educators alike have called attention to the need for widening the list of factors to be considered significant to development, directing attention to the different ways individuals process information (Case, 1992), the nature of intelligence (Gardner, 1983), and social and cultural influences (Kindler & Darras, 1998; McFee, 1977; Vygotsky, 1978). …

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