Personal Perspectives on CONSTRUCTIVISM in a High School Art Class
Hesser, James Francis, Art Education
I decided to be a high school art teacher when I realized the importance artmaking had for me as a teenager and the key role it played in my development as an individual. I have always hoped my teaching would help students discover the value and power of artmaking so they could put it to use in their lives. Recently I gave my students a survey about a painting unit we had just completed. Reflecting on the unit, one student, Renaissance,2 wrote, "I was . . . able to discover what kind of artist I am." Another student wrote, "I know what I want to do from the project and that is to go to an art school and become something using art ..." Normally these comments would have aroused my interest, lifted my spirits, and even renewed my faith in my profession; but I was especially intrigued, since this unit was the crux of a qualitative case study I was conducting on constructivist learning. Each year, before students leave, I make a point to get their feedback on their experiences in my classes. The previous year, several comments on end-of-the-year surveys revealed that students did not feel they had enough opportunity to "draw what [they] wanted." These responses made me rethink my classroom. Students seemed to prefer the projects that gave them the most creative control. So, why not give it to them? My research explored what happened when I did.
The purpose of this article is to draw attention to the power of shared responsibility in the secondary art classroom. While the conceptual framework I used is grounded in constructivism, readers may also find intersections with other instructional approaches, especially those that value student- centered learning over academic or quantitative political agendas.
History, Theory, and Practice of Constructivism
Educational theorists have argued for developing intrinsically engaging, socially relevant curricula for over a century. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, John Dewey and the progressivists gained public acceptance for the idea that students were capable of more than just receiving, storing, and reciting information. Further, Dewey helped reform American education under the premise that students learn best when engaged in activities that reflect their interests and experiences (Foote, Vermette, 8c Battaglia, 2001; Marlowe 8c Page, 2005).
Cognitive psychologists such as Piaget and Vygotsky developed learning theories that support Dewey's philosophical premise. Piaget clarified the need for context in learning, theorizing that learning follows cognitive development and is based on experience that challenges concepts understood from prior experience (Foote, et al., 2001; Marlowe & Page, 2005; Piaget 8c Inhelder, 1966/2000). Like Piaget, Vygotsky (1978) linked learning to challenging prior experience, but believed that learning drives, rather than follows, cognitive development. Vygotsky also added a key ingrethent to the mix: social interaction. Vygotsky described learning as a social process in which knowledge is constructed through interaction with a knowledgeable mentor and one's peers. These ideas form the foundation of social constructivism.3
Constructivism bears many similarities to holism and critical pedagogy. All three educational orientations strive for greater student ownership of the learning process. Peter London (2006) and the holists use more esoteric language in their emphasis on teachers framing open-ended problems that "spiritually" or "artfully" engage students' bodies, minds, and spirits. Yet, nearly identical ambitions are part of the more utilitarian writing of Vygotsky and the constructivists. Critical education has roots in constructivism but places greater emphasis on socio-political power dynamics (Shor, 1999). A shared focus on practices that are relevant to students' lives, invite student participation, assure student control of the learning process, and promote facilitators rather than teachers underlines similarities creating a nearsymmetry among the theories. …