Tree, Map, Container: Metaphors for the History of Art Education

By Kan, Koon Hwee | Art Education, March 2011 | Go to article overview

Tree, Map, Container: Metaphors for the History of Art Education


Kan, Koon Hwee, Art Education


"At one point I started to think of [the] history [of art education] as a cartoon fight - a big, churning swirl of ideas in which many of the theories and innovations just add to the swirl. Every once in a while a great idea, much like a cartoon foot or fist, emerges, breaking free of the mass. These are ideas that change the course of education and have a lasting impact on the daily workings of our schools. Other ideas emerge from the swirl, only to wither and fade when proven that they don't really work, and still other ideas weave back and forth as they go in and out of style."

-Graduate student's perception of the history of art education

Many graduate programs in North America require a course in the history of art education for master and doctoral students. The implementation of such a requirement indicates the advanced development of our discipline (Chalmers, 1999). Specialized scholarship and the accumulation of a pool of like minds to trace the past contribute to the formation of a discourse (Foucault, 1972). Retracing the way a specific field of knowledge came about also lays the foundation and sets the boundaries of its paradigm (Kuhn, Ì970). For those in art education to avoid entrapment in the status quo and for the scholarship of art education to undergo any dynamic paradigm shift, an understanding of the history of the discipline certainly benefits both practitioners and theorists.

Graduate students enrolled in a required course in the history of art education may, however, carry with them their own agenda and learning baggage. Following is a list of concerns students shared with me regarding what some deemed tedious facts set in stone: Will we be reading voluminous collections about past happenings and events that took place before we were born? What is the purpose of studying people from the past centuries who disagreed with one another? How can these classic texts and readings be relevant to my personal life and professional practice?

Similar questions may cross the minds of learners encountering regimented lessons during mandatory schooling; however, younger learners may experience difficulties redirecting their frustration to appropriate means of contesting obligatory instruction. When learners of all ages fail to see connections between their learning experience and educational outcomes, they are less motivated to engage actively, creatively, and responsibly in the construction of their own knowledge. This is most apparent when my graduate students are full-time art teachers working daily in the often-hostile public school environment. They return to graduate education, not merely seeking continuing credits for licensure renewal but also earnestly searching for answers and solutions to cope with their harsh realities.

This curriculum case study highlights visual metaphors as an alternative means of understanding history and represents what Lincoln and Guba (1985) outlined as perceived, constructed, and created realities. Creative endeavors, an outcome of restructuring graduate curriculum and organizing the class as a learning community, have helped students who are adult learners with varied learning styles infuse what they are learning with meaning. Their experimental projects demonstrate how embracing artmaking as inquiry can perhaps serve as springboards to dive into ideas useful in the teaching of the histories of other disciplines at other levels.

Understanding the Necessity of Metaphor

Metaphoric projection is a primary cognitive process to solidify comprehension and enhance learning (Lakoff & Johnson, 1999). Sense-making by infants forms immanent basic schemata, intimately connected with language formation, enabling intellectual reasoning and abstract thinking later in life and ultimately engendering imaginative ways of seeing. At the secondary and tertiary levels of cognition, complex metaphors draw connections to subordinate examples to elaborate on category systems while conceptual metaphors blend feelings and tJiinking into rationale and transform intuition into amenable reality (Efland, 2004). …

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