19 minute read

Art Education


Donovan R. Walling

D. Jack Davis


Art is more than creative expression, which has been the dominant theme of art education for much of the twentieth century. Expression is important, but researchers are also finding connections between learning in the visual arts and the acquisition of knowledge and skills in other areas. According to a 1993 Arts Education Partnership Working Group study, the benefits of a strong art program include intensified student motivation to learn, better school attendance, increased graduation rates, improved multicultural understanding, and the development of higher-order thinking skills, creativity, and problem-solving abilities.

Curriculum Developments

Art education has its roots in drawing, which, with reading, writing, singing, and playing an instrument comprised the basic elementary school curriculum in the seventeenth century. Drawing continued to be a basic component of the core curriculum throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when educators saw drawing as important in teaching handwork, nature study, geography, and other subjects. Art education later expanded to include painting, design, graphic arts, and the "plastic arts" (e.g., sculpture and ceramics), although art continued to be seen primarily as utilitarian.

In the twentieth century, with the advent of modernism, art education in the United States edged away from a utilitarian philosophy to one of creative expression, or art-making for personal development. Art continued to be valued, although less often as a core subject, during the early decades of the century and then declined in importance with the advent of World War II. In the postwar period, particularly after the launch of Sputnik in 1957, core-subject emphasis shifted dramatically to mathematics and science. Art education reached a low point in the 1970s, when a shrinking school-age population (the graduating baby boomer generation) and a serious national energy crisis brought about many school closings and program cuts. Art programs were among the first to be reduced or eliminated.

But the 1970s also ushered in a period of intense work by art educators to revive interest in art education. At the Getty Center for Education in the Arts, for example, work began on the implementation of a transformational theory: discipline-based art education (DBAE). This theory proposed that art making (or "studio art")–the thrust of creative expression–needed to be extended and informed by attention to the complementary disciplines of art history, aesthetics, and art criticism, even when teaching the youngest pupils. DBAE theory, most observers now agree, has been instrumental in reinvigorating art education and gaining a place for art in school reform.

Interest in the general quality of U.S. education rose during the 1980s, especially after the 1983 publication of A Nation at Risk by the National Commission on Excellence in Education. The commission's report spoke of "a rising tide of mediocrity" in K–12 schools and ushered in ongoing school reform efforts at all levels. National attention reached a peak in 1994 with the passage of the federal Goals 2000: Educate America Act. This act led to the formation of goal-setting groups, among them the National Coalition for Education in the Arts, which took up the task of ensuring that the arts, writ large, would assume their rightful place within the basic curriculum. This coalition included, among others, the American Alliance for Theatre and Education, the National Art Education Association, the Music Educators National Conference, and the National Dance Association. It defined arts education broadly as "the process of teaching and learning how to create and produce the visual and performing arts and how to understand and evaluate art forms created by others" (Arts Education Partnership Working Group, p. 5).

The National Art Education Association took a central role in defining the expectations for art education, which were written into the national standards: Students should understand and apply art media and processes; use visual arts structures and functions; choose and evaluate a range of subject matter, symbols, and ideas; understand art in relation to history and cultures; reflect upon and assess the merits of their own work and that of others; and make connections between art and other disciplines.

This view of art education coalesced with other theories, which became generally accepted during the last quarter of the twentieth century. Three are noteworthy. First, constructivism supplanted behaviorism as a guiding instructional theory, drawing on work by educators and researchers, such as Jerome Bruner (1960), Jean Piaget (1974), and Lev S. Vygotsky (1978). Constructivism posits that learners play a crucial role in "constructing" their own knowledge. Where behaviorism tends to see the teacher as a dispenser of knowledge, constructivism views the teacher as a facilitator who helps students acquire understandings and put them to individual use.

Second, postmodernism became the successor to modernism. First identified in architecture by Charles Jencks (1977), the unifying feature of postmodern theory is the absence of cultural dominance. In art education this led to greater emphasis on multiculturalism and expansion of the traditional canon.

Third, the multiple intelligences theory, developed by Howard Gardner (1983), points out that children think and learn based on individual intellectual strengths. Gardner initially identified seven intelligences–musical, bodily-kinesthetic, logical-mathematical, linguistic, spatial, interpersonal, and intrapersonal–and later added others. Art education, particularly as viewed through the lens of DBAE theory, taps intelligences that are not typically used in other core subjects.

By implementing arts curricula based on these theories, many arts educators believe that "students can arrive at their own knowledge, beliefs, and values for making personal and artistic decisions. In other terms, they can arrive at a broad-based, well-grounded understanding of nature, value, and meaning of arts as a part of their own humanity" (Consortium of National Arts Education Associations, pp. 18–19).

Elementary and Middle Schools

Children are natural artists. From infancy, they delight in the interplay of light and shadow, shape and color. Objects dangling from a mobile and the elemental shapes of balls and blocks fascinate them. As children develop, they connect the visual and the tactile: playing in spilled cereal, sculpting sand on a beach, finger painting, and scribbling with crayons. They create shadows in patches of sunlight and lay out sticks to form patterns.

By the time most children enter formal schooling, they have moved from scribbling and stacking to more deliberate two-and three-dimensional representation. For younger children, first representations usually are of inner realities. When asked to describe their artworks, they tell detailed and imaginative stories. As time goes by, children's drawings and sculptures begin to reflect their observations of the world.

Nurturing the natural development of artistic sensitivities and creative responses is the universal thrust of elementary art education. Formalized study is introduced gradually, as children move through the elementary grades and into middle school, which begins in the United States at fifth, sixth, or seventh grade, depending on the school system.

Elementary art specialists in some schools function mainly as art teachers, working with classes in isolation and focusing almost exclusively on art making. While a classroom teacher's pupils work with a specialist (art, music, physical education, etc.), the teacher gains planning time. However, with increasing emphasis on DBAE and national standards, many art specialists and classroom teachers are now working as partners.

An art specialist may work directly with pupils for as little as forty or fifty minutes once each week, but ideally art is taught more often–daily in some schools. Art also is integral to language arts, social studies, mathematics, and science in many schools. The art specialist, in addition to teaching children, helps classroom teachers blend art with other subjects. Such collaboration also expands the subject matter of art, raising questions about aesthetics and the place of art in culture and society. When art is valued as a core subject in this way, children's artworks proliferate in classrooms and corridors. The artworks incorporate themes from other subjects and are creative and individualistic.

Ideally the collaboration and integration that distinguish elementary art education are carried into programs for young adolescents. Many U.S. middle schools use a team-teaching approach to organize classes and schedules, which facilitates an art-andhumanities framework and fosters the inclusion of art in the core curriculum. In middle schools that function more like high schools, art classes tend to be organized around media and art forms and are treated as electives.

Secondary Schools

Art education reform, which began in the 1980s and 1990s, focuses on moving art into the core curriculum, "where art is studied and created so that the students will gain insights into themselves, their world, human purposes, and values" (Wilson, p.168). Some U.S. high schools are oriented in this manner, and most others are moving philosophically in this direction, even though many also continue to offer traditional art courses aimed, in part, at educating students as artists. Art is an elective subject in most secondary schools.

Course offerings, however, may be extensive. It is not unusual for larger high schools to offer thirty to forty separate art classes, including beginning, intermediate, and advanced levels. Subjects include drawing, painting, photography, commercial art, sculpture, ceramics, weaving and fiber art, jewelry, design, and art history. Where DBAE theory has been influential, classes in aesthetics and art criticism may be offered separately, but art topics also will be addressed in the context of classes in most subjects. Some schools pair art with other subjects in teamed classes, such as photography with journalism and film making with film study.

The influence of postmodernism is evident in broadening the art canon to include more multicultural imagery. Art reproductions used in Western classrooms portray images from African and Asian cultures along with those from European sources. Particular attention to including African-American art images can be seen in many U.S. schools.

Adolescent notions of art are shaped by many influences, ranging from popular culture to formal schooling. Thus the teenage years are a time of aesthetic questioning. Secondary school art programs should be about educating students to be consumers, as well as producers, of art. Situating art education in the core curriculum facilitates such study and helps students develop sound judgment of art.


The rapid advancement of computer technology has transformed art at all levels. Art-making, whether in the professional world or in schools, often is aided by computer programs that allow artists to create and manipulate images electronically. This new capability raises aesthetic questions about the nature of art. For example, must a finished artwork be frameable? When, for that matter, should a work be considered "finished"? In the commercial world, an illustrator's work may exist only as a computer file until it finally appears in a book or magazine. As an electronic file, the image also can be altered repeatedly by the artist or by a publisher's art director until the moment it is printed.

Computer technology also provides resources for art history and criticism. Images for classroom study are routinely available in electronic formats, such as CD-ROM, making it easy for a school to maintain an extensive collection of visual references. Electronic editions of encyclopedias and other texts offer "extras" not found in print, such as film footage and sound bites. These extras enliven and enlarge the resources so that students do not merely read the information, but experience it.

The number of "wired" classrooms continues to increase. Electronic connections between a classroom or laboratory computer and the Internet make virtual field trips increasingly available as instructional tools. If teachers cannot take their students physically to a museum, they may be able to take them electronically. Virtual tours of many of the world's art galleries and museums are expanding instructional horizons. Some institutional sites, such as the website of the Louvre Museum in Paris, also encourage cross-cultural studies by allowing electronic visitors to take the virtual tour in several languages and by providing links to other historical and cultural websites.


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BRUNER, JEROME. 1960. The Process of Education. New York: Vintage.

CONSORTIUM OF NATIONAL ARTS EDUCATION ASSOCIATIONS. 1994. National Standards for Arts Education: What Every Young American Should Know and Be Able to Do in the Arts. Reston, VA: Music Educators National Conference.

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Visual arts teacher education includes the preparation of art specialist teachers as well as general classroom teachers. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, there are several issues that teacher education in the visual arts must address, including: (a) changes in approaches to determining the art content (art history, criticism, aesthetics, and production) and pedagogical knowledge base for teachers;(b) the challenges of alternative licensure options;(c) the administration of programs of teacher preparation; and (d) conceptions of quality in teacher education in the visual arts.

Teacher Education and Visual Arts Education

Teacher education in the visual arts is unique because of the need to prepare two types of teachers at the elementary level (specialist and general classroom teachers), and because of the broad possibilities that exist for the preparation of the secondary teacher of the visual arts. The preparation of specialist teachers varies greatly, ranging from a professional degree in art, in which a substantial portion of the degree is devoted to courses in the visual arts, to a professional degree in education, in which there are fewer courses in art and more in professional education and general education. The preparation of general classroom teachers almost always occurs within an education program. Courses, when required, are usually taught by a professional art educator, who may be a member of either an art faculty or an education faculty.

Current Structure and Organization

While most teacher education in the visual arts in the United States occurs at the undergraduate level, programs exist in a variety of types of institutions, ranging from large research institutions to small liberal arts colleges. A small number of programs are fifth-year, postbaccalaureate programs. The administration of programs for the preparation of visual arts teachers also varies greatly. Some are administered as a subdiscipline within a visual arts program, while others are administered through a professional education unit. Regardless of the home base of the program, effective administration requires collaboration between the visual arts unit and the professional education unit on a campus. Neither the research nor the theoretical literature suggests a clear position about where such programs of instruction are most effectively administered.

National Efforts to Improve Teacher Education in the Arts

Between 1996 and 2001 several major national efforts were initiated related to the preparation of visual arts teachers. The National Art Education Association (NAEA) published a new set of standards for art teacher preparation in 1999; the International Council of Fine Arts Deans (ICFAD) adopted an agenda for teacher education in 1998–and they published To Move Forward in collaboration with the Consortium of National Arts Education Associations and the Council of Arts Accrediting Associations in 2001. The purpose of this publication is an affirmation of a continuing commitment to arts education; the statement identifies accomplishments in a number of areas and suggests a reasonable number of next steps to advance student learning. The Council of Chief State School Officers, through its Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium (INTASC), initiated an effort in 1998 to establish standards for teacher preparation in the arts, including the visual arts, for elementary classroom teachers and elementary arts specialists. The Arts Education Partnership has also addressed the issue of teacher education in the arts through the establishment of a national task force and by holding several meetings devoted to the topic. The Institute for Education Inquiry's (IEI) National Network for Educational Renewal launched a national arts and teacher education initiative in 1999 that is focused on including a comprehensive approach to teaching and learning in and through the arts in the preparation of elementary classroom teachers.

The five-point agenda adopted by the International Council of Fine Arts Deans in 1998 consists of: (1) defining the nature of teaching and learning in the arts for all students; (2) reviewing and revising the curriculum of undergraduate teacher education programs to insure that prospective arts specialists, working with classroom teachers, are prepared to deliver a balanced curriculum (production and performance, history, criticism, and aesthetics) that addresses multicultural issues and the use of technology in the arts; (3) insuring that prospective arts specialist and classroom teachers are prepared to engage in meaningful collaborations with classroom teachers; (4) addressing and incorporating the national standards in the arts into the preparation of prospective arts specialist and classroom teachers; and (5) insuring that prospective arts specialist and classroom teachers understand the role of the arts in the real world by recognizing the necessity for effective advocacy and meaningful partnerships. Paramount in moving this agenda forward is the recognition that art teacher educators must be provided with opportunities for professional development. Four of the seven major sections of To Move Forward address teacher education issues–outlining accomplishments and identifying necessary steps to move forward.

Both the National Art Education Association (NAEA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) have initiated efforts to establish performance-based standards for the preparation of specialist and classroom teachers in the arts. The NAEA standards deal with the visual arts specialist teacher only, while the INTASC standards deal with all of the arts, for the elementary arts specialist teacher and the classroom teacher. Both efforts herald a new direction for teacher education, in that both are based on performance standards for the prospective teacher as opposed to program standards that are often based on increments of time.

The NAEA standards support a comprehensive approach to teaching and learning in the arts and outline standards and skills for the art teacher candidates in the content of art, knowledge of the students, curriculum development, instruction, and assessment of student learning outcomes, teacher effectiveness, and program effectiveness. The INTASC standards are designed to promote standards-based reform of teacher preparation, licensing, and professional development. The standards are built around ten core principles related to: (1) "the central concepts, tools of inquiry, and structures of the discipline (s)," and the creation of learning experiences that make these aspects of subject matter meaningful for students; (2) "how children learn and develop," and being able to provide "learning opportunities that support their intellectual, social, physical, and personal development;" (3) "how students differ in their approaches to learning," and creating "instructional opportunities that are adapted to diverse learners;" (4) using "a variety of instructional strategies to encourage students' development of critical thinking, problem solving, and performance skills;"(5) "individual and group motivation and behavior to create a learning environment that encourages positive social interaction, active engagement in learning, and self-motivation;" (6) "effective verbal, nonverbal, and media communication techniques to foster active inquiry, collaboration, and supportive interaction in the classroom;" (7) "planning instruction based upon knowledge of subject matter, students, the community, and curriculum goals;" (8) using "formal and informal assessment strategies to evaluate and ensure the continuous intellectual, social, and physical development of the learner;" (9) insuring that the teacher "is a reflective practitioner who continually evaluates the effects of his/her choices and actions on others (students, parents, and other professionals in the learning community), and who actively seeks out opportunities to grow professionally;" and (10) fostering "relationships with school colleagues, parents, and agencies in the larger community to support students' learning and wellbeing."

While the IEI project and the Arts Education Partnership efforts have not produced any documents to date, both have strong potential for making significant contributions to the improvement of teacher preparation in the visual arts. The IEI project is planned to: (1) design a component in the teacher education curriculum to help prospective elementary education teachers understand and acquire literacy in the arts through a comprehensive approach to learning and teaching in and through the arts; (2) foster and enhance partner schools where prospective elementary teachers are mentored by experienced teachers demonstrating success in engaging students deeply in a comprehensive approach to teaching and learning in and through the arts in their classroom activity; (3) foster and enhance partnerships with local and regional arts organizations that can have a positive impact upon teacher education programs and upon teaching and learning in partner schools; and (4) work with faculty in arts departments and colleges, schools, and departments of education, as well as with appropriate campus administrators, to ensure that general education requirements include a comprehensive approach to learning and teaching in and through the arts. The Arts Education Partnership has addressed the issue by establishing a task force that is examining how the partnership's constituent organizations can become involved in both pre-service and in-service teacher education.

All of these national efforts are focused on improving the quality of teacher education in the arts, and they emphasize a comprehensive approach to teaching and learning in and through the arts. Among the concerns raised through these efforts are:(a) relationships and responsibilities of the art educator, the professional artist, and the professional general educator in teaching and teacher preparation in the visual arts; (b) appropriate entry levels into practice for the art educator; and (c) validation of the basic preparation for teachers.



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