The art room is humming with activity as the teacher moves about collecting electronic portfolio data with his camera, snapping images of children engaged in a variety of art activities. Four first grade girls are working with wooden blocks at the “architecture center.”
The teacher asks, “What did you ladies build?”
“A hotel and tower,” answer two girls simultaneously.
“You built a tower?” replies the art teacher.
“It is a thousand years old,” one block artist explains.
Another collaborator has a different reply, “It is a dozen years old.”
“That’s really old. Who lives in your building?” asks the teacher.
The four girls look at each other and in unison reply with giggles,
In another part of the room at the “construction center” six children are creating airplanes, catapults and stick puppets with glue and cardboard. Near the “drawing and painting center” more children work with a combination of tempera paints and drawing materials on large sheets of paper creating compositions with colorful lines and shapes. A six-year-old girl marches up to the teacher and proudly presents her painting to him. The teacher asks, “What’s going on here?”
With a big grin she exclaims, “It’s a play set!”
The teacher studies the painting containing a composition of carefully arranged lines and spaces. “A play set? What kind of play do you do?”
With a tone of seriousness, the student points to different areas of the painting and responds, “You play on stuff, like that’s a play set, and that’s a play set and this is a big play set.”
“Really?” replies the teacher.
“Yeah, you can take a picture of it,” exclaims the conceptual artist.
The snapshot of the painting is taken and the young designer hauls her treasure away.
Choice-based art teachers understand that play provides critical pathways to intellectual and creative growth and are able to observe the influence of play in the development of artistic behaviors. Play is a natural means for children to extend their imaginative and creative realms (Brown, 2009; Greenspan & Shanker, 2004, Kindlon &Thompson, 1999, Vygotsky, 1978). Choice–based art education pedagogy provides for instruction, materials, time, space and opportunity to facilitate dynamic learning experience generated through self-directed action and play.
A rationale for choice
Art educators have known for some time there are cognitive and behavioral differences among the students they serve. Viktor Lowenfeld first described the visual and haptic characteristics of learners in art education programs in 1939. Later, Howard Gardner proposed the multiple intelligence theory. Steven Pinker and other evolutionary psychologists have written about the role of genetics in the development of mind. More recently, brain-imaging research shows profound differences in the rhizomatic constellations of neurological structures within the human brain. This work provides compelling evidence for the need to differentiate learning experiences in children's educational experiences and has broad implications for pedagogy, curriculum and instructional design.
The psychological foundations of meaningful learning are based on the stimulation of the senses and emotional attachment. Choice teachers who work with heterogeneous populations understand that opportunities for constructing new knowledge and skills into long term memory require emotional connectivity. Learning must have integrity and credibility with the students who experience it. Students have to care about their learning, or it goes into one ear and out the other. Authentic learning experiences are personal and profound. Choice-based art teachers provide students with the knowledge, tools and opportunities to engage in authentic artistic experiences.
The first things that students construct in TAB art programs are ideas. Students learn that ideas can be generated from within by observing and seeing, through feelings and emotions, recalling memories, and exercising imagination. Students engage in experimental processes with concepts, materials and art making techniques, which often include play. Students view choice based art rooms as special places, where they are safe to express in their art what they are feeling and thinking in the moment. In TAB learning environments, children know their ideas are important and the teacher is in their corner (Douglas, Hathaway & Jaquith, 2007). A first grade boy explains to his teacher in detail, how his toy invention works.
Joe: “It’s an airplane that shoots from there, and it has a little ladder here.”
Teacher: “Show me how it works?”
Joe: “Actually this thing is for flying.”
Teacher: “It’s for flying?”
Joe: “Ya, so it doesn’t get away from you, and you throw it into the wind. You can hold on to it.”
Teacher: “That’s amazing. Where do you come up with these ideas?”
Joe: “I even decorated the wings.”
Teacher: “You decorated the what?”
Joe: “The wings!”
Teacher: “Does that help it fly?”
Joe: “No. I just decorated it. I even decorated the gun.”
Teacher: “Oh. You decorated the gun too, that’s important.”
Joe: “I colored it.”
Teacher: “You sure did.”
Joe: “Guess what else? I did that side, and that side.”
The choice-based art room is one of the most important spaces in the school. It is an umwelt (Cunningham, 1992), a place where children have permission to individually and collectively construct illusory ideas and imaginary worlds. Students connect, transform and internalize art education content, knowledge and skills with ideas that have actual meaning to them. It is no wonder that many students in choice-based art programs are compelled to make unscheduled visits to the art room, to volunteer their time, visit and chat with their teacher, over the course of the school day. They feel an emotional attachment to their art room.
Choice art rooms are designed as 21st Century (http://www.21stcenturyskills.org) learning environments. Unlike traditional classrooms designed for didactic pedagogy, 21st Century learning environments support, accommodate and optimize individualized learning experiences and promote the positive interactions and interpersonal relationships between children and teachers. Choice teachers empower students to become innovative, creative thinkers on their own terms in natural and holistic conditions. Play is a necessary psychological component in the generation of authentic art ideas, and our students have that option because freedom, trust and responsibility are distinguishing features of choice art programs. Choice classrooms are carefully designed to stimulate the senses while informing learners about art education content. These environments are powerful settings where students learn about art on self- directed pathways.
Learning in the choice art room is consensual. Teachers respect children’s individuality. Students are able to control and direct their art making activities. Supporters of traditional art programs, where students are restricted or coerced to comply with teacher-directed activities simply cannot make that claim. An interview with a 5th grade student reveals much about the quality of his experience in a traditional didactic art education program:
Matt: “Well, when I was at my other school, being creative was especially frowned upon.”
Teacher: Uh huh.
Matt: “I made an alien clown and I got a D!!! One time we were making self portraits, and they said if you don’t do it right, you will have to do another one. I used red, and they said, don’t use red. And then they said, OK, we are not gonna give you another one, until you get a bad grade, because you did it a wrong way.”
Teacher: “You’re kidding me?”
Teacher: “How did that make you feel?”
Matt: “My…it made me feel like; it just makes me feel mad. My art wasn't appreciated there.”
Art learning should be something you do, not something done to you.
Learning art content and much more through play
Fourth graders Evan and Mark are at the block center.There are Frank Lloyd Wright and Frank Gehry posters on the wall and illustrations of other building forms along with key words and information on architecture, geometry and engineering. Their choice-based art teacher has had conversations with them about the importance of balance, gravity and structure in their block building experiments. An examination of their dialogue during a block play session reveals not just their understanding of how critical balance and structure is in building design, but other more important behaviors critical to their success as adults in the 21st Century:
Evan: Oh wait, Ohhhh, there’s a boo boo…(Entering a critical phase in the construction of an experimental tower about three feet tall.)
Teacher: You’re playing with high stakes risks.
Evan: Ok, ok…Hold on, hold on, hold on (Reminding Mark to be patient while adding another block to the tower.)
Teacher: You might lose it all.
Evan: Hold on, hold on, hold on.
Mark: Let’s try to do it this way.
Evan: It’s curving this way; we need to add more weight on this side.
Mark: Yes!! Yes! (Successfully balancing another block on the tower.)
Evan: We need to add more weight on to this side Mark.
Teacher: Mark, you only had two little blocks holding up the whole thing!
Evan; Ok, ok. Ok, if we apply any weight to this side, then we have to apply another part of a weight to the other side (classmate John appears on the scene).
Mark: John! John! John, John, look at this!
Evan: Here is the time of truth.
Mark: John, look at this! Those two little blocks right there are holding up the whole thing!
Evan: Ok, Here is the time of truth! (Tension building as Evan tops the block tower off with two more blocks).
Evan: Ok. (Block tower begins to tilt.)
Teacher: Oh my gosh!! Oh my gosh!! (Gravity takes over and the tower crashes onto the floor. Blocks explode everywhere.)
Evan: That was awesome!!
Teacher: Mark, Mark, what happened? Evan, what happened?
Evan: Not enough balance. But it was cool in the making.
Teacher: Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh, you lost it all.
Mark: This is the block I was about to add.
Evan: All right. These two blocks were holding up the whole thing.
The boy’s block play experience reveals many things: not only immediate, relevant learning about balance and architectural structure, but also collaboration and cooperation. Evan and Mark were able to build a tower with very little foundational support and then identify and create solutions for keeping their tower up in the air as long as possible. By utilizing their knowledge of balance, the boys were able to build a fairly tall structure. The unifying of thought and action or praxis, is critical for motivation and provides students opportunities to develop their own personally relevant, emotionally profound learning opportunities (Gude, 2007).
Test vs. play
With all the benefits of student-directed play—social, intellectual, skill building, one would think that play experiences would be an integral part of school, at least in the lower grades. Some people say that play is gone from schools because teachers lack time, money, and smaller class sizes. And even at the Kindergarten level many teachers report that unstructured play has given way to paper/pencil test prep exercises. Under intense external pressure to prepare for standardized tests children in schools across the U.S. endure a curriculum that values conformity and the memorization of a laundry list of isolated facts, over activities that promote authentic learning, creativity and innovation.
We feel strongly that this is counterproductive. Over use of tedious, paper/pencil test prep activities does not address 21st Century learning skills nor do they meet the needs of the whole child. Nearly 25% of all American children do not graduate from high school (U.S.Dept.Ed, 2008)—many discouraged because learning is narrowly channeled. Diverse learner’s needs are not met. Tightly controlled behaviorist approaches to learning are completely at odds with scientific research that shows children learn best through sensory based, experiential and stimulating play-like activities.
Even in traditional art programs play experiences may be fundamentally inhibited because students have less control to direct their own learning. Many art educators feel students learn best while solving teacher-designed problems and projects. However, when considering that throughout the school day, children are told what to do in their regular classrooms, when it is time to experience art education in the traditional program, students are told once again, what to do, and are coerced into doing it by authoritarian art teachers who expect compliance. We have observed that many children do not find relevance in such activities and are turned off by art class. Child-initiated play on the other hand, allows students to become problem finders, and lets them feel the “need to know” that can result in deep learning. An interview with a former student who has experienced both traditional and choice based art education experiences sheds light on this phenomenon:
Madison: “I was expecting to come into this class, and have you tell me what to draw and you gave me free art, and because of that, I found out what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
Madison: “Actually for a while, I was getting into sports and stuff, and into biking, and actually, I got a video camera, an old, old video camera, and I got some tapes for my birthday, and on my twelfth birthday, what I did, I went out into the desert, with a bunch of guys who were jumping over ramps, and I like, in between two of the trick runs, and ok go! And I would watch them go over and film in different angles, and I got like a long vertical. Now I didn’t break my camera, but actually I taped it to the tip of my long board, and went around like that and got different views and moving the angles.”
Teacher: “So you are in the desert doing experimental photography with friends and you taped a video camera onto your skate board? So you are getting into video and still photography also?”
Madison: “Actually, for Exchange City, I was our video operator in both 6th and 7th grades.”
Teacher: “When you were in fifth grade here, and you were a new student here, and I allowed you to use that camera. Do you remember that little digital camera?”
Madison: “I do. I fell in love with that camera the first time I used it.
That is it. And I remember the big one. That one is my favorite. I fell in love with that camera the first time I held it. I felt like I could see through it a new perspective and energy and a different world through the lens of a camera. And it opened up so many new doors for me. I loved it.”
The choice approach provides regular opportunities to investigate and solve self-initiated problems and to explore and express ideas conceived through the sensory, emotive and imaginative realms. Executing the steps to realize an idea and representing it in two, three, or four dimensions requires an individual to pay attention to a vast array of quality control details. If child-directed play is valued as a psychodynamic means to develop artistic behaviors and intellectual capacity, choice-based pedagogy provides educators with a potent alternative to traditional teacher-centered art education models. Play, with all its benefits, is taking place now in choice-based art studio classrooms across the world. Over 900 educators are members of the Teaching for Artistic Behavior online professional learning community (www.teachingforartisticbehavior.org) dedicated to supporting choice-based art education teachers and their programs.
Choice Studio Approach: Who’s in Control of the Art?
Choice-based art teachers are sensitive to cognitive diversity in the heterogeneous populations they serve (Douglas & Jaquith, 2009). Choice art programs are structured for individualized learning. Classrooms are designed with studio centers--teacher-created learning environments set up for self -directed learning with available media. A choice- based art class usually starts with a mandatory five to ten minute lesson or demonstration for the whole group. During this teacher-lead instructional event, essential knowledge or artistic problems are shared with learners. Immediately, afterward, students may work from knowledge or ideas disseminated during the whole group lesson or conduct art activities independently at one of the studio centers. Materials and techniques in these centers have previously been introduced in earlier whole-group lessons so that students have prior knowledge of the materials, procedures and techniques involved in working at the center. This is the hallmark of the choice art education approach. Individuals have opportunities to choose learning activities according to their needs and make decisions regarding the material, content, ideas and direction represented in their art. In this vibrant setting, students learn from the teacher, from resources and directions in the centers, from peer coaching, and from their own explorations.
In a choice-based teaching for artistic behavior (TAB) classroom students work at their own speed and from their strengths. They can follow a line of thought over time and often develop a working style. They can use what they know to show what they know, as their interests are explored in visual form. Students learn from and work with their peers, often forming cooperative groups and engaging in positive social interactions.
Teachers provide time, space, materials, instruction and spirit. When students work independently, teachers can observe what students know and can do. Because students are encouraged to make art about their interests and passions, their toys and games and imaginations play a huge part in their subject matter. When students have a play idea, they often use the choice studio as a venue for creating what they need.
Centers can include paint, printmaking, fiber arts, collage, construction, masks, puppets—often with simple performance spaces, bookmaking, digital art, as well as drawing. Architecture centers offer block play, and digital cameras capture amazing ephemeral events.
Placing students at the periphery of curricular decision making, coercing them to comply with assignments and educational activities of which they have had no input, and rendering them as passive recipients of knowledge is problematic. Not only does it limit the possibilities of what students are capable of creating and learning, it removes them from the experience of designing and solving their own problems. From an art advocacy perspective, this is poisonous. One cannot make the claim that art education experiences empower students to become independent, innovative, creative thinkers if they are left out of the decision making processes central to the ideas they express. Play is a critical component in the child’s development of creativity and higher order thinking skills. Children are the designers of the adult. Educators should not be afraid to harness the dynamic psycho-emotional forces of play when designing curriculum and educational activities. One of the most important things policy makers and educators should be doing is supporting the personalization of educational experiences and facilitating a love affair between the student and his or her learning. Choice-based art teachers understand that intellectual rigor and creativity are best developed from the inside out and provide a flexible curriculum within dynamic, stimulating environments that enable meaningful cooperative and self directed learning experiences.
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