Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Teaching for Artistic Behavior Is Democratic Education: Part Three

There are two recurring observations made on this blog.

The first observation is this: art making of children is influenced by biology. The second is that children who are grouped by schools and the state in homogeneous cohorts for the purpose of obtaining standardized testing data are cognitively diverse. Both of these observations point to the influence of genetics.

Since 2004, when we began offering children grouped homogeneously choices for self-directed art making purposes, we began to witness an explosion of personal artistic expression.  If you are working with children, and offering an abundance of materials in a learning environment that supports play, autonomous and collaborative learning experience, then spontaneous art ideas are going to happen. The question I asked myself back in 2004 is this: To what extent is children's art-making governed by biological factors? What did I find out? Biology has an immense influence on creativity and the capacity for art making.

Ellen Dissanayake's pioneering research would support this claim. Art makes life qualitatively better and the innate capacity to "make special" has been passed down genetically from our pre-historic ancestors for millennia and culturally from our family and community situations. Early forms of prehistoric art communicate information about the world and personal vision of the artist. Art-making is rooted in ancient human pre-history. 

Gardner's theory of mind supports the observation as does Lowenfeld's theory on creativity types that children's intellectual capacities are anything but homogenous. For teachers receptive to the knowledge that creativity and differences of mind have biological foundations, implementing an abundant curricula in order to optimize a child's developmental pathway is a legitimate consideration. These same considerations were a major motivation for Kathy Douglas, Diane Jaquith, John Crowe and Pauline Joseph when they pioneered Teaching for Artistic Behavior pedagogy in Massachusetts classrooms over three decades ago. TAB is an approach to learning that intersects instruction and biology. 

Seven year old boy draws a human figure from memory from the mural center at the New Palestine Elementary art room in 2004.
Conversely, the argument could be offered that young children do not necessarily have the innate capacity to intentionally produce art objects but merely engage in a physical activity producing art-like-forms that are purely accidental. I refute this position. In my view, children are not blank slates. There is a biological reason young children make art-like forms with materials in their early stages of development. Children's natural inclination to explore mark making or object manipulation as consciousness unfolds, signals a communication process in which a child, just like early artists seeking to express their vision, reveal knowledge of their World.  This process does not just happen inside a vacuum. The process is also dependent upon a child's relationship with parents, caring adults or others whom the child wishes to communicate with.  In this sense, social relationships are critical in the child's desire to communicate through visual means and art-play. Art-making for young children is an innate form of language in which expressing the inexpressible becomes the goal of the activity. 
2nd grade boys self-organize a drawing club and work out their improvised ideas on the blackboard.
TAB learning environments provide a space where children's pre-existing knowledge may be safely utilized in the development and exploration of art-ideas. TAB teachers respond to children's needs. If there is a time sensitive, emotionally driven need to connect home experience to art making, that opportunity is available in the TAB classroom. You cannot separate a child's cognitive realm from the affective and physiological realms. They are all connected. When a child's biological endowments drive learning experience, TAB teachers are able to use instruction or environmental design to enhance such experiences. Because achieving higher states of creative consciousness should be the main goal of any art education program, the fact that children have a say in the design of their activity, that their vision and the vision of the teacher are combined to create a new vision, democratic learning experience inside of TAB classrooms is inevitable. 

As children participate in art-making activities in TAB classrooms, they witness for themselves the diversity of ideas, unique creative processes, learning styles and wide range of capabilities their fellow classmates possess. Children become more aware not only of their own creative capacities, but those of their fellow classmates. They see they have power to direct their learning and they see others using their power to do the same for themselves. In TAB classrooms, children share power with the teacher. Children learn to practice the utilization of freedom. In democratic classrooms, students have a say in the learning activities they participate in. 

An eleventh grader collaborates on a multi-media work as cardboard sculptors work in the background.
Because TAB classrooms are focused on the optimization of unique developmental pathways and creative self-expression, democratic educational experience is inevitable.

Democratic education should be based in democratic experience. Children should live and breath democracy in order to fully integrate democratic principles into their experience. Democratic education should do more than teach about the facts of democracy. In TAB classrooms, outcomes are not dictated to students but are mutually agreed upon by student(s) with the teacher. Democratic practice in TAB art programs occurs naturally. Children recognize their voice and the unique voices of others matter. They observe the paradox that artificial value constructs like grades and standardized test scores are inadequate representations of who they are.

Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and John Dewey would be thrilled to see a TAB classroom in action.

Looking at the bigger picture, how do schools educate children for participation in the social arrangement we call democracy? Is it through democratic classroom experience that considers the unique physiological circumstances of the individual or is the experience entirely something else? Are teachers mediating the anti-democratic tendencies of test centric curricula mandates or are they acting as blunt instruments of authoritarian control?

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