As the owner of an art school, an art teacher trainer and an all round advocate of arts education... this is a fairly important question that I have had to return to many times. I was sitting in a hotel room in Shanghai earlier this week, writing my presentation for 500 kindergarten art teachers and had a real clarity over how to share what I believe are my answers to the above question. So... here it is...
1) Arts Education gives students opportunities and tools to communicate and express themselves. Every choice a student makes in colour, texture, line, shape, space and composition, is a potential opportunity to be intentional. An art teacher can just let students make 'pretty work' or copy examples... or they can challenge students to identify with why they make the creative decisions they do. In every culture, belief, and system in the world, the elements and principals of art are loaded with a diverse range of meanings. In a typical classroom, you can have students from all around the world. This means that one student might be using the colour red because to them it means love, whilst the student next to them may be using it because to them it represents anger, fear, hate or even death. Colour, texture, line, the placement of a mark on a page can all carry significant and important meaning. It is our job as art teachers to always discuss this... ask the right questions... give opportunities for diverse thinking and feeling. You don't need to limit students by their age or maturity either. I have 3 year olds tell me that the elephant they drew is yellow because yellow makes them happy, and so do elephants. They also tell me with great confidence that a jagged line reminds them of excitement and a soft wavy line makes them feel calm (or occasionally vice-versa).
2) Arts Education builds confidence. I truly believe that if we empower students to own their work, and be proud of what they make, it builds them. They do not have to be great drawers! They do not need to create stick figures or copy the picture the same as the teacher. They just need to put pen (or pencil or glue, or clay etc) to paper and create... Our job is to celebrate that creation... ask the right questions... ask why and how and what does it mean... draw the stories out of them and never ever ever feel the compulsion to finish their work, tidy it up, complete it, have them copy you or use a template. If you touch it... its then your work. A painting done by a 5 year old who has never painted... should look like a painting done by a 5 year old who has never painted. It is a masterpiece... it's theirs, and your response to it will shape how their next masterpiece turns out.
3) Arts Education grows creativity. Ken Robinson once wrote (and I'm paraphrasing) ... Creativity is creating something original that has value. It is our duty then that every piece of work that a student creates has their original voice. We can teach a lesson, we can have a theme, we can even dictate the method and the media... but lets, for the sake of every students imagination... not dictate the composition, the colours, the textures, the shapes, the lines, forms and spaces... If they stray far away from your example but still use the techniques and strategies, then who really cares?
No matter what the theme is I have one student that manages to turn every learning engagement into a planet, and another that has dinosaurs in EVERYTHING... but are they both learning? YES... do they love art more now that they did? YES... Have they learned all of the objectives I was aiming for? Yes... and finally, Do I get frustrated, want more control and struggle when they don't listen? Yes... but my ego will survive.
So, how do I stay intentional? I keep the above points the most important thing that is taught in my room. Expression, communication, originality, celebration, these are woven into every micro lesson, all my feedback, all of my discussions and all of my teaching. It is the why... the underlying concept... the foundation of every unit.
And thats it... I am sure, I'll revisit this post in a year, and change something, add to it, communicate the ideas with more maturity and more maybe different language, but I hope that at its core... I continue to validate students identity, help them to express themselves, build their confidence and grow their creative selves.