3rd Year, Art Education Major
In one class, I dressed as the artist Paul Klee to the surprise and delight of my students. They readily joined in this imaginary world and embraced different perspectives, which is the first step in realizing social change.
The greatest lesson I have learned as an art educator is that to achieve continuous growth you must adopt an on-going process of reflection. My article offers some examples of the changes that such reflection prompted me to make in my teaching, and elaborates on the research that has informed this shift. My journey towards reflective practice started when I was working with a population in grades four to six at an after school program, which I called “Art Adventures.”
I found my students would often tune out in the middle of my presentation on artists, techniques, and instruction. I quickly realized that they required more than a traditional teacher-centered pedagogy to be engaged. Through the evaluation of their specific needs, I adopted a new process of reflection and now consider myself a reflective, transforming practitioner. When I first started teaching at the after school program, I was challenged by the students’ eagerness to create, discover, and learn. I realized my previous teaching stance did not respond to my students’ needs but rather presented my own perspectives and values. For instance, I have always found Cézanne, Van Gogh, and Matisse, to be important artists to teach about, but they do not always interest students. Through a process of reflection, I found ways to teach that directly relate to a student’s unique perception and place in the world. For example, in one class, I dressed as the artist Paul Klee to the surprise and delight of my students. They readily joined in this imaginary world and embraced different perspectives, which is the first step in realizing social change.
These shifts in my teaching approach are the result of my taking up the practice described by theorist Donald Schön as “reflecting on action” where “thoughts and choices between actions are considered with a view to improving effectiveness in future situations” (as cited in Thornton, 2005, p.172). This reflective process is a template for the “artistry” of all effective practitioners. Thornton characterizes this artistry as that which “refers to practitioners unusually adept at handling situations of uncertainty, uniqueness, and conflict” (p.172). As I reflected on my “actions”, I realized the opportunities of entering an enlivening creative process. Furthermore, by considering the needs of my students, I participate in and promote social change through the appreciation and value of diversity. This process allows for transformation on a personal level that has the potential for the individual to engage in transformative actions in their community.
Being a “reflective transforming practitioner” also involves a sensitive response in the moment. Schön calls this “reflection in action” (as cited in Thorton, 2005, p.172). With an intuitive response and adjustment to my students in the moment, a more effective learning process takes place. Thorton (2005) confirms the personal and professional components of an effective art educator in creative process. To this theme, he quotes Schön who states, “personal growth and the professional development of teachers are seen as being inextricably entwined” (as cited in Thorton, 2005, p.173) and linked to the instructor’s personal and professional development. The “reflection in” and “on” teaching involves a “paradigmatic shift” or a “more fully developed (more functional) frame of reference” (2008, p.5-6). By being sensitive and in tune to my student’s preferences, concerns, and cultural influences, I develop appreciation and respect for my learners. This, in turn, enables me to better facilitate their process of learning.
As I became more student-focused in my teaching in the Art Adventures program, students, in turn, became noticeably less impatient, “tuned out,” or distracting to others. Students began to show confidence, were eager to express concerns, and shared imaginative ideas and perceptions in the classroom. The learners who had been politely observing or quietly disconnected became more engaged. In offering a safe place of acceptance and affirmation, students began to appreciate one another. This transformation resonates with an engagement I believe is needed globally towards positive social change. In the process of learning how to facilitate student learning, I became more aware of my old paradigms and propagation of predetermined solutions. I have become conscious of the “potential for abuse” that can easily accompany a “position of authority” (Duncum, 2008, p.249). In this realization, I have begun to move from the role of the expert, to the role of learner.
The Vital Role of Relationship in Education and Social Change
Becoming a fellow learner with the participating population is vital to social change. Rather than participating in “student collusion” I am “willing to transform in the process of helping my students transform” and so allow them to be and to accept who they are (Duncum, 2008, p.251; Taylor 2008, p.13). Students must learn how to “remain true to themselves” and value their “own approval” (Duncum, 2008, p. 252). Being a “fellow learner, not expert,” and validating my populations’ “own cultural experiences” and “life issues” (p.253), I promote the values of authentic relationships, tolerance and acceptance. I believe community art offers a space for active social change. As I partner with my students, a “peer dynamic” is fostered (Taylor 2008, p.11). Relational qualities, such as “nonhierarchical status, non evaluative feedback, voluntary participation” are nurtured and necessary for the construction of a more tolerant, understanding classroom (p.11-12). A community art space can be a safe place where new insights and perspectives can be explored and acted on. As a result, students learn to develop a more confident voice, necessary for exploration of the “multiple, contradictory and morally ambiguous truths” (Duncum, 2008, p.252) of the postmodern world.
A Class of Art Adventures
Art Adventures originally spoke to the adventures of exploring various mediums of art as well as reflects the adventures of discovery and creation of critical consciousness. My class became the “safe place” wherein “honest openness occurs, free from an instructor’s advancement of their own moral and political position” (Duncum, 2008, p.254). My students and I together developed an environment where students were able to discuss, form, and ultimately “articulate their own ideas” through art (p.254). As the semester’s Art Adventures came to an end, the change in the class dynamic was apparent. Through mutual learning we had grown to appreciate our differences and similarities. Students were eager to come to class and a community environment emerged that extended beyond class time. At the end of the term, friends and family attended our vernissage. The positive interaction between participants and their families, and between the parents and friends of the participants, demonstrated the community we had created and so the enhanced the experience for all.
The potential of the after school environment is great. This context affords students the opportunity to learn free from the marginalizing pressures of evaluations and in a safe space where students can enter a process of “understanding something about themselves and others through creative exchange”(Anderson, 2003, p.59). This dynamic of “humanizing” through understanding (p.64) nurtures empathy and the celebration of diversity in a child’s world where bullies and intolerance often reign. I hope that Art Adventures will continue as a program that focuses on process over product. Most of all, I hope Art Adventures will remain a safe space where participants can expand their perspectives, appreciate their diversity and develop a greater sense of self-worth. When art educators offer lessons that are meaningful to the learner, they “heighten student’s abilities to transform, connect, revise, organize, and imagine new ways of knowing” (Rose, 2004, p.104, p.107). As instructors learn from their students and embrace the rich “polyphony of voices” (Duncum, 2008, p.254) within the classroom, they co-create an art education that invites the social change needed in our present pluralistic society.
Anderson, T. (2003). Art education for life. International Journal of Art and Design Education, 22 (1), p.58-62 Duncum, P. (2008). Thinking critically about critical thinking: Towards a post-critical, dialogic pedagogy for popular visual culture. International Journal of Education through Art, 4(3), p.247-257 Egbo, B. (2009). Teaching for diversity in Canadian schools. Toronto: Pearson Education. Rose, K. (2004). Everything changes: Transformative thinking through aesthetic experience. In G. Diaz & M. McKenna (Eds.) Teaching for aesthetic experience: The art of learning, (p. 101-113). New York: Peter Lang. Taylor, E. (2008). Transformative learning theory. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 19, p.5-15 Thornton, A. (2005). The artist teacher as reflective practitioner. Journal of Art and Design Education, 24(2), p.166-174