Hours of Idleness-A Photographer's Journey in St. Louis

Applying Constructivism to the Art Classroom

Posted in art, awareness, learning, mentor, perception, photography, technique by Jason Gray on March 29, 2013

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NOTE: A portion of this essay was published in ALL THE ART (Spring 2016), an excellent arts-based periodical based in St. Louis.  Pick one up today!

Art instruction offers unique conditions for exploring pedagogical ideologies. Within the discipline, the educator may be expected (depending upon grade level) to cover content ranging from practical or material techniques relating to painting, drawing, sculpture, ceramics, photography, design, performance, video and film, and more. Additionally, art education practitioners might be called upon to teach art history, art theory, or creative strategies. Given the myriad of possibilities for lesson planning, it goes without saying that the educator needs to have a firm grasp upon what they teach, why they teach, and who they teach.

In my personal learning and art practice, I have always benefited from opportunities to explore, which come in different guises for different people. For myself, this means having the opportunity to research potentially divergent or seemingly contradictory/superfluous information as it relates to the subject of my focus. A big part of making thoughtful artwork is understanding how to make connections between things that initially appear unrelated. For a large part, professional artists are looking for ways to make the square post fit into the circular hole. Understanding this, the art teacher should accept that what they teach is unique to each student. Unlike in mathematics, where the instructor follows a set of concrete steps and the student’s role is to memorize and utilize, in art, the art educator is a guide to whatever world the student unfolds. Constructivism applies favorably to this tendency because it encourages alternative thought (for content delivery) and individual approaches (for student engagement).

In the Constructivist classroom, the student learns the wide gamut of “art” by navigating choices, with the aid of a community of peers, toward a dynamic and fluid curriculum. For the teacher, this means assuming the role of the student (to a degree). The teacher must feel accountable to the student, and should foremost understand that why they teach is directly linked to who they teach. The Constructivist realizes that the goal of education is to produce individuals with the self-efficacy to become moral and cultural contributors (not necessarily compliant) to society; content alone is meaningless in the face of this.

However, the educator is not alone in responsibility, as the student has obligations as well. Primarily, the art student should feel compelled to engage in a manner that they feel is worthwhile. Since the Constructivist proponent offers choices, the student should make decisions, and offer opinions and suggestions, all along, working with his/her peers to do so. Within assignments, the diligent pupil should feel inspired to explore along the lines of ratiocination. The classroom helps with this process.

Inside the classroom, this approach lends to many non-traditional practices. The art teacher should not assume the traditional role as chairman. The art instructor’s desk (if there must be a desk) should be integrated into the students’ workspace or else located in an area out of prominence. The students’ seating should be arranged for dialogue and collaboration, as opposed to private study. Presentations and lectures should not be delivered exclusively by the teacher. Students should have the opportunity to shape the discussion as the presentations unfold, and should be empowered to augment or argue points made.

To offer an example of how all of this works, the instructor might begin a lesson on “identity in art” by showing a Ted Talks presentation by the artist, Cindy Sherman. Afterward, the instructor would moderate a classroom discussion on Cindy Sherman and “identity in art”, allowing the students to introduce new talking points and to frame their points of view. Next, the instructor might ask the students what kinds of paintings they would make to express the idea of “identity in art”. From this, possibly three approaches would be popular to the class, and the class would vote or debate the merits of which one they would like to pursue as an assignment. Working individually or in groups, the instructor could offer constructive feedback as the students execute the assignment. When finished, each project would be presented before the class for a critique.

In the example above, the teacher’s aim is to introduce the students to the idea of identity as a potential topic to be explored in art. Instead of telling the students what he or she thinks “identity” to mean, the instructor presents a framed speech on the topic by a working artist and invites responses from the students. By asking the students for their thoughts, the educator places them within the topic and encourages the pupils to think creatively about how to relate the information to their existing perspectives. By asking them for their opinions, the teacher is making the students aware of their opinions, which is a powerful incentive toward intellectual and social growth. After the class discussion, the students are able to apply their self-discoveries regarding the topic to an assignment that introduces another way to express what they have learned (a verbal into visual communication approach is a square peg into a round hole technique requiring students to demonstrate a full understanding of the mechanics at hand- including how to transcend them). The successfulness of their work is then debated in front of the class, which informs their approach to the next assignment. The teacher manages all of this progress by keeping the students motivated and involved.

Whether in science or art, the Constructivist method accounts for students’ socialization before students’ knowledge, but what is missed in most criticisms of the approach is that, in focusing on how students interact with other students and the classroom, Constructivism lends itself to a more complete and practical understanding of content than a more traditional pedagogy usually achieves.

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