Thesis update: Art Assessment

me and asty

I’m Kelly Martin and I teach at PS75 and work for Studio in a School, I’m British and I paint. I have been immersed in the notion of assessment in art lately, watching an art teacher from the Computer School (who got her Masters last year with the one and only Marit) employing systems like student rubrics and facilitating self-assessments by providing degrees of mastery for them to measure against. Who would not want to reach the Jedi Master stage? But hey it’s also very cool for a middle schooler to be given “student teacher” status and asked to coach a fellow student on a skill or concept and Upside Down Academy has other ways to develop this.

Always thinking about ways to bump up the rigor in art and push for specificity on the skills employed, I find this issue is prevalent in other areas of everyday life and solidifies that my thesis question is the right one.

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Recently when showing my husband a drawing our son made, while beaming with excitement at the skills I saw in it, he said “why precisely is it good?” I knew he meant that while clearly I would love it because of what it represented (my son swimming for the first time) I also was seeing something that he was not. This was true, as an artist and an art teacher I am attuned to key aspects within an artwork. In this case I was excited by a few concrete spatial aspects of his drawing: my son had filled the whole space; he had placed himself swimming on a horizon line; he was partially submerged and he had created a translucency to convey that.  He drew himself parallel to the water surface, his head was raised up as to get air and he displayed elation in his face through gesture and expression.

When discussing this with my husband it occurred to me that quite often people are mystified by art because of a lack of ways to look at it and ambiguity tends to discourage rigorous assessment – be it formal or casual. This encouraged me to focus intently on factors that may underpin the larger issue in assessing the specific qualities of visual art.

There are ways to assess the quality of the formal aspects of an artwork but we struggle with assessing the very aspect of visual art that compels us, that intrinsic yet inexplicable element – expression.

My thesis research explores the various attitudes towards assessment in art. So far I have interviewed 3 art teachers as a pilot study and I am peeling back layers of the onion. I’ve contemplated the validity of self and peer assessment and the advantages of a face-to-face, one-on-one interview versus a written statement or student presentation of their work to elicit revealing insight into a student’s process. I discovered some nuggets from Goshen College’s website Teaching Creativity, an easy read, but touches on much of what we worry about as art educators trying to remain authentic and not to lose our passion as we strive for rigor.

I’m excited. My interactions so far have opened doors into sub questions and revealed underlying worldviews. Encouragingly, I have generated a rapport with my participants and I trust that this will extend as my interview questions are refined and used with stellar fifth grade art teachers across Manhattan public schools to get to the essence of the phenomenon that is assessing the artistic process and choices of a fifth grade artist.

Watch this space for updates and please be in touch of you know of an art teacher who would add color to this study, or indeed if you would be willing to share your approaches. Whatever I discover, I hope to shed theoretical light on this baffling concept and, even better, acquire tried and tested tools to use and disseminate as I search for rigorous assessments of the skill and vision of visual art from fifth graders.

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