Thesis Update: Choice and art education

Hello blog readers! My name is Catt Melendez. I’m an Art Education graduate student at CCNY. I’m a practicing artist, as well as a teaching artist for the DreamYard Project, an organization focused on providing social justice art education to young people throughout the Bronx. Much of my experience with art education (as both a student and teacher) has revolved around this concept of social justice art education. After several years of unpacking this idea, I’ve come to realize that it’s not enough to only explore social justice themes in art class, but one must establish a classroom environment that is just and empowering in and of itself. In a just classroom, each student’s artistic voice has value, and creative processes are regarded equitably.

For several years I’ve also been turning this idea of what art making is around in my head. Exploring ideas. Experimenting with materials. Making mistakes. Thinking outside the box. Constructing meaning. And so on and so forth. How each person approaches this creative process varies. There is a myriad of ways in which individuals perceive, obtain, digest, and move forward with ideas. If all this holds true, then there is something seriously incongruous about art practices which tell students what to make, how to make it, and which tools to use.

Traditional art classrooms tend to follow the module of learning run-of-the-mill techniques in a variety of media, and studying influential artists and movements. This approach eliminates a certain degree of choice from the art classroom. Without this choice students are restrained from exploring their own artistry. There is a school of thought among art educators that Teaching for Artistic Behavior, or Choice-based art education, allows students the opportunity to create like artists: exploring the issues important to them, thinking outside the box to solve design problems, and ultimately building a practice for conceiving how things could be otherwise.

I have recently had the opportunity to observe an elementary school art classroom in which student choice is at the heart of the teacher’s pedagogy. It was fascinating to watch the students work with complete freedom and an array of materials at their disposal. They worked diligently, exploring ways to manipulate materials, solving problems by means of trial and error, and seeking specific guidance from their teacher when they needed it. When the class concluded, the students had elaborate explanations for their artwork. Some were functional, some were aesthetically expressive, and some were fruitful failures. I considered how the process I had just watched these students undergo was so similar to my own artistic process. I rely heavily on unpacking ideas, asking questions, taking pictures, taking notes, experimenting with materials, metabolizing advice, and making mistakes. I learn about materials best when I play with them, and when I need more expert technical advice, I seek it out. Having a community of art makers who are also fumbling through the process is one of my most valuable resources.

Many educators and physiologists believe that childhood is not in fact quantitatively
different from adulthood, but rather qualitatively unique. They believe that a child doesn’t learn through passively receiving instruction, but instead through the
challenges they are faced with. In art, these challenges can be the physical limitations of materials, or the confrontation of new concepts. A child learns how to either change the situation or change themselves (grow). When students are allowed more choice in art class, they have the opportunity to improve their technical skills and knowledge of art, as well as their abilities to think critically and proactively through working on concepts that are personally significant to them.

For my thesis project, I want to explore the relationship of choice and art education more deeply. I’m curious how the degree of choice in art lessons effect students’ engagement, creativity, and motivation in art making. I’m also curious why teachers who opt for a more choice-based approach to art education do so. It’s my hope that this research will clarify the role choice plays in art education, and perhaps inspire in-service and pre-service teachers to consider the uniqueness of our pursuit as art educators.

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