Necessary Shifts in Art Education

If art teachers want to make the world better, we must do more than decorate it. (Fehr, 2000, p. xvii).


In 2002, Elliot Eisner wrote Ten Lessons the Arts Teach, and members of the arts community breathed a sigh of relief. Someone had finally articulated the rich learning that the arts provide. However, what Eisner articulated was not a guarantee that students who had an education in the arts could do these things. Instead, what he articulated were possibilities and potential outcomes of an arts education when taught well. The statements are actually decent goals for art education that align with the goals of art education recently promoted by Gude (2008, 2009). The problem is, there is scant evidence that the arts are currently producing students with these qualities. Advocacy organizations such as Americans for the Arts publish research studies that demonstrate correlations between students in the arts and higher test scores, for example, but have yet to demonstrate that the arts are the cause of the increased scores. To complicate matters, art education has significantly less classroom research than other disciplines (Delacruz, 2000). As it stands, Ten Lessons the Arts Teach is the musing of an educational theorist that makes art teachers’ eyes sparkle.

Pat Villenevue writes that each time a paradigmatic shift is proposed, “Proponents of new ideas advance their views…and practitioners counter, ‘What’s wrong with what we’ve been doing all along? We like it. It works. Why do we have to do something else now?’ (2002, p. 4). I advocate that the reason “we have to do something else now” is because art education is uniquely positioned among school subjects to challenge societal ills, and because,

Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token to save it from that ruin, which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and the young, would be inevitable. An education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their choice of undertaking something new, something unforseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world (Arendt, 1968, n.p.).

As art educators, we need to re-evaluate our motivations for teaching art and then ask ourselves hard questions about whether or not our teaching actually aligns with our deeply-rooted motives. Taylor (2007) suggests art teachers constantly ask themselves: “What am I teaching this? Is this worth knowing?” (p. 5).

We must educate ourselves about the societal inequalities that are perpetuated by the structures of our school systems, communities, and (especially) our own teaching. We must be willing to be in a constant state of transformation in order to offer our students the best thing for them rather than the easiest thing for us. Kerry Freedman offers us good advice,

If we are astute, we will spend less time arguing about the structural character of curriculum and more time on its meanings; we will focus lesson national and state bordered guidelines and more on local and global communities; we will be less concerned with the technical qualities of art and more concerned with its reasons for being; and above all, we will focus less on teaching students what we were taught and more on what they need to know (Freedman, 2000, p. 326).

We must also view ourselves as professionals and activists that can make significant contributions to education and to the world rather than “technicians implementing prepackaged content and instructional procedures” (Garber, 2004, p. 7). If we want to do something different, we will most likely disrupt students’ educational experience. This involves risk and creative action. However, the rewards are great. Visual culture connects our content to students in ways that our traditional formal curriculums have not. By employing a post-critical pedagogy, we invite students to engage with us as we explore important issues together, while honoring their affections and concerns. Our traditional curriculum works against our desire for art to transform the lives of our students. We must move forward.


Arendt, H. (1968). Between past and future. New York: Viking Press.

Delacruz, E. (2000). Making a difference. In D. E. Fehr, K. Fehr, & K. Keifer-Boyd (Eds.), Real world readings in art education: Things your professors never told you (p. 11-20). New York: Routledge.

Eisner, E. (2002). The Arts and the Creation of Mind, In Chapter 4, What the Arts Teach and How It Shows. (pp. 70-92). Yale University Press.

Fehr, D. (2000). Introduction: Teaching as transgression. In D. E. Fehr, K. Fehr, & K. Keifer-Boyd (Eds.), Real world readings in art education: Things your professors never told you (p. xiii-xvii). New York: Routledge.

Garber, E. (2004). Social justice and art education. Visual Arts Research, 59, 4-22.

Gude, O. (2008). Aesthetics Making Meaning. Studies in Art Education, 50(1), 98-103.

Gude, O. (2009, April). Art Education for Democratic Life. Paper presented at the 2009 convention of the National Art Education Association, Minneapolis, MN.

Taylor, P. (2007). Motives and motivation. Art Education, 60(1), 4-5.

Villenevue, P. (2002). Back to the future: [Re][De]finingart education. Art Education, 55(3), 4.


I am not missing. And NAEP.

The 2008 NAEP arts data has been released. The assessment was given last year to eighth graders in music and visual arts. I’m going to repost a blog from the ArtsInPA blog with my comments at the bottom.

Thoughts on the data:
Eileen Weiser – classical pianist, member of the National Assessment Governing Board
Assessing the arts is very costly. Most children depend on K-12 education for basic arts skills. If a subject isn’t assessed, it may not be valued. If it’s not valued, it may not be taught. We need a more substantive assessment of the arts. Only about 20% of students knew that “p” stands for piano. It’s difficult to project how arts education might be affected by budget cuts. What amount and quality of education is needed to maintain our culture? The arts provide meaning to learning. The Governing Board does not define what constitutes a comprehensive education. The National Endowment and other entities need to step up to fund assessment in all 4 arts disciplines.

Patrice Walker-Powell, acting chair of the National Endowment for the Arts
Issues of concern – the differences in scores based on SES, geographic location, race, gender. We must be attentive about the application of resources across all groups. 77% of schools in the assessment employ a full time specialist in either visual arts or music. If most schools have arts specialists, why are students not achieving proficiency? Are we providing enough training for teachers? Are we providing curriculum? The percentage of students going to a museum or gallery as a school activity declined significantly. What are the contributing factors? The NEA is releasing a study today about adult participation in arts activities.

Questions from the press and audience:
Libby Quade, AP to Patrice Walker-Powell: What has been the trend in arts education over the last 30 or 40 years? All schools are under duress. State arts agencies are seeing declining funds. There is tremendous support nationally for artists, but people are making hard decisions.

Jackie Prescott, Washington Post to Eileen Weiser: How would you describe the effect of the economy on the results? Support for the arts in general is declining. Artists who are working in schools are not working as much. Students aren’t going on field trips because buses aren’t available. Ms. Walker-Powell: The arts are not being singled out more than any other field. Stuart Kerachsky: The NAEP looks mostly at proficiency in the arts. A fast response survey will be released soon that follows up on the specifics of arts education in schools (number of teachers, classes, etc.).

Dear Eileen Weiser:
It doesn’t alarm me that only 20% of students know that p stands for “piano.” I think you and I probably have different ideas about the essential content of music education that stem from our different ideas about the role of arts education in schools.

Dear Patrice Walker-Powell:
I don’t have answers to your questions, but the fact that Eileen and I don’t agree on what is essential in arts education is probably the root of many of these issues. Neither art nor music education have agreed on essential aspects of their disciplines. Art ed is getting close, but unfortunately, the research is finding that the graduates of (good) teacher ed programs are not teaching in the model they learned in their teacher ed program. Teaching with a new (critical, postmodern, etc.) perspective is at odds with the climate of schools. What arts education offers K-12 students is hard to assess, but I’m not certain we are teaching those things nor does the NAEP assess the learning in which we should be the most interested.

Leslie Gates