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.