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Children's art from fine art: an exemplar approach to teaching elementary children.

Brent Wilson in his reflections on Toward Civilization: A Report on Arts Education by the National Endowment for the Arts wrote, "Now we are asked to teach an art curriculum balanced among the inquiry methods of studio art, art history, art criticism and aesthetics." In other words, discipline-based art education. I used this approach several years ago when I started teaching upper elementary children in the Young People's Studio of the Maryland Institute College of Art. As I looked at the artwork of my first semester students, however, I began to question this approach to some degree, mainly because of the overemphasis on intellectual learning. I found that teaching historic content, aesthetic values and critical observation (the first three components of DBAE) in conjunction with creative processes, did not by itself, improve the quality of a child's artwork.

Does the Getty version of DBAE concern itself with the quality of the end product? What is different about looking at an artwork as opposed to looking at a picture in a magazine? What is it that makes or does not make a child's picture a true artistic statement? In short, I began questioning my own teaching, the teaching of my teachers, and that of discipline-based art education.

My uneasiness was increased by seeing some of the results of this kind of teaching when they were presented by British art educators at a conference. Some of the works had the look of labored imitations and seemed to lack creative spark. Again I asked myself: What di I want the children to learn from van Gogh, or do children learn from an artist whatever they want to learn? I came to believe that the best learning is that which the student chooses to learn.

I do fully affirm, however, the basic premise of DBAE: art comes from art. As a result, I have been trying to find a way to teach art from art; to find a method that is child-centered and, at the same time, allows room for creativity.

A student's experience of a work of art is a very important element in my teaching. The artwork must be a key to an inner world of imagination that, as a teacher, I need to evoke. At a time of so much instant availability, increased television, more and more mechanical toys and computerized games, most children have lost touch with that inner imagination. When ten-year-olds are given a blank piece of paper, they often do not know how to start -- they do not have the proper focus.

At this point, exposing the students to a great work of art can make all the difference. When children enter a great painting, the art theme can become experience, it can be internalized, and become the starting point for creative expression. A child experiences a great work of art in the same way he or she experiences pictures in a story book. The value of great art for the child is therefore primarily emotional and only secondarily intellectual. In choosing relevant art for young children, one should keep this in mind. The masterpiece is not to be copied but is to be used only as a stimulus.

The term exemplar approach was coined by a colleague of mine when he saw what we were doing. Whatever one calls this method of teaching, there are three elements that go into it.

1. The four-fold emphasis of DBAE (discipline-based art education): art history, art criticism, art aesthetics, art production.

2. The emotional involvement of the child: the child enters the world of the masterwork.

3. Developmental and social awareness by the teacher: a bridge needs to be built between the here-and-now world of the child and the world of the masterwork.

Four-Fold Emphasis

I usually start my lesson by exposing the students to one or more works of art and leading a discussion about the works, touching on art history, criticism and aesthetics. I have found, however, that too much discussion tends to work against the emotional response. Most of us have experienced that art history professor who talks the most beautiful picture to death. When the emotional level of the children is at its peak, that is the best starting point for work time. I concentrate on only one or two aspects of the artwork and might use the same painting in another session focusing on different aspects.

Entering the Work

To me the most crucial element in teaching from great art is that the student is so moved that he or she becomes an active participant in the scene; the student enters the artwork. In my experience this is more likely to happen when the artwork has intrinsic emotional qualities. In a lesson on seascapes, my students were much more turned on by the somewhat abstract but highly-emotional works of Emil Nolde than by the literal, narrative works of Winslow Homer. Before the session, I would have predicted the opposite. It is fascinating to observe how entering happens for different children at different times, yet sometimes it doesn't happen for most of the children. In my experience this occurs more often when the subject matter is highly intellectual and when I talk over their heads. However, when entering does occur, the children's creative response and the artistic result are at their best.

Building the Bridge

Developmental awareness has to do with knowing where a child is in understanding his or her world and how that world relates to the world of the artist. Unless the child can somehow find a bridge from the world of the master artist to his or her life experience, the entering process becomes very difficult, if not impossible. Some of the bridges I have tried to build have been: lighting a candle to show fire, having the children touch each other's faces when taking about facial expression, making waves and foam in water and bringing in sunflowers. Sometimes I have the children bring in their own toys or objects related to the lesson. A unique way of stating a topic as a problem to be solved can be a bridge. It also occurs that students find their own way of entering, as happened in a clay relief lesson on Della Robbia when nine- and ten-year-olds modified the Renaisance musicians into rock stars all on their own.

It should be noted that whenever children see art of any kind -- masterwork or teacher's sketch, they are tempted merely to copy to the best of their ability. When I see this as a problem, I try to counteract it through what I call estrangement (Verfremdung). Estrangement would be needed if, for instance, a prominent artwork such as David's painting The Death of Marat, had been shown before the drawing process. I might insist on a different color scheme; I might ask the children to transpose a two-dimensional work into a three-dimensional one or vice versa, or to shift a scene into a different time period. I might use dictation, suggest opposite color scales or texture, or do the what-happened-before and what-happened-after trick.

While DBAE can easily become a mere intellectual or technical exercise, the exemplar approach seeks to make the encounter with the masterwork an emotional one, correlating it with the experience of the elementary student. My concern with the art education reform movement is that, in teachings' quest to be post-modern or whatever, people like Piaget, Lowenfeld, and Read (let alone Pestalozzi and Froebel) are going to be dropped or marginalized. Why throw out Roettger, Tritten and Dewey, and many of today's teachers, when there can be a combinastion of what is called creativity movement and DBAE? I am sure most teachers who have incorporated DBAE into their teaching are finding that additional elements are needed to make a lesson work. Without DBAE my teaching would be much impoverished. I needed that shot in the arm. But a shot helps only if the blood circulation is sound.

When DBAE is placed alongside other art education approaches such as the emotional involvement of the student and the social nad developmnetal awareness of the teacher, it is demythologized as the number one direction art education is expected to take. DBAE becomes simply another excellent tool which can be supplemented or modified in any number of creative ways. It could conceivably be put aside for a while just as other tools may be put aside if they are not needed. When tools are seen as what they are, the users are free to focus on the task, in this case, on what is most needed in an individual teaching situation, to focus on the children we are teaching, and most of all to focus on the goal of quality art education.

Ruth Aukerman teaches elementary art in Carroll County, Maryland, and in the Young People's Studio of the Maryland Institute of Art.
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Author:Aukerman, Ruth
Publication:School Arts
Date:Apr 1, 1992
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