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PROPEL: visual arts in Pittsburgh.

Students in Pittsburgh are learning to think like artists. Through a program called PROPEL, students engage in self-assessment; teachers have writings and visual images that show student development and achievement in visual art; and administrators and parents are beginning to understand that making art requires thinking. Following an article on the ten best schools in the world in the December 2, 1991 issue of Newsweek, wit the accompanying flurry of local newspaper, television and radio coverage, the community and the media are realizing that something very positive is happening in the arts in the Pittsburgh Public Schools.

PROPEL is a curriculum and assessment program in the areas of visual art, music, and imaginative writing. Designed for students in grades six through twelve, it is currently funded by the Pittsburgh Foundation.

PROPEL began as a research project to develop more useful ways to assess and evaluate learning in the arts. Dr. Alberta Arthurs, Director of the Arts and Humanities Division for the Rockefeller Foundation, was intrigued by Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences (Gardner, 1987). Convinced that standardized testing had failed American education, she brought together developmental psychologists from Harvard's Project Zero, test developers from Educational Testing Service and teachers and administrators from the Pittsburgh Public Schools. She challenged these partners to discover if Gardner's theories could be tested in a school setting. Visual art, music and writing have many theories in common in the PROPEL approach. Due to the varied components emphasized in each subject area -- spatial/visual, musical and linguistic -- there are some major differences in how PROPEL is implemented in each subject area. To avoid confusion, this article will address only the visual arts.

A Hands-On Approach

The PROPEL approach is based on a developmental model in which the major activity is making art. Traditional educational practices have been refined and new vehicles for assessment have been developed. A distinguishing element of the PROPEL approach is that both teachers and students view the artroom and their roles in it from a unique perspective. In a studio environment, teachers behave like mentors and students behave like apprentices. Assessment, an integral part of arts activities, occurs in various forms throughout the learning process. Through self-assessment, students strive to understand their work in terms of personal goals and to view it within a larger context as it relates to the work of other students, the art world and their environment.

Production, Perception

and Reflection

The guiding tenet of PROPEL is that valid learning in visual arts is based on three interdependent processes: production, perception and reflection (P-P-R). Production, or making art, is the basis of the long-accepted studio model of art education -- a model consistent with the educational theories of Piaget and Dewey. In PROPEL, students must have opportunities to generate artwork.

Perception involves viewing and understanding one's own art, but it doesn't stop there. It involves viewing and understanding the art of other students and professional artists as well as recognizing the elements and principles of design in the environment. Opportunities must be provided for students to broaden their visual experiences. Using examples of aesthetic and utilitarian objects from various cultures and time periods can help students to that end.

Reflection is thinking about art in terms of generating ideas, improving one's own art through revision, becoming aware of one's method of working, placing one's art in a larger context, and continually evaluating one's attitudes toward art. Unless students have the opportunity to reflect about their own art, it becomes a mindless thing-making activity. Reflection can take many forms: successive drafts of a work, discussion of successful revisions of a work, classroom critiques, discussions of museum visits and taped interviews.

Domain Projects

Domain projects and portfolios were developed as vehicles to carry the P-P-R concept. A domain project is a long-term productive activity, closely integrated with one or more assessment tools and focused on curricular objectives. Through domain projects, students not only develop artistic skill, they also solve conceptual problems. Domain projects are most effective when they are developed by the teachers who will be implementing them.

Repeated sampling of a student's understanding of the concept is essential to assessment in a domain project. Teacher and student evaluations of progress take place throughout the activity. Evaluations are based on the goals of the activities themselves; they are not artificially created. Students develop an awareness of their own goals, their growth toward these goals and future possibilities in the context of the activity.

Assessment of perceptual and reflective learning is essential although it may be more difficult than assessing productive learning. Useful tools are verbal responses, pointing out significant details of an artwork, thumbnail sketches and diagrams of artworks.


The PROPEL portfolio is not a traditional portfolio containing only the artist's best work. It does contain the best, but also shows the student's process of learning, development over time and ability to reflect. It includes all the work: thumbnail sketches, drafts of designs, incomplete paintings and drawings, photogrpahs of works in progress, and finished work. It may contain student writings on art: reflection questionnaires, written critiques, journals, journal/sketchbooks and research workbooks.

The portfolio gives students and teachers a developmental record of the student's journey in the creation of art. At various points throughout the year, students are encouraged to look at their body of work, and reflect upon it. Teachers have devised four methods of encouraging this reflection: formal teacher-student interviews, rolling dialogues, peer interviews and retrospective exams.

A one-to-one dialogue between teacher and student helps both to understand student interests and in the development of problem-solving skills. The formal interview is time consuming and intense, but it often yields information that may not be obtained elsewhere. This interaction is more successful with smaller classes and advanced students.

In the rolling dialogue, the teacher moves from student to student with a few well-chosen questions. These dialogues are brief, but the teacher has the opportunity to talk with and supervise a large number of students during one class.

Peer interviews were developed to give a greater number of students the opportunity to discuss their own portfolios more frequently and intensely. Students are paired; one student asks a question, the other responds; then roles are reversed. Retrospective exams are used at the end of a course. Entire classes spread their portfolios on classroom tables and hallway floors to see and reflect upon the whole semester's work and the students spend this period answering teacher-made questions.

Some teachers encourage their students to keep journals/sketchbooks. Students record what they see and feel with visual symbols and words. Initially, teachers ask students specific questions; later, students are given more latitude. Finally, students have complete freedom as they gain confidence in both sketching and writing.


It is difficult to separate the processes of assessment and learning -- this is intentional. PROPEL was designed so that assessment would not be intrusive and so that students would be active participants in the assessment process. Students have the right to know, "Where have I been? Where am I going? How do I get there?" Parents and administrators have the right to know answers to similar questions about students. The media and the community, who support or berate the schools, need to know.

Teachers have developed a variety of questionnaires and graphs evaluating domain projects and portfolios. The type and the complexity depend upon student population, curriculum, chosen media and teaching style. Scott Grosh, who teaches 230 students at Greenway Middle School, developed a system which involves evaluating and graphing student performance on conceptual understanding, expressive quality and technical skill. Beverly Bates, a printmaking teacher at Pittsburgh High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, has her students spend five minutes at the end of each class completing a self-assessment form based on use of class time, creativity/originality and use of materials. Barbara Schurman, the only art teacher at South Vocational-Technical High School, involves her students in determining evaluation dimensions.

Karen Price, one of three art teachers at Schenley High School, developed an assessment form for an American Folk Art domain project. The artistic-skills section had six dimensions: learned concepts and techniques; expressiveness of theme; concepts of style, (simplified, naive); originality; visual detail; and moveable components. The citizenship-skills section had five dimensions: effort to meet objective, complete project, ability to follow directions, appropriate use of materials and supplies and clean up. Space was provided for student and teacher comments.

An important element used by all of these teachers is student involvement in the assessment process. Students in these classes range from twelve to eighteen years of age, with academic and artistic abilities from high to low, and social skills equally varied. What the students have in common is their enthusiasm to be part of the assessment process and the maturity they exhibit by their participation.


Although the five-year research project of Arts PROPEL has ended and the Harvard Project Zero, Educational Testing Service and Pittsburgh Public School partnership is over, the work is not finished. Art teachers and supervisors who practice the PROPEL approach are teaching others. Work is in progress for the development of standards for district-wide portfolio reporting. By the end of the 1991-92 academic year, all visual art teachers in the fourteen middle and twelve secondary schools will be implementing PROPEL. Also, there are plans to try the PROPEL approach in elementary schools as well as other content areas.

Laura J. Magee is Director, Division of Arts Education, Pittsburgh Public Schools. Karen R. Price is Project Teacher Leader, and Art Teacher at Schenley High School, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
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Title Annotation:arts education program
Author:Price, Karen R.
Publication:School Arts
Date:Apr 1, 1992
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