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Topics in Art

Teaching Art

Being an art educator, I'm sometimes asked about the state of art education in this country. My answer is going to be very unsatisfactory. First of all, given the fact that art is so subjective in terms of evaluative assessments, there are no standardised, nation-wide tests by which one can measure programs on a national, state, or even local level for comparison purposes. There is however, one local indicator that might be helpful. Generally speaking the average participation in elective high school art programs is around 10% of the student body. Anything over that generally indicates a superior art program. Anything much under that level in a given school may indicate educational, economic, or administrative problems. Of course if certain other elective programs in a school are exceptionally strong (band, drama, choral music, computers, etc.) then the art program may be perfectly fine but merely suffer in enrolment by comparison.

One of the peculiarities of school art programs is that when a district hires an art instructor they are essentially "buying" a program--one that reflects the strengths, and unfortunately the weaknesses of that individual instructor. And since no one instructor is going to be equally strong in all art areas, any single-person department is going to be at least a little uneven in its offerings. Ideally, a school should be large enough to afford at least a two-person art teaching staff with one individual strong in two-dimensional areas and a second in three-dimensional/craft areas. This usually allows for a well-rounded course of study. Of course, teacher longevity and experience counts for much in an art program. While older teachers have a gradually widening generation gap to deal with, they also will have developed very broad technical background, plus the teaching instincts to know what a student is going to do before he or she does it.

Generally speaking I think most elementary art programs are pretty good because often they are taught by both a specialist teacher as well as by the classroom teacher. I think too, that in general, college programs around the country are quite good too because the competition for these teaching jobs can be quite intense, and also, the financial success of the school is predicated on a good reputation and good programs. If there is a weakness nationally it is probably at the junior high and high school levels. This is where art is the most difficult to teach and where there is the least amount of competition for academic positions. The work is hard, the students range from gifted to abhorrent, money is often tightest, programs most expensive, and competition amongst elective offerings for good students is most intense. Junior high programs all to often are art "factories" with all students, homogenised, and run in and out seemingly on a conveyor belt, so many minutes a day, subjected to instruction that has been tried and true (read cut and dried) to the least common denominator, with little innovation for perhaps years.

Even though a moment ago I praised the "experience" factor in older art teachers, let me also point out that there is a negative flip side so to speak. The oldest teachers often have migrated to the high school through attrition where they bide their time, seldom making waves, waiting for retirement to roll around. Multi-media to them, for example, is often no more than crayon and watercolour rather than photography, video, motion pictures, computer generated graphics, etc. Words like "traditional" and "classic" are often used in such cases as euphemisms for "stale" programs. So, in the final analysis, the art education picture is a bit "abstract" but art is seldom "quantifiable" or "qualifiable" as in math or science. Maybe this is good.

contributed by Lane, Jim

21 March 1998
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