What Should We Consider When Planning Art Curricula?

What Should We Consider When Planning Art Curricula?

Danielle Horak

September 15, 2013


Over the past forty years, art education theory has evolved to support a comprehensive approach to art instruction in American public schools.  Beginning in the 1960’s with the emergence of teaching “arts as a discipline” (p. 7), educators recognized that art education must go beyond the production of artwork and provide opportunities for students to understand art and its role in past and present societies (Stewart, 2005).  This approach developed, and in the 1980’s came to be known as Discipline Based Art Education, or “DBAE”.  Balancing equal parts art history, art criticism, aesthetics, and studio production, the practice of DBAE reinforced the view that public school art classes ought to provide students with not only the technical skills required to create artwork, but a basis for a deep understanding of the arts as well (Stewart, 2005, p. 8). The Getty Center for Education advocated DBAE during the mid 1980’s and provided teachers opportunities for professional development.  These actions transformed the view of art education held by policy makers, educators, and parents, and they began to embrace a comprehensive approach in the art classroom (Stewart, 2005, p. 8).  Heavily informed by DBAE, the visual culture movement was the next significant influence on art education theory (Stewart, 2005, p. 10).  The key tenants of the visual culture approach are recognizing that visual elements dominate communication in our culture and that teaching students to deconstruct this form of communication is a primary goal of art education.  Both DBAE and visual culture lessons expanded school art curriculum beyond the typical Western art history cannon to consider images from a wider variety of cultures and time periods as well as popular culture, media, and advertisements (Stewart, 2005, p. 9).  Influenced by these approaches, the National Standards for the Arts created in 1994 reflect this comprehensive approach to art education by valuing art and images for their context as well as their form (Stewart, 2005, p. 11).

Contemporary theory of art education designs curriculum using enduring ideas and essential questions as a foundation (Stewart, 2005).  This requires structuring lessons plans by beginning with an enduring idea, one that transcends time, place, and culture, then unpacking the idea by identifying essential questions that prompt deep understanding of the idea (Stewart, 2005, p. 25).  The aim is to provide students with more than artistic skills, techniques, or facts, but with assignments that promote a multidisciplinary comprehension of real life issues as well.

Key Points

The development of art education theory brought shifts in conceptions of student learning, a redefining of the art teacher’s role, and new expectations for curriculum content (Stewart, 2005).  By focusing on student understanding, the previous view of students as receptacles for knowledge bestowed upon them by an educator was replaced by the view of students and teachers as a team working together to build understanding (Stewart, 2005, p. 12).  This point of view places more responsibility upon the learners by calling upon them to address and investigate their own questions and to act as reflective learners.  The role of the art educator shifted from that of a dictator or entertaining “sage on the stage” to a “guide on the side” who inspires, encourages and empowers their students (Stewart, 2005, p. 12).  While it is expected that quality art curriculum content will align with the National Standards for the Arts and lead to higher test scores, it is also expected to place an emphasis on deep understanding (Stewart, 2005, p. 16).  The activities, assignments, and assessments issued in lesson plans should serve the ultimate goal of students comprehension.

When using enduring ideas as a framework for curriculum development, it is helpful for art teachers to teach them in context, find a balance relevance and diversity, and know the steps to developing these unit foundations (Stewart, 2005).  Enduring ideas are universal concepts that transcend place and time, but it is often helpful to begin teaching them in a context that is familiar to the students (Stewart, 2005, p. 28).  For example, when exploring the enduring idea of “community”, an art teacher might begin by discussing the local community with their students before introducing a community from another continent.  Allowing students to begin learning in a comfortable context will grant them the confidence to seek out deeper understanding of the concept’s complexities.  Once this comfort is achieved it is important for educators to find the balance between a concept’s relevance to their students’ lives and opportunities to explore diversity (Stewart, 2005, p. 32).  The study of art provides choice contexts for this balance, for in even the most culturally diverse artwork, there is always an element of humanity with which students may relate.  Instructors may develop these unit foundations by first brainstorming, then choosing an enduring idea, writing about why that idea is important to learn, “unpacking” the idea to formulate essential questions, assigning objectives for the unit, and aligning the unit in a logical fashion (Stewart, 2005, p. 33).

Personal Reflection

These readings have given me the tools to take my own methods of learning and art making (which is very similar to the comprehensive approach to art education) and apply them in my classroom.  In combination with the backward design model presented in our previous readings, the outline of how to develop units based on an enduring idea have dramatically impacted the way I will structure my lesson plans.  I primarily work with adults, often on a weekly basis, and I intend to use enduring ideas as teasers for upcoming classes.  For example, after completing these readings I taught a class using “reappropriation” as an enduring idea, and my students responded very positively to the structure of the lesson.  At the end of the class I told them that next week we would focus on “identity”, and they began discussing and mulling it over on their way out the door.  I am excited for them to return to the classroom so we can share our explorations and thoughts!

These readings have also transformed by view of the Elements and Principles as I’ve considered each of them their own enduring idea.  Next week I am teaching a class using “color” as an enduring idea, and have approached my planning for a lesson on color in a new, exciting way!  Rather than rattling through worksheets or color wheel exercises, I plan to expose my students to the richness and vastness of the concept of color by focusing on a few essential questions and allowing discussion to take us places beyond usual art classroom fare.  Presenting the E’s and P’s as enduring ideas is an idea in which I intend to seek out and conduct research.


Stewart, M. & S. Walker (2005). Rethinking curriculum in art. Worcester, MA: Davis Publications.


What is Comprehensive Art Education?

The most important characteristics of a comprehensive approach to art education are a foundation of enduring ideas, material that is relevant to the students’ lives, and contemplation of the role art plays in the human experience. The foundation of enduring ideas ensures that curriculum addresses issues transcending place and time and allowing students to apply lessons from the art classroom throughout their lives. It also ensures that every student’s input is vital for discussion and learning, for these enduring ideas are too abstract and complex for the teacher to cover alone. This foundation of philosophical quandaries offers students infinite, engaging material that promises rich discoveries and benefits from their contributions. Because a comprehensive approach to art education is rooted in these enduring ideas, the material has relevance to the students’ lives beyond the classroom. Art teachers may rely on these “real life” connections as sources of student excitement and motivation which removes the pressure many teachers feel to be an entertaining “sage on stage”. By becoming a “guide on the side”, art teachers can inspire and encourage their students to discover the role art plays in the human experience. Understanding more about the human experience via the study and making of art is at the heart of comprehensive art education, and I personally place great value and importance on this facet because it is one way I find wisdom, purpose, joy, discipline, and connection in my own life.

I use a comprehensive approach to understanding art in my own learning and art making, but I have struggled with applying it consistently in the classes I teach. In my personal art world I plan projects and dwell on ideas much in the way Chapter 4 suggests we “unpack” the enduring questions during curriculum development. I map ideas, become excited over multi-disciplinary connections (especially when the arts and sciences merge!), and research the work of contemporary artists in my search for influences and understanding. I yearn to invite students into that world of possibilities and unknowns that glitters with the potential for discovery. And sometimes it happens! For example, in one of my classes we explored the enduring idea of “representation” through a lesson on portraiture, or humans representing other humans. Students were exposed to a variety of visual examples (ancient works, self-portraits, commissions, portraits of rulers, military portraits, voyeuristic Vermeer’s, magazine advertisements, etc.) and discussed the motives of the artists and their subjects. This was followed by a studio art project where students elected to complete a self portrait or pair up with a friend to “commission” a portrait. The students were so engaged, and their responses displayed a wide range of exploration and understanding of representation from identifying honest, misleading, and dishonest representations to questioning whether or not a person’s likeness could ever truly be captured, even by a camera. That was a good lesson plan, but what made it a great lesson was the input of my students! Sometimes, however, I fail to scratch the surface of anything significant. I’ll admit to being lured away from lessons of substance by “hands-on” and conveniently packaged/themed curricula, but I’m always drawn back to those enduring questions. Many teachers talk about living for those “a-ha!” moments, but what really gets me going is that steady sparkling that brightens the faces of students who are thinking things they’ve never thought before!