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!

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