Posted in Art Education
May 30, 2020

The Visual Arts Classroom – A Site of Societal Influence And Change (Shannon Pennell)

Here I am, in the “visual arts classroom” as it exists in the midst of the 2020 COVID-19 precautions. I

t was while I was digging through my previous essays to help my senior students prepare for their HSC essay writing, that I stumbled across this paper from 2018 – The Visual Arts Classroom: A Site of Societal Influence and Change. The title stood there nestled in the depths of my files, blinking out at me, and I thought, “haha, how ironic. Heck yes, let’s give this thing a read.”

As I did so, I couldn’t help but reflect upon the ideas I had then and to compare them to the situation now. How was society being critiqued in the visual arts classroom? How were ideologies being reflected? Where even was this classroom?

The occurrences of the last few months have thrown my ideals and expectations out the window. My visual arts classroom has followed them. As I speak to my students through online platforms and set practical activities that have to be tweaked to cater for social distancing, I can’t help but wonder, is this a new way of existing? Is the visual arts classroom completely immersing itself into a realm of ephemeral, virtual existence? Dissolving like the end scene of the latest Marvel film?

And what does this mean for our ability to critique society? Is it enhanced, as we are connected digitally with so much more, or are we now too saturated with social and political content that we cannot offer an objective view?

Perhaps this uncertainty is what will cause the largest mass critique of our existence. Will things go ‘back to normal’ or will we be suspicious of everything forevermore?

While reading this I couldn’t help but giggle, lament and question everything I took for granted whilst writing this back in pre-COVID society. Maybe you will too? Either way, my physical Visual Art room has never looked so clean.

As our contexts evolve, so must our education. Visual Arts education is not unaffected by its own context, as by nature the visual arts are as dynamic as the society in which they exist, critique and respond. Therefore, our education must reflect this and be expected to foster similar change.

The school is the site of societal manifestation, and therefore visual arts education and its presence in the classroom cannot help but mirror the social context in which it exists. As student interests, social context, and technology advances, so too must the syllabus and teaching in the classroom transform to suit. Visual arts education responds to its context in order to remain relevant, by being conscious of new ideologies of education and approaches to learning, and simultaneously being aware of media and technological developments with the potential to impact the art world and inclusive society.

Visual arts education needs to allow for general unity in artistic understanding across schools, yet allow students to practice their individual and authentic artistic thinking. Visual arts education strives to uphold a certain level of knowledge, however it also must remain flexible enough to allow for varying student interests, dynamic social contexts and developing technologies. At the change of century the New South Wales syllabus introduced to visual arts education new concepts – the “frames and the conceptual” framework.

These new “frames” and “frameworks” changed critical thinking’s presence in the classroom, assisted students’ approach to the intricacies of the art world, and allowed for more opportunity for students to practice and develop their own artistic and critical response abilities. The syllabus for NSW stage 6 visual art education was developed to provide students with the opportunity to become informed, responsible members of society, capable of identifying and challenging social and cultural injustice, and being overall culturally aware citizens.

The art world by nature – much the same as student interest- is dynamic, and as it discovers new ways of responding to its context, the assumptions that past art education ideals were based on often become obsolete. Changes to syllabi therefore are necessary to maintain relevance. The development of The Frames during the change of century were essential for the classroom environment to change with the concurrent perceptions of pedagogical learning; following the work of theorists Vygotsky (1962) and Piaget (1980), the Constructivist approach and its value in the classroom were being furthered into the new millennium by global interest and scholars like Jonassen (1994) and Driscoll (2000) (Brown, 1993).

At the change of century there was a change of syllabus for NSW visual art education. Within this new syllabus The Frames and the Conceptual Framework were introduced to teachers, to allow for the classroom learning to move from one of clear, traditional methods of teaching and learning, to a different more Constructivist approach (Briggs, 2016). The Constructivist approach is of the understanding that knowledge is achieved through learning, with learning being the process through which individuals construct meaning from their own experiences, employing more of Bloom’s higher order thinking than lower order thinking, to achieve “real learning”.

If this is true, then students need to be able to embark on their own experiences to effectively learn. At the time of creating a new syllabus, the Constructivist understanding of learning would have been relatively new to teachers in Australia. This could explain why, to those such as Alan Lee, the syllabus appeared a “bewildering list of possibilities”.

The Frames and the Conceptual Framework instead intended to offer “ways to understand and investigate” (Board of Studies, 2003) and fostering a better understanding in its students, as “visual arts recognises the contribution that different kinds of knowing make to understanding…and enables [students] to gain increasing intellectual autonomy”.

Alan Lee critically approaches the inclusion of The Frames in the NSW higher secondary school’s syllabus, at the time when they were first being implemented in classrooms across the state. Heexpresses “doubts about [their] applicability to the art class” and refers to them as “nonsense” and “clumsy” . However, The Frames aim to form a “basis for understanding” and “grounds for addressing [relative] questions… for investigating ideas in art”.

Therefore, The Frames intended to be a structure through which questioning, exploration and individual understanding could occur in the classroom. This would allow for a Constructivist way of teaching to be implemented, as students built their own “conceptual, practical and critical skills” and used their own interests in current happenings of the art world to inform their own learning.

The social and cultural contexts surrounding the development of education documents such as syllabi play a heavy role in how they are written and accepted. Lee notes at time of writing an expectation of “teachers to stimulate the interests of students by making anecdotal extra curricular reference[s]” and expresses an uneasiness at the idea of lesson content being informed and derived from the present in real-time.

His belief that “students cannot really participate in the art world” suggests that the view at the time was that of the art world as exclusive untouchable world, and without an “expert knowledge of art”, students could not access contemporary works. This mentality is contrary to a Constructivist way of teaching, and contradictory to what the syllabus expected The Frames and Conceptual Framework to achieve in the classroom.

Student interests should not be confined to simple anecdotal references, but in the spirit of thec urrent stage 6 syllabus, should “reward individual thinking in the representations of students’ ideas both aesthetically and persuasively”). The development of The Frames may have been perceived as “clumsy” or “originat[ing] from a joking aphorism” , yet they aim to allow for lessons where students can pursue their own interests and individual thinking, and build their understandings on current issues, giving them a chance to apply their critical thinking skills to contemporary, relevant topics.

While at risk of sounding rather ambiguous, the syllabus attempts to leave space for changing interests and contexts. The Frames and the Conceptual Framework help to make the visual arts more accessible to the classroom, by offering a certain level of structure, while remaining flexible and open-ended. This may at first reading seem ambiguous and wanting of concrete regulation, but it does allow for teachers to employ Constructivist methods of lesson planning and encourage “real learning”, and gives students a chance to pursue their own knowledge and understanding of the society they are a part of.

Society is not unaffected by the people, artists and technology that develop, challenge and exist within it. Society and technology each inform the development of the other, and the school as social institution amends education documents to better suit its social, historical, political and technological contexts. As syllabi are changed to remain relevant, so too will the classroom be required to change.

Visual arts, though ground breaking and often challenging, cannot exist separate from its social context. Nor does visual arts education. Just prior to the time Lee wrote in response to the new syllabus offered in 1997, Orlikowski and Gash introduced the idea of a conceptual framework to understand users’ interactions with technology. At the same time that the visual arts syllabus was proposing the use of a conceptual framework to assist students with approaching interrelationships of the art world, writers like Orlikowski and Gash were proposing a conceptual framework to allow researchers to better approach technology information and understand the social impact of new technologies.

Similarly, the Conceptual Framework for Visual Arts education aims to make difficult or ambiguous interrelationships of the art world and society accessible by students, with a focus on the artists and artworks that makeup the artworld, and its audience .

Yet it is the teacher in the classroom who is the implementor of The Frames or the Conceptual Framework; it is their agency that affects the Visual Arts classroom. Driscoll (2000) understands that the “teacher or instructional designer… [makes] concrete what are otherwise fuzzy, vague or unspecified goals.” The teacher’s role is to interpret the syllabus’ goals or ‘Outcomes’ and to find how best to translate them into meaningful lessons. For effective Constructivist learning to occur, the teacher cannot simply deliver the syllabus topics for rote learning, but instead must allow students the space to experience the lesson material, while subtly guiding them to construct the meanings they need to achieve their own knowledge.

Lee wrote: “Because [the contemporary art] scene is changeable, unpredictable, and so obscure as to defy easy description, it cannot be written into a syllabus document.” This is true. The Frames and the Conceptual Framework instead provide a structure through which the art classroom could become a space of critical thinking and student/art world driven lessons. They aim to provide a recognizable curriculum structure, whilst also providing a set of frameworks flexible enough to allow for changing context, interests and media.

The syllabus, created in a world entering the 21st Century, had to leave flexibility enough for rapid developments of technology and its social influence on the school and education. As technology and media progress, so do the artworks of Contemporary art. From digital art to the conceptual art museum Museum of Non-Visible Art, it can be argued the world of Contemporary art is more accessible and inaccessible than ever before .

With the progression of technology comes the development of new media and platforms for the art world to exist on, and if students as future audiences are ever to hope of being able to approach Contemporary art of the present and future, they need to learn the skills to critically analyse and apply knowledge to the artwork of tomorrow, and the visual arts education curricula and policies need to change to reflect this.

Visual arts education deals with an aspect of society that cannot be simplified; art. As society advances, so does our art, and so must our education. Changes in visual art education syllabi can be seen as a response to changing ideologies of education and approach to learning, and to developments in technology or media that affect artwork and society alike. The development of frameworks like The Frames and the Conceptual Framework intend to foster students’ learning abilities and individual understanding, while still offering recognized curriculum structure.

It is in the classroom that the effects of changes within the visual arts education manifest. At the implementation of a new syllabus a visual arts teacher in the classroom needs to be able to adapt lesson material to a new set of outcomes, while simultaneously adhering to the responsibility of ensuring that students are using higher-order thinking and achieving ‘real learning.’

Changes to the visual arts classroom are led by changes in the Visual Arts education curricula and policies, which are absolutely necessary to allow students to become “informed citizens and discerning audiences” (Board of Studies, 1999) of a dynamic future society and art world.

Shannon Pennell is a graduate student in critical theory, art, and visual language at the University of New England.

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