The concept of dialogue is fundamental to my philosophy as a teacher and as an artist. Students do not learn effectively as passive recipients of knowledge dispensed by an authoritative teacher, but as engaged creators of knowledge, participating in a two-way exchange where they are challenged to respond to, and formulate, new ideas. Likewise, students do not live effectively as passive recipients of culture, but as engaged creators of culture. Knowledge doesn’t spring fully-formed from the head of the teacher, or the hand of an artist, but in that electric space between the student and the teacher, where the student builds their understanding.
Consequently, to me the role of the school is to cultivate the child’s voice, and to develop of the skills with which they can share that voice and participate in the ongoing dialogue that is our culture. The art room is an exceptional place to accomplish this – students are given myriad tools to express their “voice,” and to respond to, participate in, and create culture.
To this end, my teaching methodology is “social constructivism,” as outlined by developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky, wherein the child constructs her/his cognitive and social development through interpersonal interactions with peers and instructors, rather than receiving external codified systems representing truth. Vygotsky noted that “we become ourselves through others,” (1966, p. 43) and it is important that my classroom affords students the space to do this.
In my experience teaching English overseas, I quickly realized that every moment I spent speaking was a moment that the students weren’t speaking – a critical realization when the course objective is for students to speak. Likewise, if my goal as an art teacher is to cultivate the student’s voice, I can’t issue monologues from the front of the room. This doesn’t mean that I as a teacher cede my role or responsibility. My job as a teacher is to present the students with new and meaningful concepts and work to respond to, and to scaffold the material and cognitive skills they need to formulate those meaningful responses. Meeting these defined objectives without dominating the class with my words and my perspective takes careful and deliberate planning.
My presentation style is a dialogue, where even before we begin the project proper, students are engaged, prompted to share their knowledge about the day’s topic, manipulate materials on the board, and respond to work by practicing artists. I deliberately present work from a variety of periods and contexts, with particular attention given to contemporary voices in the art world, voices from other parts of the world, and voices from traditionally underrepresented communities in our own country. This expands the art-historical narrative in the classroom beyond the droning monologue of a single authoritative voice into a polyphonic chorus of voices, increasing the chance that children will find artists whose work they identify with, and giving them confidence to share yet another voice – their own – with a diverse world of art that is open to their response.
Typically in a given lesson I will juxtapose the work of a historical artist with the work of a contemporary artist dealing with a similar or related art idea. This reinforces the notion to the child that there are multiple creative solutions to the challenges artists face, encouraging the child to develop and share their own creative responses to the class assignment. This strategy also has the practical result of introducing students to relevant works and artists from art history as well as contemporary artists contributing to the culture in which they are living today.
Vygotsky, L.S. (1966) Development of higher mental functions. In A.N. Leontyev, A.R. Luria and A. Smirnov (Eds.) Psychological Research in the USSR. Moscow: Progress Publishers.