Shifting the Curriculum: Decentralization in the Art Education Experience

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Shifting the Curriculu2: . ~


When it is told, it is, to the one to whom it is told, another given fact, not an idea. The communication may stimulate the other person to realize the question for himself and to think out a like idea, or it may smother his intellectual interest and suppress his dawning effort at thought. But what he directly gets cannot be an idea. Only by wrestling with the conditions of the problem at first hand, seeking and finding his own way out, does he think. In such shared activity, the teacher is a learner, and the learner is, without knowing it, a teacher-and upon the whole, the less consciousness there is, on either side, of either giving or receiving instruction, the better." - John Dewey, Democracy and Education (1916 )

"In a decentralized classroom, the teacher becomes a partner who initiates learning and provides support as needed, but does not inhibit intuitive knowledge and innovative thinking in the process of performing these duties." -Christopher Adej ul110 (2002)

BY t-t

. May 2011 / ART EDUCATION


-e --______________




he act of learning is facilitated through an open communication process


that encourages one to discover meaning within certain ideas, objects, and experiences. The traditional classroom environment, often consisting of a hierarchical relationship between teacher and student, does not always allow for this kind of open communication to occur. In a decentralized approach to teaching and learning the subject matter can be placed at the center of the process, rather than the teacher or student, while participants are inspired and empowered through the experience. When a collaborative approach is embraced, decentralization in the art classroom can consist of a non-linear exchange of ideas between teacher and students, allowing for necessary dialogue and conversation, ultimately leading to innovative exploration of materials and concepts. In this situation, students can become active learners as opposed to passive participants, and teachers learn to strategically listen and watch for teachable moments. This article examines the decentralized approach to art curriculum from a pedagogical point of view, acknowledging advantages and disadvantages for art educators, and its contribution to a curriculum that captures the current cultural aesthetic experience. By referring to research in art education and writings of curriculum theorists, I argue for an application of decentralized approaches to teaching visual art in contemporary learning environments, with emphasis on instigating critical thinking within classroom critiques of student artwork. The following topicS are addressed: the connection between decentralized curriculum and complexity thinking, the significance of dialogical exchange between teacher and students, the concept of emergent knowledge, and the noted desire for flexible curricular models in art education. I conclude by providing accounts of collaborative learning within university studio art courses that occur in online environments, with the intent of provoking thought for art education at all levels. Throughout, I describe a theoretical framework for understanding decentralized curriculum as I argue for a contemporary art pedagogy that is reflective of contemporary life.

A Circular Process: Decentralization, Complexity, and Interpretation in Art Complexity theory in education embraces a collaborative and non-linear experience of learning, rejecting the use of linear, machine-based metaphors (Davis, Sumara, & Luce-Kapler, 2008). Teaching and learning is described as moving away from the concept of one individual passing established knowledge on to another, to the concept of collectives elaborating emergent knowledge (Davis, et aI., 2008). In this view, learning is not a cause-and-effect relationship between a teacher and student but rather one part of a complex system that is dependent on many other parts. Figures 1 and 2 illustrate the difference between the traditional classroom experience with the teacher at the center

Figure 1. A Centralized Network (illustration by the author).



(centralized network) and that of a teaching and learning experience that encompasses a complex approach (decentralized network). Learning is about discovering what motivates us to a set of ideas; a traditional classroom environment, often based on a power relationship between teacher and student, does not always facilitate an open communication process for discovering these motivations (Burnett, 1999). A decentralized approach to teaching and learning does not necessarily mean that the teacher neglects to create a lesson plan; instead it requires the teacher to create a structure that allows for certain ideas to trigger other ideas and for knowledge to be discovered within this circular process. Complex and decentralized approaches to teaching are most appropriate for learning situations in which there exists more than one response to a topic. There must be more than one interpretive possibility to begin with and structures need to be in place for ideas to stumble across one another-this being more important than the way the physical system is organized (Davis, et a!., p. 199). The group discussions surrounding the creation and/or interpretation of artworks-the studio critique-provides an appropriate context for a complex approach that includes hermeneutic inquiry. Hermeneutic inquiry, tracing back to the philosophical thinking of Schleiermacher and Heidegger, is a type of understanding that constantly moves back and forth

Figure 2. A Decentralized Network. (illustration by the author). [Note: Although Figures 1 and 2 reference illustrations from Davis, Sumara, and Luce-Kapler (2008), these are generic representations that can be easily found by an online search.]

between the 'parts' and the 'whole' that we seek to understand; it is the process of understanding. Within hermeneutic inquiry, there is the act of 'working through' which one might describe as a rhythmic, dialogical movement between thoughts. Within my own curriculum theorizing, I am especially drawn to the concept of the hermeneutic circle, as influenced by the philosophers named above. In the teaching and learning of art, my understanding of the hermeneutic circle is one of a dialogical process of meaning that occurs in the making of art and/or the linguistic interpretation of art in studio critiques. A pedagogical approach to the studio critique can be one that is decentralized, with participants placed in simultaneous view of both the artwork and each other. The artwork in between the participants becomes the subject of inquiry, allowing for interpretation to move back and forth from the art object (the part) to the idea being expressed (the whole). A non-linear and circular exchange of interpretations between all participants is supported with the intention of "... each new experience addling) to the accumulated

meaning of experience for each individual" (Slattery, 2006, p. 282). I can attest to a type of "self-forgetfulness" (Smith, 1999) in the critique experience, in which the meaning of the artwork is one that is constructed through the participatory relations within the group-a learning process that I choose to moderate, and perhaps guide, as opposed to plan in advance. By allowing fellow students to continually voice their interpretations, I have witnessed the artist's understanding of the work deepen and, later on, in future projects, expand and build upon this understanding. The rhythmic movement within the hermeneutical circle could be considered similar to the back and forth nature of the creative process itself-a cognitive process that oscillates between associative and analytic modes of thought (Gabora, 2002; Gabora, in press). Psychology professor Liane Gabora describes the creative process as neither random nor causal, but more like the continual focusing in and out of inSights through association and analysis (Gabora, 2002, p. 8). I refer to this almost indefinable

and abstract experience as the dialogical process between innovative thoughts or acts (associative) and the more methodical requirements of the task at hand (analytic). In the teaching of visual art, one might consider assigning projects in which students continually revisit the same form/concept with multiple methods, each time pushing the form/concept in a new direction. The key would be to place very little emphasis on the quality of the end result, highlighting instead the significance of the process itself by allowing the student to retrace transformative moments-an understanding of how different methods inform one another. This could also be revealed through collaborative projects in which students contribute to each other's work, in a back and forth manner, a technique influenced by the Surrealist exquisite corpse game. These exercises would be followed by a larger conceptual project in which students are asked to choose and combine methods with the intention of conveying a specific meaning.



Mapping the Experience and Relinquishing Control

'We are shaped by our own educational experiences, which are often defined by a traditional lecture style of teacher-student interaction. Accepting a decentralized approach to curriculum and teaching can allow us to explore the possibilities of dialogue as a pedagogical tool for emergent knowledge.



A decentralized network can produce a rhizomatic experience, almost like a mapping of creative possibilities and connections. When art educators allow for open dialogue and collaborative discourse between students and themselves in studio critiques, a rhizomatic experience may evolve as participants each build upon each other's comments, one response leading to another response and so on. Patrick Slattery (2006) describes the act of interpretation as "something that should emphasize possibility and becoming, for human consciousness can never be static" (p. 282). The idea of human consciousness never being static is similar to the view of knowledge being a complex system of evolving rhizomatic forms. The rhizome form (Figure 3) is divergent, extending in all directions, and rather than being comprised of a set of points and positions, it consists oflines in metamorphis (Deleuze & Guittari, 1987). In describing the rhizomatic form, Deleuze and Guittari state, "A rhizome may be broken, shattered at a given spot, but it will start up again on one of its old lines, or on new lines ... these lines always tie back to one another" (p. 9). The studio critique has the potential to become a rhizomatic experience, one that occurs within a dialogical space of critical thinking

in which the visual work becomes the object of attention and produces emergent knowledge. In referring to Figure 3 or "the rhizome form/model;' one can imagine the flow of knowledge that trickles through the educational space, from one node, or participant, to another. Disadvantages to a decentralized pedagogical approach include a major shift in curriculum planning that requires the teacher to adjust instructional strategies according to individual groups, and that the teacher be willing to feel uncomfortable during an unpredictable teaching and learning experience (Milbrandt, Felts, Richards, & Abghari, 2004). Complexity thinking highlights the importance of neighboring interactions of ideas, but the means to accomplish this must be "considered on a case-by-case basis, depending on the topic, the context, and the personalities involved" (Davis et ai., 2008, p. 199). In other words, decentralized approaches to teaching and learning can be complicated and time-consuming, yet can produce an aesthetic experience that deepens meaningful understanding related to cultural issues. When writing curriculum for speCific courses, I have found the process of developing learning objectives to be almost more valuable than the list itself. The objectives allow for focus and a sense of direction, but

Figure 4. Rhizomean Curricular Landscape (illustration by the author in reference to original diagram in Aoki. 2005).

the teaching and learning experience is often more enriching when the list is pushed aside. Teachers sometimes find it difficult to relinquish control in order to allow students a greater sense of, however, this can sometimes lead to teachable moments as students are individually engaged with the content. Decentralized instruction preconditions students to access their inner feelings and intuitions in the learning process, often expressing non-linear ideas with less fear of rejection (Adejumo, 2002, p. 8). Some groups of students may be more difficult than others to engage in constructivist processes, but teachers who embrace these methods have found it to be worth the effort (Milbrandt et aI., 2004). With this understanding of the relationship between complexity thinking and decentralized forms of teaching, the power that belonged to the teacher within a behaviorist model oflearning can now be thought of as shifting within social activity.

Dialogical Possibilities within the Teaching and Learning of Art As described here, decentralized or constructivist approaches to art education can often allow for a rhizomatic flow of emerging knowledge that moves in a multilinear manner within what I refer to as a dialogical space of teaching and learning. When traditional hierarchical roles are

disrupted, perhaps the studio critique can function as a place for shaping inSights, which then become personalized through conversation and dialogue. Conversation within studio art courses is key to the learning process, and there is value in the act of talking to work out interpretations and differences (Kent, 2005). Decentralized forms of curriculum allow for importance to be placed on the flow of conversation and dialogue between participants. The dialogical relationships that are produced in this educational experience are, in my opinion, extremely Significant. It is not just about a dialogue between teacher and student, it is also about the conversations between student and student, between student and the content, and between the teacher and the content. The interpersonal is as important as any other part of the learning experience; the difficulty is that the structure of the traditional educational experience, both from the teacher's and the student's perspective, mitigates the value of invention and exploration (Burnett, 1999). We are shaped by our own educational experiences, which are often defined by a traditional lecture style of teacher-student interaction. Accepting a decentralized approach to curriculum and teaching can allow us to explore the possibilities of dialogue as a pedagogical tool for emergent knowledge.

Critical theorist Paulo Freire is well known for his research on democratic communication within the teacher-student relationship and the role that dialogue plays in forming knowledge. Freire discusses the dialogical process stating, "the object to be known in one place links the two cognitive subjects, leading them to reflect together on the object" (Shor & Freire, 1987, p. 14). Shor and Freire describe dialogue as a "joint act of knowing and re-knowing the object of study" (p. 14). In writing about curriculum pertaining to art teachers, Erickson (2004) referred to a study by Short (1998) that concluded that the understanding of art, and the ability to transfer this understanding from one context to another, should include the critical activities of talking and writing about works of art (p. 62). For visual art educators who place importance on the act of critical thinking, as opposed to solely developing technical skills, I claim that these activities of talking and writing extend into the act of hermeneutic inquiry, ultimately leading to self-reflection. This can be described as an aesthetic, sometimes even existential, experience that rarely exists in a centralized and hierarchical approach to teaching and learning.



happen "between" the forms that represent the teacher and students-the exchanges of communication. He draws attention to the term "multiplicity" not being a noun, because within multiplicity it is not the elements that matter but what is in between them. I understand this to mean that the curriculum is about the experience, the process, and the relationship between the teacher and students. It seems only fitting that Aoki's "live(d) curriculum" be taken up by art educators, as it not only leads to self-reflection and critical inquiry but also acknowledges the affective aspects of the teaching and learning experience.

Figure S. Author's Representation of Efland's Spiral Lattice Model.

One might consider assigning projects in which students continually revisit the same form/ concept with multiple methods, each time pushing the form/ concept in a new direction. The key would be to place very little emphasis on the quality of the end result, highlighting instead the significance of the process itself.



In the Space of Emergence and Inquiry This kind of aesthetic classroom experience, or dialogical space, has been written about by various curriculum theorists, albeit each defining the phenomenon with different language to describe its intangible qualities. Ted Aoki wrote about the "live(d) curriculum" as something in opposition to planned curriculum and explained his concepts by using a visual illustration (Figure 4) of what he terms the "rhizomean curricular landscape" (Aoki, 1996/2005, p. 419). There are similarities between Aoki's curricular landscape and the decentralized network. Aoki suggests that the rhizomean landscape signifies the multiplicity of curricula that occur in the learning space and the relationships that

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of a decentralized approacb to teaching art is the prevention of planned enculturation. Osberg and Biesta (2008) write about the 'space of emergence' in which meaning and knowledge is formed in the classroom, however, they argue that the concept of emergence be not only applied to knowledge but to human subjectivity as well. Their concern is that even though the teacher structures the curriculum to allow for emergent knowledge to occur in this space, the problem of planned enculturation still exists. Influenced by complexity thinking and research that has examined how educators can encourage the emergence of meaning in the classroom (Davis, et al., 2000), the authors are less interested in pedagogical methods and more interested in the kinds of meaning that are allowed to emerge in the classroom: "This question is important because, if meaning is understood as emergent, and if educators wish to encourage the emergence of meaning in the classroom, then the meanings that emerge in the classrooms cannot and should not be pre-determined before the 'event' of their emergence:' (Osberg & Biesta, p. 314; italics in original)

Osberg and Biesta argue that emergence must be used on two levels-for knowledge/meaning and for human subjectivity.

There is potential for the art teacher to become afacilitator of critical inquiry among active participants, encouraging multiple viewpoints, within a curricular model that invites self-reflective practices. They suggest that we need to abandon pre-conceived notions of what constitutes a human subject in order to understand who we are in relation to each other, and that if this process occurs as knowledge emerges in the educational space than it is possible to have curriculum that is free of enculturation. Osberg and Biesta conclude that the 'space of emergence' for knowledge and subjectivity requires that differences amongst participants be maintained in the classroom. This suggests the responsibility of the teacher is to enable students to become more unique and not to ensure a desired end but rather to "complicate the scene" (p. 325). If this theory is applied to the studio critique, it would require the teacher to initiate debate and contrasting opinions regarding students' interpretations and understandings of the works they produce, without promoting one particular point of view-a difficult task. I conclude with an account of such an experience.

Flexible Curricular Models for Art Education Since the beginning of the postmodern era, educators have been calling for curriculum and pedagogy that responds to the challenges of contemporary society. Efland (1995) argued for a flexible curricular model that prepares teachers and students to approach the world of art in all its complexity-a spiral lattice type model (Figure 5) represents learning within art curriculum, allowing for multiple forms of interpretation, implementation and individualization of experience. Robert Sweeny (2004) proposes a decentralized approach to art education, which I consider to be a more complex version of Efland'smore expansive and multilinear, similar to that of a decentralized network. Sweeny writes about the inherent connection between the pedagogical philosophies associated with the open classroom movement of the 1960s (emphasis on learning in small groups, variety of activities, and the teacher being less of an authority figure) and that of networked

education that occurs today through the use of the Internet (Sweeny, 2008). With the Internet becoming more of an accessible tool for interconnectivity and interactivity, some art educators like Sweeny are suggesting that teachers take advantage of the flexible technology and use it to inform pedagogical practices. Sweeny argues that the open classroom movement did not survive because the general culture was not ready for the change, stating that these methods may be better accepted today: "It is relevant for art educators teaching in a networked age at all levels to return to the philosophies of the open classrooms, as many of these structures resemble aspects of complexity theory. Perhaps the theories were developed too soon and can only now be implemented in an age of networks" (Sweeny, 2008, p. 56). If we are to consider contemporary life outside of schools as we develop curriculum for our art students, we will find a steady increase of user-friendly digital technologies designed to enhance collaborative methods of communication (e.g. wiki websites). Digital technologies like social networking sites and online learning systems enable interactive and participatory collaborations, and allow for "multidirectional conversations that can occur in multidimensional spaces" (Davis et aI., 2008). Social networking websites (e.g. Facebook, Twitter) are being said to allow for a new kind of intimacy that is being described as an acute form of self-reflection (Thompson, 2008). Art educators are capable of seeing new pedagogical possibilities when working with digital technology in curriculum (Wang, 2002; Wood, 2004), which suggests that networked approaches to curriculum would benefit from the work of art education researchers. For instance, recent research in post-secondary art education has shown that digital technologies, such as social networking websites, are being implemented into post-secondary foundation level art curriculum resulting in better peer-to-peer interaction and creating active learners as opposed to passive participants (Collins, et ai, 2007). As online technologies are being incorporated into visual art curriculum,

more research needs to be done to properly evaluate how the technologies impact the content being taught and how 'students are learning to think and express ideas within these new environments.

Teaching Art Online: Collaborative Discourse As I reflect upon my own experiences of teaching first-year university studio art courses online (spanning close to 6 years now), I can see instances in which an increased emphasis on collaborative learning has led to critical dialogue and creative insight that might not have occurred in the traditional face-to-face classroom. This is not to say that all art education should move to the space/place of the Internet (that would be absurd); however, the experience has alloweod me to examine art pedagogy in a more objective manner, by being forced to exist within a different space. One can challenge the hierarchical nature of a traditional studio critique, but the online studio group critique demands active participation from all students and, in some cases, provides opportunity for usually silent students to speak. The Internet allows for more peer-to-peer learning than can physically occur in the traditional classroom; students learn from seeing what other students are doing and from reading/listening to constructive critique. One example comes to mind in which students were asked to create a piece about a social issue needing more attention. A student created a piece that addressed bulimia, suggesting the role media plays in the perception of female bodies. The two-dimensional photographic work depicted a female subject in front of a wall of magazine covers, while simultaneously presenting a parody to the popular "got milk?" advertising campaign. Instead of the female's mouth being surrounded with milk, the milk was replaced by vomit, yet the entire work was produced in a very sophisticated manner. A contentious debate was initiated by the students, none of which had met each other in person. Did the artist go too far?

May 2011 / AR T ED UCATI ON


Would the image distract from the message the artist intended to convey? How might this challenge media portrayals of the female figure? Arguments were articulated clearly, exceeding personal opinion and taste. The quality of the feedback provided by students became stronger as the dialogue progressed and commentary oscillated between the formal and conceptual considerations of the larger image. Towards the end of the critique, it became apparent (through the voice of another student) that the female subject depicted in the piece was in fact the artist herself. Would this student have been willing to make such a provocative artwork in a face -to-face class? Would fellow students be as willing to discuss the work honestly? Whether the students, or myself, agreed or not with the student's approach, the focus of the critique remained on the effectiveness of

the piece and how well it met its objective. Knowledge and subjectivity hopefully emerged in this circular process of critical inquiry. The networked learning space of the Internet provides appropriate time for self-reflection and critical response, while decentering the role of the teacher to a 'guide on the side' who moderates the rhizomatic flow of thought. In conclusion, we are all learners-and as art educators we need to be open to engage in the learning process with our students. There needs to be an attempt for an equality of exchange between all participants in the classroom. Conversation can lead to significant understandings of visual art and can be used to make students more socially and culturally aware of their personal experiences in contemporary SOciety.

Obviously, this article does not provide clearly defined 'how-to' teaching methods for collaborative and emergent learning, but rather appeals for art educators to embrace a sense of openness that is ironically aided by current digital technologies. There is potential for the art teacher to become a facilitator of critical inquiry among active participants, encouraging multiple viewpoints, within a curricular model that invites self-reflective practices. Heidi May is an instructor in the Emily Carr University of Art and Design and a PhD candidate in Art Education at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada. E-mail:

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