One tendency in education today is to shape malleable young people to serve the needs of technology and postindustrial society. However, there is another tendency that has to do with the growth of persons, with the education of persons to become different, to find their voices, and to play participatory and articulate parts in a community in the making. Encounters with the arts and activities in the domains of art can nurture the growth of persons who will reach out to one another as they seek clearings in their experience and try to be more ardently in the world. If the significance of the arts for growth and inventiveness and problem solving is recognized at last, a desperate stasis may be overcome and hopes may be raised, the hopes of real possibility.…Art offers life; it offers the prospect of discovery; it offers light. Resisting, we may make the teaching of the aesthetic experience our pedagogic creed.
—Maxine Greene, Releasing the Imagination: Essays on Education, the Arts, and Social Change, ©1995, page 132
Cultivating social imagination through the arts
Acclaimed educators, such as John Dewey, Maxine Greene, and Sir Ken Robinson, have argued for the teaching of creative thinking along with traditional analytical thinking. They have likewise argued the merits of using the arts to achieve this goal. This website attempts to advance this cause by providing exemplar art and strategies for using art analysis, talk, and explorations to cultivate imagination and creative thinking.
Why the visual arts are ideal for teaching creative thinking
- An inherently creative venture While the arts involve both hemispheres of the brain, when students engage with the arts they expect to think creatively, as opposed to many other disciplines where they expect to memorize established rules and processes.
- Subjective interpretation Because the arts are oftentimes perceived as predominately subjective, when students are involved in art analysis, they are more open to sharing their ideas and accepting of multiple interpretations. As a discipline, the arts encourage students to think expansively and personally.
- Broad accessibility Because the arts can be appreciated on an immediate visual or auditory level, and do not necessarily require linguistic decoding, the arts can be more accessible for students with physical or mental disabilities and those with limited English proficiencies.
- Cross-curricular thinking Because the arts draw on cross-curricular thinking and can build on broad cultural understandings, they can be seamlessly integrated into other subject areas.
Inquiry-based art and social imagination
In traditional art education, art specialists teach specific techniques and skills with the goal of creating works of art. Typically, if works of art are shared, they are used as exemplars of the skill or technique being taught. More recently, an integrative approach to art uses artwork to enhance cross-curricular learning. In these instances select works of art might be used to illustrate social studies concepts or scientific principles.
Inquiry-based art education takes a different tack than these two approaches. While it can build cross-curricular understandings and may include hands-on art making, inquiry-based art strives for an authentic aesthetic experience that involves the viewer in the same kind of creative thinking the artist goes through.
In Art as Experience (page 54), John Dewey argues that aesthetic inquiry closely parallels the art-making process. He contends that,
To perceive, a beholder must create his own experience.
He describes how the viewer must undergo the same thought processes as the artist.
Without an act of recreation, the object is not perceived as a work of art. The artist selected, simplified, clarified, abridged and condensed according to his interest. The beholder must go through these operations according to his point of view and interest.
Emphasizing the need for the viewer to be fully engaged in conscious meaning making, Dewey warns against passive viewing,
The one who is too lazy, idle, or indurated in convention to perform this work will not see or hear.
In addition to recognizing the viewer as an active participant in the creation of meaning, Maxine Greene also contends that these aesthetic experiences foster habits of mind that awaken the viewer to seeing anew and envisioning possibilities. She explains (page 379),
Participatory involvement with many forms of art enables us, at the very least, to see more in our experience, to hear more on normally unheard frequencies, to become conscious of what daily routines, habits, and conventions have obscured.…By such experiences we are not only lurched out of the familiar and taken-for-granted, but we may also discover new avenues for action. We may experience a sudden sense of new possibilities and thus new beginnings.
She explains that by envisioning alternative realities, we are able to see through others’ eyes, and that in turn cultivates empathy and social imagination, “the capacity to invent visions of what should be and what might be in our deficient society.” (page 5)
In this light, an inquiry-based approach to the arts is the ideal curricular cornerstone for promoting wide-awakeness, social imagination, and democratic values.
The art galleries
In the hands of a good teacher, any art can be used to create a powerful aesthetic experience. And now, with the Internet, the artwork to share with students has increased exponentially. To help find direction in this sea of choice, this site is designed around 16 galleries. Some galleries exhibit multiple works of art, other galleries show multiple views of a single installation. All of the galleries include links to related works by other artists.
The selected art was chosen for its capacity to cultivate social imagination. Because many of the site-specific environmental installations encourage social action, they are ideal for exploring real-world community issues and envisioning alternative possibilities. These installations show how art can be used to raise awareness, educate the public, and even help solve local environmental ills. Even when the works don’t carry an explicit message for social action, they show how art can be used to spark new thoughts about everyday scenes and reframe the way we see the world.
The 16 galleries are roughly organized chronologically in order to show how ideas relate, grow, and evolve. This underscores for students that there is more sweat, than epiphanies, in the creative process. This chronology, however, makes the creative process look overly linear and streamlined. The write-ups within the galleries attempt to give a more honest appraisal of how unpredictable, messy, and searching the process can be.
Instruction organized around an expanding-conversation framework
The Teaching Opportunities that accompany each gallery, the ELA Connect posts, and the Close Reading the Art of… posts are organized on an inquiry-based, expanding-conversation framework and build on the belief that the sum of the co-constructed knowledge produced when groups of individuals work with and through the arts is greater than its parts. There is no set pattern for how to structure this discussion, only that the aesthetic engagement should foster an expanding dialogue that integrates perspectives, opens minds, and cultivates imaginative thinking.
- Individual interpretations All of the teaching opportunities begin with personal engagement. Students should always have a filter-free opportunity to engage with works of art and construct their own interpretation of what it communicates. Sometimes you may want to start by having a group of images wash over students. Other times, you may want to focus on a single work of art. In either instance, have students relax, look at the piece, and consider three simple questions.
• What do you see? Identify the parts of a piece and how they interact with each other. When viewing multiple pieces, what are some of the elements shared by multiple pieces? When viewing individual works, what are the parts or elements that make up the whole of a piece? What does the artist care about?
• What does the artwork make you think of and how does it make you feel? Encourage students to trust their intuition and feelings. What do they like or not like, and why? While you don’t want a student’s initial response to step on other students’ opportunities to reflect, you also don’t want to stifle the energy and immediate response artwork can elicit. Have students tap into their prior knowledge and identify the elements of the artwork that are familiar to them. Where have they seen these elements before? Encourage students to make connections and cite specific details from the work to support their claims.
• What are the questions that rise to the surface as you look at a work of art? What confuses, and why? What if the artist had made other decisions? What questions would you would need answered to help you understand this work better?
Don’t linger too long on this. The discussion that follows will help interpretations unfold and evolve.
- Small-group analysis After a few moments for personal interpretation, its time to give voice to each student’s inner dialogue. Have students organize into small groups to quickly share their answers to the questions. Small groups make sure everyone has an opportunity to share and they also keep people from hiding. Small groups also compel listening. In this kind of sharing, empathy takes root. As students unpack the piece together, and then synthesize their small-group discussions, they should find that added perspectives deepen understanding and solidify shared feelings or confusions. Again, keep the pace moving. Lulls in the conversation mean students are more than ready to move on through the expanded discussion.
- Whole-group instruction As the class reconvenes, have each small-group’s spokesperson summarize their findings and questions. Anchor charts can help organize this feedback and build connections. Where has added insight deepened understanding? What ideas or confusions have the group affirmed? Support multiple interpretations if they exist and allow space for ambiguities to exist.
- Bring art critics into the discussion Now that students are personally engaged and have taken ownership of their own interpretations, it is a good time to let art critics add their educated opinions. Succinct reviews are provided with some of the pieces on this site. Internet search engines will help you find reviews for other works of art. Highlight when critics present competing interpretations so students can appreciate that even though they have added experience and education, critics are expressing personal opinions, not statements of fact. Reviews can also be used to glean added insight, examine writing craft, and study ways to build arguments.
- Invite the artist into the discussion The artist has always been part of the conversation, and their work should be able to speak for itself. But, an artist’s added context and reflection can enhance the aesthetic experience and introduce new questions and ideas. The “Upon Further Reflection” features that support each gallery were written to meet this goal. Artist interviews and artist statements culled from the web can be used to support other works of art.
- Individual application The expanding discussion comes full circle when the individual student processes all these voices and refines their interpretation or sets a new course of action. This is commonplace after an art school critique. The artist needs to thoughtfully sift through all the feedback and reflect on which ideas resonate with them and with their work. This can be both hard and invigorating. Long-standing beliefs may be challenged, but new thinking can result in creative breakthroughs. How this manifests itself will vary. New artists or art works to study? New ideas or strategies to build on? New media to explore? The lesson here is that the creative process can be messy, uncertain, and even bruising, but it is always worthwhile when you dust yourself off and press ahead.
Additional instructional frameworks to support imaginative and inquiry learning
• The Lincoln Center Institute’s 10 Capacities for Imaginative Learning
• Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis’s 6 Nonfiction Reading Strategies for Active Literacy Instruction
• Kylene Beers and Bob Probst’s 6 Notice & Note signposts
(This site is designed as an electronic sketchbook where artistic thinking and social imagination go to grow. The thinking here, as in any sketchbook, is intended to evolve with experience and reflection. And, as Maxine Greene often reminds her readers, this dialogue is forever incomplete and ongoing.)