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Empowering Learners, Spring 2005
Extra-Classroom Teaching Handbook

Social Stigmas and Fears in Art Education

Justine Garcia

Art is meant to be an empowering subject. What could be more empowering than a space set aside for personal expression, a time that allows for students to act and think differently than other, traditional academic classes? However, in every art class, regardless of grade level or age, there are levels of frustration, fears of mistakes or messes, and a drive to create work that adheres the rules of a self-made sense of aesthetics. Even as young as first grade, these factors are present and have a serious effect on the quality of work made, and, more importantly, detract from the empowering quality that art is meant to inspire.

Easy as it may be to blame this downward curve in creativity on an overly restrictive academic curriculum that resonates with students within every subject, I believe the problem lies elsewhere. Though not an ideal situation, art class and art knowledge is compartmentalized by the school. Early education creates this distinction; art is held in a different room, with a different teacher, and often falls under the category of a “special,” designating it as a class which is not immediately connected with their “academic” classes. This sets up a situation where art is viewed as “other” and the effects of binding, direction-laden curriculum are minimized. In a idyllic setting, all classes would have merit and give students skills that cross the boundaries of subject, yet our current situation may be more useful to art students as the national curriculum becomes more restrictive and testing increasingly prevalent. Bearing this in mind, art can now be viewed as its own entity, free, to some extent, of the detrimental effects of curriculum from other classes.

Students, when given a broad task with little instruction, generally react with fear- fear they will get poor grades if they fail to create something that pleases the teacher, fear their work will make them look foolish in front of their peers, fear that they are unable to complete the task due to lack of skill, and fear of making mistakes. In the college level introductory drawing class, these fears are addressed and, hopefully, overcome. However, at the elementary level, these fears are cultivated and perpetuated. When students are finally given an enormous level of freedom and leeway with their work, a point that teachers assume students have been building toward throughout their art education, they are confused and crave the instruction and direction that characterized previous art experiences.

The fear of grades, which constantly looms over every student, is lessened by the grading system that art assumes, which is generally structured differently than traditional academic classes. At the elementary school where I do my Praxis placement, the grading system is based on a check plus, check, and check minus, with room for the teacher to write short comments. At the college level, grades are subjective and only one grade is given during the quarter, which encompasses a student’s work and progress. These two approaches relieve some of the burden placed on the student; however, students have an inherent need to please those they perceive as being in charge. As such, praise must be given in a selective and thoughtful way. A teacher’s praise should not be a student’s sole motivation and goal when creating, the comments a teacher makes should be constructive and not overly positive in order to push the student and lessen dependence on praise, thereby making them more confident in their own work.

Art, by its nature, is public. When in an art class, a student’s work is constantly visible to others, and their peers can, and do, watch pieces as they are progressing and formulate judgments. This can serve as an important source of motivation, but it can easily become damaging when a student begins pandering for the praise and attention of their classmates and begins ignoring their own inclinations and creativity or becomes consumed by a fear of their peers’ judgments and how they will be perceived based on what they create. Art is not like other subjects, where work is much more private; art asks students to be public as well as personal, which can lead to enormous pressure on students and spawn many of the fears that block artistic expression.

The self-evaluation of skill level is a side effect of the lack of privacy while creating artwork. Students create standards while looking at their peers’ work, then become frustrated because they view themselves unskilled. The idea of skill or talent is a social construction; therefore, teachers must take care not to give students the impression that skill is tightly and concretely bound. Talent exists in many forms, and how a teacher speaks to students about their work should reflect this and will in turn teach students that each of them has valuable, though varied, skills.

Fear of mistakes and mess also arise out of the public viewing of their art, as students think that mistakes will make them appear inept to others. Again, a teacher’s comments are critical. Students must be shown that there are good, even beautiful qualities that arise from frustration, confusion, mess, and chaos. These sorts of comments should be heard by the entire class, so that they all can come to appreciate previously unseen facets of their classmates’ work and ease their snap judgments of what is good or bad. Frustration can be viewed as positive because it is a sign of struggle, and struggle leads to progress. Rather than offering easy solutions, frustration should be encouraged (though not to the point where students lose interest in art), because it forces students to find new solutions. Therefore, mess or mistakes are positive learning experiences for the individual and can be transformed into powerful lessons for the group.

To combat these fears and social stigmas, the teacher needs to create a space where students feel comfortable expressing both criticism and praise of their peers’ work. Art will always be a public event, but a teacher can, and should, shape how the students perceive one another and the art they are creating. This allows students to offer constructive criticisms on each other’s work, increasing their self-assurance in their own voice and, as above, lessening direct dependence on the teacher. The teachers should also concern themselves with creating a sense of pride and worth in work so that constructive criticisms will not destroy self-esteem or seem like a personal attack.

These various fears push students toward structure and direction, both of which are plentiful in elementary school. Teachers provide activities that can produce structured, finished looking projects with minimal skill or effort. Some examples are perler or fuse beads, which are placed on a fixed grid, and tracing photographs or other drawings. Students seek out these activities because they are easy, clean, and result in finished, recognizable products, and they are aware of the results even before they begin. Teachers enable this behavior because it keeps students quiet and engaged. But what about when these children reach college, and they are thrust into a situation where there are few rules to be followed? In the long run, the students are hurt by the structured projects because they fail to learn to think or experiment, and they internalize that good artwork is clean, clear, and simple.

This thinking is what the college level class strives to undo. Confusion and messy mistakes are encouraged, so that students may find their own ways of thinking and doing, and come to appreciate the work they have done and the progress that is evident within the tangle of their drawings. While peer discussion is lacking, the intentions of the professor, to push students into unfamiliar territory, does force them to change their past assumptions and habits. The lack of structure throws students into a tailspin, wherein they must finally think and create solutions to the many problems that are presented.

The format of a group critique is very useful in producing this level of comfort in discussing other people’s work and neutralizing student fears, but it is very difficult to effectively mediate discussion, as is evident in the introductory drawing class. Unlike the elementary school children, the college students are given an opportunity to voice their opinions, but do not fully utilize this because they are still dependent on the authority of the teacher. If they were conditioned earlier, their reactions may be different, but assuming their experiences with art were similar to those of the current elementary school at which I am placed, their unresponsiveness is unsurprising.

Effective group critiques are the most effective way to create discussion and a sense of a community of artists. It attacks the core problems attached to the social stigmas and fears by allowing students a forum in which to discuss their own and their peers’ work. Group critiques are basically an opportunity for students to present their work to their classmates, discuss the problems they are having, and gain constructive commentary from their peers and the teacher. Done effectively, students acquire important knowledge from their peers and new insight into their own work. However, as demonstrated by the college students, this type of honest dialogue needs to be a part of art education from an early age, otherwise, students will be unsure of how to conduct themselves in a way that achieves the goals of a group critique.

The fear which creates the main barrier between the student and self-expression can be broken down by group critiques, but only if the students are honest and feel comfortable with their peers and the teacher. It will take time to achieve this, but a teacher must do all that is possible to elicit dialogue between students and their art. Each class is different and filled with unique individuals; therefore every group critique setting is different. A constant factor, however, is that a critique is a time meant for students, set aside for students to present and discuss their work with their classmates. Teachers should not dominate the discussion or act as the last word on a student’s artwork. This empowers the students and encourages them to form a community of learners. Critiques should make students feel that their peers are dedicated to helping one another learn, creating a positive environment where creative expression can truly thrive.

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