Reaction Paper: Arts Education

I like this visual, though it needs to be updated to a five petal flower with digital media arts! Linked from


Halverson, E., & Sheridan, K. (2014). Arts Education and the Learning Sciences. Chapter 31 in Learning Sciences. (p.626-646).

Halverson, E., Lowenhaupt, R., & Kalaitzidis, T. (under review). Towards a Theory of Distributed Instruction in Creative Arts Education. Journal of Technology and Teacher Education.

Arts educators and researchers seem to spend a lot of time justifying themselves and their work, trying to demystify what it is and its value. Halverson and Sheridan (2014) note that the “inability to objectively assess arts production is what has destined the arts to remain peripheral in schools” (p.638). Many teachers and administrators are unlikely to have experienced a strong arts program in their own education nor do they have training in this area. How many art teachers go on to become principals? Even those who believe in it may not know how to go about implementation. Personally, I know that I never identified as someone who “got” art class: I could never discern the rules of the game. For this reason, what I appreciated most about Halverson and Sheridan’s (2014) chapter regarding arts education and the learning sciences was that it made each component clear and understandable. I think there is still a leap to how instruction would be designed and assessed, but that is where Halverson, Lowenhaupt, and Kalaitzidis (under review) pick up.

The idea of distributed instruction definitely resonates with my experiences. As a science teacher, I mentored all my students through the science research process every year. I would act as both instructional designer, setting up deadlines and templates, and content mentor, answering questions, delivering mini-lectures, or recommending further resources on everything from wind turbine shape to bacteria incubation to oscillating chemical reactions. I felt like my varied science background was a resource, and I loved getting to learn with the students about all these different areas. The process was exhilarating and exhausting. Once I became technology coordinator, one of my favorite things to do was go into the science classes and serve only as mentor, engaging with students about their projects without worrying about how they were meeting requirements. I see a lot of potential for the idea of distributed instructional design, particularly in the personalized learning model as as way to understand what happens in practice and what that practice reveals about the designer’s conceptual model of teaching and learning.

Finally, I was thinking back to our early discussion about Discourses (Gee, 2001) with its relationship to identity, and thinking about conversations with leaders of schools that are adopting a personalizing learning model. Like the kids in art class who “get it”, it seems like some teachers seem to just “get it”: they co-teach and flex as needed in order to orchestrate student-centered inquiry all without formal training as to how to do this. These skills are increasingly seen as valuable and scarce, so if we want to shift both teachers and students into this way of thinking about learning, we need a way forward, a way that arts based education already knows. In particular, arts education addresses identity and culture, which is crucial through the lens of Discourses. Furthermore, Gee (2001) writes, “one crucial question we can always ask about identities of any type is this: What institution or institutions, or which group or groups of people, work to construct and sustain a given Discourse?” (p.111) We have different “institutions” within our buildings fighting to construct and sustain Discourses, with literacy and STEM currently in charge and arts at the periphery. I see the articulation of arts based education and distributed instruction as leading the way for how to prepare teachers needed for these alternative, in-school environments, rather than perpetuating the myth of the teacher or learners that just “get it.”

4 thoughts on “Reaction Paper: Arts Education

  1. I feel, very often, art teachers themselves aren’t entirely sure how to build a successful program. Especially in a district where one teacher has taught everything art related, all at once. The arts are often the last thought of because they aren’t reflected in standardized scores. This is problematic when one looks at the growing stack of research showing the connection between fine arts and student success.

    1. Thank you for your comment, jclumpner! I agree. I don’t know how or if I would want them in standardized scores, but I do think a standardized assessment (like a portfolio system – IB Art does this well) might help ground the arts as fundamental to the mission of educating our children. I can only imagine trying to teach all domains of art across a district AND trying to get to know the kids! Certainly not ideal…

  2. As an arts educator, so much of what you said rings true, and the comment above is a good point as well. Two things: much of the time teachers in the arts are artists first and teachers second. This means that they have entered into the business of teaching for different reasons, and with different priorities than someone else might. Not to say that they do not want to teach, but that this can also affect their approaches.

    It also can mean that they are trained as artists and not teachers. My arts teaching works much of the time, but I was never trained as an arts teacher. So there may be demystification needed on both sides. For example, I have never heard the term ‘distributed instruction’ but I was doing it in arts classes (I think.)

    What’s important to that demystification process is to know that that arts teachers have the value of their work challenged constantly, both as teachers and as artists. So they may be defensive and bulwarked against a lot of ‘interference’ in their practice.

    I spent so much energy doing “translation” about the arts to administrators for whom arts were alien. (This is why I often employed athletics metaphors to talk about the theatre program–that seems to be a language more people speak. Performance = varsity theatre team playoffs. I pushed admins to come to rehearsals, knowing they had never seen one in action.) I would say explanation/justification/translation was about 1/3 of my arts ed work, and having to do that in that proportion takes a toll. That doesn’t seem right to me. By not having good arts ed we perpetuate this problem.

    In regards to art teachers becoming administrators, the life of an administrator as it’s currently designed does not leave much time or space to actually practice your art. That fact has certainly kept this artist/teacher out of the administration track. Perhaps art practitioners who teach have more to offer about ways to make educational systems more humane for the folks who work in them, as well as students. Making art requires a kind of focused, playful, presence that takes practice to cultivate, and that is not encouraged in many other places in our culture, yet is the optimal state for learning.

    Thanks for this, Julie!

    1. Thanks Liz for your reply! I had never thought about the fact that art teachers are often artists first. As I think through the art teachers I have known, it’s so true. I think of those colleagues who went to great lengths before/after school or in the summers to practice and show their art. Same for you with your writing, yes?

      I agree with the perpetuation of a lack of appreciation for the arts. So that’s why we teach, right? Change the kids’ experiences now so that they might change the schools and systems where they go on to work. Hopefully valuable experiences in the arts for students today slowly shifts the future.

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