Teaching & Learning ART HISTORY

by Marvin Bartel, © 2008  
author bio - contact author

This is part of a new series of responses to inquires about art education.


letter from an artist-art teacher
my response on divergent thinking in art history
testing divergent thinking
peer teaching as learning
stories and the mind's imagination
review and foreshadowing
art history in studio class


A letter from an art teacher, 29 August, 2008:

Hi Marvin,

I am a high school art teacher and I appreciate the things you've posted regarding the importance of divergent thinking in art education. This year I will be teaching art history for the first time and I am wondering if you have any thoughts or resource links for how to apply these concepts specifically to art history.

I want to make this class relevant. I do not want to be sitting in the dark with my class going through slide after slide talking mindlessly about dead artists. Now, I know myself - and I won't do this, but how can I cover the required topics (in the required order) in a more creative way?! . . .

Any insight would be most helpful. Even a good web site. I am in Italy with limited Internet access and it's frustrating to spend so much time searching for creative approaches when so many are teaching the same ol' same ol'.

Thank your for your time!

Sarah M. in Italy


Dear Sarah M.
I can see that it may seem counterintuitive to encourage divergent thinking in art history class. Learning dates, places, and names, etc, does not invite divergent thinking. However, many art history topics and questions remain open to speculation. We need titles, dates, an so on, so that we can communicate and create meaning and importance to the work and find relevance for ourselves. However, the data and facts are not the essence of art history. Art history is a visual explanation of our own existence, who we are, what we are, what we believe, what we doubt, and so on.
It is analysis of visual thinking and expression. The collection of dates, names and places is merely the indexing system for our library of art history. Art history, as a discipline, deals with essentially all human questions presented and communicated in visual format.

You mention required art history topics. Why do we suppose certain topics are required? What if it is mentioned at the outset and on practice tests that students will be asked to explain their own ideas about the rationale for learning topics that are included in this course. What if you ask them to tell you how these topics impact their on everyday life experiences. What are the similarities and differences between the historical examples and contexts and the student's own context and existence? If Kathe Kollwitz lost her only son in a war today in Iraq as she did in WWI, would her art express it differently? In what ways? If Picasso had a commission today similar to the commission that resulted in the Guernica, what might it reference and how might its style have changed? How would artist who lived during the Spanish Inquisition choose to respond to water boarding if they lived today? How would the great landscape artists of the past be changed by our industrialized air and water quality and global warming? How might this be reflected in their work?

When teaching and learning art history, what if we start with questions that require thinking about the work and the settings in which the work was done while simultaneously thinking similarly about ourselves and our lives and the settings in which our students are living? What if we habitually start learning sessions with questions rather than beginning with merely cataloging data? What if we make a point to always come back to the questions for serious consideration. These dare not be merely rhetorical questions. Can the factual data and images be presented for the purpose of facilitating the real reason for learning rather than as an end in itself?  What if Van Gogh had no paint, but was a computer artist totally obsessed with the potential of artificial intelligence to express the beauty of his world with a video game? What would he likely invent and distort to express his obsessions? What kinds of software would Leonardo develop if he was alive today? What can we tell by studying the lives and work of these individuals that is evidence that makes us answer our questions this way? What is our evidence to support our speculations? 
Also see: Teaching with Questions: http://www.bartelart.com/arted/questions.html

How we test and grade is very revealing and drives how and what we teach, what our students learn, and whether we teach divergent or convergent ways to think?
  What if the questions on art history exams are the same kind of thinking questions that require both speculation as well as evidence? What if exam questions invite ideas other than the speculations proposed by the experts? What if the exam questions transpose the work into our place and time and ask the student to suppose how this would change the outcome of the work? What if in our grading we give the most credit for the least common responses that are plausible and viable and less credit for the most common and least plausible responses.

Highly creative people have developed thinking traits that are different than those taught by most art history tests. One tendency is to think of opposites first. Would our tests be motivate more creative thinking if some questions asked for the opposite of the correct answer? There are many other traits of highly creative people.  How would our teaching and our tests differ if we tried harder to tailor our methods and our tests in ways that would motivate and reward these traits?
This page
has a more on testing. http://www.goshen.edu/~marvinpb/arted/testing/drawtest.html
This page has more grading. http://www.bartelart.com/arted/gradingart.html

As teachers, we know that we often learn much more by teaching than we ever did as students. What if portions of the art history class is taught by student teams and individuals. I might give them the choice so that some work in teams and others as individuals. It may help to give them a rubric designed to help them understand team dynamics. They are given a list of what is desired and they do the research and plan a somewhat theatrical presentation of the content. So that it is not only entertainment and factual, I might ask them to begin with a list of thinking questions, and ask the class to write personal responses at the end of the presentations that include responses to the thinking questions posed at the beginning of the presentation.
This page has a teamwork rubric: http://www.bartelart.com/arted/TeamRubric.pdf

For us to learn and remember something (art history or anything else), it needs a STICKINESS factor (term taken from The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell © 2000).  A song that sticks in your head is remembered.  This works in a number of ways, and varies from person to person.  How can art history images and information be made STICKIER? Gladwell was writing more about political and business persuasion (advertising). I believe that teachers can learn a lot from ideas and methods in business, politics, and religion. I am noticing a lot of political commercials that are based on stories. In politics, even the questionalbe stories from opponent organizations are memorable like bad songs you can't get out of your head (see "Swiftboating" in Wikopedia).

I think stories work because hearing or reading a good story does activate the our imaginations and we think divergently to put ourselves into the story as a participant. Good stories activate our instincts to empathize, and we might become a character in the story.

A STORY: When our daughter was in second grade her teacher learned that a boy in the class was the son of the art history professor at the local university.  The teacher asked Professor Murry, the father of one of the kids, if he would be willing to come to his son’s class and tell the children about some artists.  On five separate occasions during the year, Prof. Murray came into the second grade class that year. Each time he told them stories about the artist of the day and showed them the artwork produced under the influences of such a life. The children did not do artwork. They just heard stories and looked at works of art.  Our daughter became a big fan of these artists. She spent her allowance to purchase museum reproductions at museum gift shops. She displayed them in her room. 

Now that she has her own home and an income of her own she collects the original art of local artists whose work she finds evocative and compelling. She is now a mother and a science professor in a city where many other scientists also work. She has a large Howard Hughes Medical Foundation grant to conduct a study on ways to improve undergraduate science education. In her study, college science students must learn to read and understand current science journal articles. They then visit the actual labs of the same research scientists to learn more about their actual working lives (their stories). These learning experiences activate possibilities. They motivate new thoughts. Student lives can be changed because they see new possibilities. Work in science, as in art, is a series of questions and experiments. Unexpected results are often indications that a new discovery has taken place. Those with prepared minds that can do divergent thinking are most likely to recognize the discoveries.

Short Review is generally efficient use of time.  How often do we take time to ask what was learned in the previous lesson?  What were the questions we worked on? Some teachers have a review ritual whenever there are 30 seconds or more remaining at the end of the period before the bell rings.

At the beginning of a session, we can help nurture thinking habits for transfer of learning. As we begin a new topic we can ask review questions about a previous learning experience that prepared us for new learning being planned.

An effective way to get more divergent thinking is to make references to future art history lessons in the form of questions.  If I had 30 seconds and showed a large red poppy painted by Georgia O'Keefe, what open questions might I ask to get students thinking and looking at flowers and be better prepared for a story about Georgia O'Keefe in a future lesson?

I find that I remember stuff that I have worked with and creatively applied in some way. When the mind uses an idea, the idea gets recorded in the brain in more ways and more places. Each new application helps the mind integrate and accept an idea. As we construct new knowledge and use it in more situations it becomes easier to access.

One way that some teachers work at this is to select an art history example, style, period, etc. that they really like and/or that they want students to learn about.  Next the teacher studies and analyzes the work herself. She researches the motivations behind the work, the design and composition attributes of the work, the purposes and context of the work (why it was done), the skills needed to do similar work, and other concepts behind the work, but she keeps the actual work a TOP SECRET from the students.

Next the assignment has the students practice skills used by the secret artist(s) without telling them who the artist is.  It might be practice of realistic observation of hands or animals (Albrecht Durer), it might be abstraction practice (Stuart Davis & Grace Hartigan), it might be cubistic drawing by moving around a still life (Braque & Picasso), it might be stippling and additive color mixing and tone change (Seurat), it might be making a list of remembered childhood stories and mixing them in a surreal painting (Marc Chagall), it might be visualization while listening to contrasting kinds of music (Kandinski & Romare Beardon), it might be combining expressive gesture with contour drawing of classmates expressing a mood and action (Kathe Kollwitz), or it might be based on today's lunch and/or TV ads (Andy Warhol or Wayne Thiebaud).  There are countless other challenging styles, artists, and possibilities.  Every kind of historical or contemporary art example has ways to channel it (understand and get into it) though studio practice, assignments, investigation, and artwork that is based on concepts we study and use as creative jumping off points and focusing questions without allowing the students to see the work itself. Showing the work would short circuit the divergent thinking.

After the preliminary practice or other activity, students are told to base an assigned artwork on their own practice, on their own experiences, memories, imaginations, and/or observations.  They still have no idea what style or whom I am thinking about.  They are bound to develop creative and innovative ideas, but it does not have to look anything like the secret example.  Their ability to think, develop ideas, and experiment is enhanced as they work on whatever develops from the practice, focus questions, etc.

In the discussion of the student work, they are asked questions that reinforce the key art ideas used during the motivational activities. Students elaborate on how their ideas were developed, expanded, and refined.

Then, when the secret example(s) is (are) shared (projected) the students are first asked to describe, to say what they see, to analyze, to speculate on the artist's motivation, to give their imagined purpose for the work, and compare it with their own thinking and creative process that they have just experienced.

A team of students might then make a study and gives a class skit based on the creation of the art example. The skit includes addition images, antidotes and stories, dates, style, and cultural & historic connections.

For review, the historical or contemporary work is then displayed in the art room with one of more printouts or posters of the secret example(s) of the artwork.  Keywords, dates, geography, culture, artist mug shot, etc. are displayed with the example.

After the display has been up for a while, the display unexpectedly disappears and the students are asked to orally describe what is missing from the room today.  See what they can say?  How sticky was the information?  How memorable? Did the fact that they constructed the underlying knowledge about the work before they saw the work have a positive effect on their ability to connect with the work and remember it?

What else could be done to make it art history stickier?  How did the ideas in this essay compare with work presented in a traditional art history presentation?  What have you tried that worked well for you? Would anybody like to do a study to see how well these methods work in comparison with traditional art history presentations?

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Another letter and response:
Learning to Learn Art (An inquiry on moving from being an artist to being an art teacher)


All rights reserved.  Images, text, and design © 2008, Marvin Bartel, an artist-teacher since 1960 - Parents, pre-school teachers, and teachers may make one copy for personal study.  

Please mention the URL or the title of this page in your correspondence with the author.   You do not need permission to make a link to this page from your page.  

Your correspondence, experiences, ideas, and questions are welcome.
More links with similar help for art teachers. CONTACT

Goshen College

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