Teaching with Contemporary Art

Test This

Image: creationbaumann.com

This school year has started out like none other in recent memory. The fascination to quantify practically everything in education has now moved steadily into art education, as discussed in last week’s interview with Jessica Hoffmann Davis. Here in New York and across the entire country art educators (well, all educators, actually) are being forced to administer pre-assessment tests that “establish a baseline” of “what students know and are able to do” at the beginning of a course. These same assessments are then given at the end of the course and compared to the pre-assessments in order to “measure growth” in student learning.

Now let’s just say there wasn’t any problem with measuring growth this way. Let’s say that students spitting out what they “know” in a class session and trying to measure things through timed tests was actually better than student portfolio assessment built up over time. How can art educators face the current round of demands on the state and local levels and actually make this stuff useful?

If nothing else, this current obsession with testing and attaching numbers to everything that isn’t nailed down allows teachers to take a hard look at their curriculum and ask about the specific things they would actually like to compare over time. It asks teachers to think about the big goals of the courses they teach and then issues the challenge of concisely putting questions and activities together that may come somewhere close to measuring what students learned.

For example, at the beginning and the end of a course teachers may ask their students:

  • How do artists create works of art today vs. the artists of 10, 20, 100 or 500 years ago? What are the differences… and the similarities… between art of the past and the present?
  • How do artists get ideas? How do they give ideas form?
  • Where is art?
  • How do we go about understanding work that’s complex or challenging?
  • Why is context important in order to understand and make sense of contemporary art (and, for that matter, ALL art)?
  • What constitutes high quality works of art?
  • In art, is the idea behind the work more important than the formal qualities of the work itself? Is it the other way around? Is there a balance that must be established? If so, how?

I could go on all day.

What I am trying to say is this: In the midst of putting your ducks in order and complying with the current round of demands related to assessment, it’s important for contemporary art educators to do anything and everything possible to make this poorly structured situation a somewhat meaningful one. Let the assessments we create allow a glimpse into what we find essential learning because at least we, as art educators, still have control over what we define as the big, important goals for our courses. Most of us are still fortunate enough to not be in a position where someone in a suit is handing us a pacing guide that tells us what to teach on which date. And if that scenario ever gets close to reality, well, what can I say except I will probably see many of you in Albany and/or DC…

 

Contributor
Joe Fusaro is the senior education advisor for Art21, and has written Art21’s “Teaching with Contemporary Art” column since 2008. He is an exhibiting artist and visual arts chair for the Nyack Public Schools in New York; and an adjunct instructor for New York University’s Graduate Program in Art and Arts Professions.
  1. Jack Watson says:

    Great article, Joe! And timely. We just spent a teacher work day crafting a document that we know quite well will come back to us on district letterhead as a pacing guide. We’re doing our best to make it specific enough to be useful, but vague enough to allow for variation and personal strengths. Tough to do! But fortunately our district coordinator is arguing that our curriculum is spiral, not sequential.

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  2. Joe Fusaro says:

    Thanks, Jack. It sounds like your dc has the right idea. More and more I wonder about this notion of measuring “growth” through timed assessments vs. taking the real time to measure growth with student portfolios. Weren’t we taught that growth is measured over time and not measured over timeD?

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