The unschooled art student

The unschooled art student

In looking back on my own schooling experience in the public system in Ontario, I consider myself a product of the mainstream system only in part. There was not a year that I did not attend mainstream school, yet honestly I think much of what I know and what I feel defines me has come from an unschooling approach to learning. Let me explain.

      As an artist/reseacher/teacher, it should come as no surprise that I consider the visual arts to be inextricably linked to my identity; it’s how I derive pleasure out of life and how I earn a living. It’s also basic to my beliefs and values as a teacher and researcher, which is why my PhD research is now focusing on creativity in education. Like my Master’s work, I am drawing reflexively on my pedagogical and ideological perspectives to inform my dissertation (blog and videos; Irwin & de Cosson, 2004). I recognize, however, that the rest of the world doesn’t necessarily share my experience or passion. It is obvious from the way school subjects are ordered, with the arts consistently at the bottom of the hierarchy worldwide (Robinson as cited in TEDtalksDirector, 2007), that ideologically the arts aren’t a priority for many people—or at least not to policy makers. I can confidently recall that my peers and I received limited time for art in school, depending on the grade and the teacher. This is the first reason why I consider myself partially unschooled: Though I didn’t do much art as part of the school curriculum, I consistently made it part of my “willed curriculum” (Ricci, 2012) at home, and it’s these experiences that have proven to be the most formative and have held enduring meaning for me. I’m positive I am not alone in this regard. Crum (2007), who is also an art teacher, writes,
.       When I look back at the artistic experiences I had as a child, I think
      mostly about what I made in my home . . . I think I remember these
.       activities so vividly because they meant something to me . . . I think I
.       do not remember more about art at school because these experiences
      were not that important to me (p. 39).
So what makes home-based creativity so meaningful? The research into what makes creativity flourish (as reflected in the documentary) can be synthesized this way: People need to be autonomous (Amabile, 1996; Harrington, Block, & Block, 1987; Deci as cited in TEDxTalks, 2012), they need support (Holt, 1989), and they need to not be judged (Kohn, 1993; Pink, 2006). Even if I had had more dedicated art time in school, there’s nothing to suggest it would have been an autonomous, supportive, nonjudgmental experience such as is necessary, such as it is at home. At home it can be quiet or musical, dark or bright, lonely or in the company of one’s choosing. At home, no bells ring dictating that one starts or stops being creative. At home you simply work when the mood is right, when you’re intrinsically motivated, when you can define the problem and the method for yourself and deal with it at your own pace and to your own satisfaction. The unschooled learner is an entrepreneur. As a teacher in a mainstream school, I can confirm that this entrepreneurial spirit is not fostered in schools. I’d like that to change.

Picture 24
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       The second reason why I consider myself partially unschooled is due to the discovery nature of learning art (or anything through the vehicle of creativity). As reflected in Raising Creativity, discovery is inherent in the creative process (Eisner as cited in VanderbiltUniversity, 2009), and discovery is the means by which real learning takes place (Holt, 1969). So whether I was engaged in creative activities at school or at home, the learning that flowed from them was all a result of that personal engagement. In other words, the learning and the teaching were all mine, inherently, through lived experience, and not due to direct instruction. Wilson (2005) states that children’s self-initiated production of visual culture qualifies as pedagogy, based on the entrepreneurial decisions children make when they create. I agree; I focused my Master’s research paper on the nature of learning in an art context, and in it I wrote this: “As I continue with my painting, I am convinced by means of the process that it is only from a self-guided exploration of media and thought that creativity meets its maximum potential” (Codack [Zak], 2010, p. 35). As a classroom art “teacher,” I do not see myself as responsible for whatever learning may occur—instead, I see myself as a helpful facilitator with a research-based do-it-yourself philosophy. I may inspire my students with the images and discussion I present to them in class, but I do not believe what (if) they learn is to my credit. Elkins (2001) opines,
      [Teachers] know what they are saying, but they don’t know when
.       it will connect, or whether it will do any good for the student.  To
.       some people, this is not a bad way to work . . . but it still means
.       that art is not taught (p. 99).
No, art is not taught, though we “teach” it in school, and I am not completely mainstream schooled, though there was not a year that I did not attend mainstream school.

 

References

Amabile, T. M. (1996). Creativity in context. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
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Codack [Zak], R. (2010). Portrait of the artist/researcher/teacher: A reflection on the nature of
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      learning. Journal of Unschooling and Alternative Learning, 4(7), 89–145.
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Crum, J. E. (2007, July). Educating the art teacher: Investigating artistic endeavors by
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Elkins, J. (2001). Why art cannot be taught. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
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Harrington, D. H., Block, J. H., & Block, J. (1987). Testing aspects of Carl Rogers’s
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Ricci, C. (2012). The willed curriculum, unschooling, and self-direction: What do love, trust,
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TEDtalksDirector. (2007, January 6). Sir Ken Robinson: Do schools kill creativity? Retrieved
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.       March 25, 2013, from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iG9CE55wbtY
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TEDxTalks. (2012, August 13). Promoting motivation, health, and excellence: Ed Deci at
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.       TEDxFlourCity
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Wilson, B. (2005). More lessons from the superheroes of J. C. Holz: The visual culture of
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      childhood and the third pedagogical site. Art Education. 58(6), 18–33.
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VanderbiltUniversity. (2009, November 4). Prof. Elliot W. Eisner: “What do the arts teach?”
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.       Retrieved May 10, 2013, from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h12MGuhQH9E

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