Dr Karen Maras, Senior Lecturer in Education at ACU, looks at the debate, territorial disputes and contested positions around a national Australian Curriculum for the Arts.
“Just as the Sydney Swans overcame a hoodoo defeating Collingwood after 11 losses to advance to the AFL grand final, visual arts educators across the nation have teamed up to dispel their own hoodoos in proposals for an Australian Curriculum for the Arts.
A curriculum grand final in visual arts education is about to occur. The final game to be played involves the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) consolidating consultation feedback on the draft Australian Curriculum: The Arts Foundation to Year 10.
Since 2008, each draft document within the ACARA process of developing this curriculum has been met by debate, territorial disputes and contested positions from visual arts educators.
Educational institutions, including ACARA, perpetuate hoodoos to maintain territory. After all, hoodoos are myths that reside in the ‘weasel words’ of policy and political rhetoric. Many hoodoos abound in this latest season of curriculum restructure in attempts to secure national consistency in Arts education.
Two decades ago another attempt was made to wrangle the states into curriculum alignment through a competency-based structure known as the national profiles. The hoodoo at this time was the rationalisation of the arts into a learning area, a contentious move that diminished the individual identities of the arts subjects.
This attempt to control local curriculum provision in each state petered out like a footy team punching above its weight in the fourth quarter. This was largely due to the strength of visual arts curriculum and beliefs of teachers about what was valued in the subject.
If visual arts educators were gullible enough to believe this latest round of hoodoos then the arts curriculum will be gutted of any substance, dumbed down and the cultural health of the nation put at risk. What is of value in arts education is reduced to lowest common denominator terms.
Visual arts educators have drawn on current research and proven practice in schools to advocate alternative proposals for a curriculum. Our game plan promotes a rationale for art learning based intellectual and theoretical gains for students. If national consistency is the goal, then visual arts educators are expert in knowing the terms on which a sustainable, aspirational curriculum can be achieved.
So what would be equal to or better than the current curriculum precedents in visual arts? Visual Arts educators are advocating for a curriculum that properly honours the intellectual capacities of students and supports them in developing a knowledge of practice in visual arts.
To become good artists, art critics and art historians we assert that students need to learn about how to think and act as practitioners. Like footy players, this expertise comes with practise over time, drill exercises, scaffolded training with qualified coaches who know the game. To work this way means students are enabled to work within increasingly more complex scenarios. They learn to deal with higher order and relational forms of doing and thinking as they move through the levels of the competition.
This kind of praxis-oriented work where conceptual thinking informs practical activity does not come naturally. Students have to be supported by teachers with strong pedagogy to know how to develop their intentions and motives as practitioners. As artists they need to learn about how to think about their choices of procedures and techniques, and make judgements about the consequences of these decisions.
We also know that for students to learn how to construct critical and historical interpretations and to make artworks, they need to develop skills in applying a range of beliefs, or viewpoints, to develop understandings of meaning and value in art.
Beliefs systems in visual arts provide ways for teachers to support students in orientating themselves to what they are intending to do as an artist or a critic. They also provide a basis for positioning pedagogy that is responsive to changes in art world practices. Art is unpredictable, diverse in nature and therefore not open to singular universal explanatory approaches
In this sense the visual arts content cannot be reduced to the personal psychological disposition of individuals alone. Practices in the visual arts are rich, socially constructed and require high inference interpretations which can involve a multitude of beliefs and traditions beyond the self as the main line for understanding. The diversity of practice and interpretive positions is what is valued in the visual arts so why not acknowledge this in an ambitious curriculum design rather than settle for what appears to be easy?
One of the key tussles in this debate has been about how to set up visual arts content so it is accessible to generalist and specialist teachers alike. The problem is that the feeling/experience model actually makes this harder, especially for those without specialist discipline education and a repertoire of strategies that can augment deficiencies in this content provision.
Foundational content should be represented as a framework of concepts which support an understanding of practice in art. This is elegantly structured using the concepts of artist, audience, world and artwork.
My research provides empirical support for how students learn to navigate and develop their knowledge of these foundational concepts. A developmental continuum of art understanding is grounded in incremental steps.
For example, at two years of age students are beginning to understand that pictures depict things from the world. By six years students can tell you that artworks involve subject matter that represents aspects of the world. By eight years they can set out the conditions on which artworks are products of artist’s intentional thought and actions. This is high order stuff. By 12, when entering Year 7 at high school, most students can think reflexively about a range of ways artworks have meaning for artists, different audiences.
Students at this age use a range of belief systems to help them make sense of how artworks are produced, consumed, valued and exist in the art world. Development in art is not about the student being pre-programmed as ACARA assert. Instead, their advance into practical and critical understanding is logically structured and can be predicted.
As visual arts teachers can confirm, an understanding of the role of intentions in art and how these are integrated within exchanges between artists, their artworks, audiences and representational interests is acquired through learning to reason about how and why artworks are made and what they mean.
The fundamental ingredient to teaching students to learn in art is grounded in the qualitative differentiation of the concepts of artist, artwork, audience and world from F-12. Visual arts educators argue that they can work with this as clear-cut, unambiguous curriculum content.
Visual arts educators have been consistent in advocating for an ambitious curriculum that will raise standards in Australian visual arts education. We have collectively offered constructive and viable options derived from our rich research base for consideration. It would be fantastic to see ACARA adopt this ambitious curriculum structure, especially at this grand final stage of the process.
In my view, there is nothing better than the thrill of seeing your team consolidate their collective strengths to play against the odds, score goals and break the hoodoo. The Swans went on to break another hoodoo this year – they won the AFL Grand Final against traditional expectations because their collective efforts, competitive tackling, perseverance, strength, belief in their expertise and knowledge of practice prevailed.
As a visual arts educator I have learned that when challenged to relinquish what you believe is right and good it is teamwork in the profession that rises to the challenge in the national game of curriculum reform.”
Page last updated: 2015-06-08
Short url: http://www.acu.edu.au/480978