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Engaging minds in the visual arts

Developing coursework that is engaging, enriching and relevant to students in a rapidly changing society is one of the greatest challenges for an art educator. The more traditional methods and focus of fine art and classical methods are now making way for a whole new range of creative expression. The accessibility that various new modes of media have rapidly increased as technology becomes increasingly prevalent in Australian classrooms. With this technology has come a multitude of new ways and means of exploring the art world and enhancing student’s visual literacies. A more conservative understanding of fine art, and a way of distinguishing it from other visual forms, is that it was different from other forms of visual art by virtue of its creators intending to produce something solely for the purpose of aesthetic appreciation. However, Freedman observes that an understanding and appreciation of visual literacy is changing in education. She states,

“…the visual arts are being seen by new audiences in new ways…and have grained greater currency in education.” (Freedman, 2003)

Freedman lists a range of concepts that form the foundations of teaching visual culture. In this he states that ‘technological experience’ has “…changed what it means to be educated.” (Freedman, 2003)

There are a multitude of benefits to studying different modes of media and leading educators and theorists are advocating the integration of technological resources in to the classroom. The Australian Council for Computers in Education (ACCE) recently held it’s biennial conference that saw educational leaders from around the world laud the benefits of technology in education. Professor Sasha Barab lauded the cognitive impact that utilising interactive gameplay can have on a student’s learning. He stated

“…schools need to leverage the power of game play and that gaming provides feedback to encourage rich conversations with students.” (Barab, 2012)

Although technology has been around for several decades now in schools in various capacities, its only beginning to have a true use and purpose in the visual arts spectrum in more recent years. With the advent of imaging programs, cheaper digital cameras and a wealth of imagery accessible online, technology is now an invaluable resource to the visual arts teacher. Learning computing skills from gaming and interacting with others provides students with methods to improve their cognitive capacity and learning ability and these benefits continue to be documented in educational journals (Betz, 2004). Through a collaborative approach in the classroom, students can share experiences, content and ideas around visual literacy and are given a tool to manage the bombardment of imagery that occurs in day-to-day life. Linda Knight describes modern life as a ‘visually rich’ environment, which highlights how imperative it is for educators to understand how to utilise visual literacies as a means of connecting with their students. Beyond merely still images found in paintings and photographs, imagery entails all manner of representations seen through television, mobile devices, computers and any other medium that has the ability to transmit or convey something that their audience is able to view. The overwhelming onslaught of imagery on today’s child has meant that students can often be more influenced by the media than the generation before them, as it’s reach is now almost inescapable. By harnessing this power and influence, the pedagogical approach can be one tailored to enhance student’s learning through methods that they already understand. By encouraging art students to use their mobile phones, log on to social networking, research through their laptop, and so on, teacher’ When planning learning experiences in the visual arts classroom, one must consider how contemporary culture is attempted to the student’s learning. Studies have shown that intrinsic motivators can contribute greatly to enhance learning in students (DeLong & Winter, 2002).

Therefore, identifying media that will both complement the visual arts syllabus whilst also adapting to the needs and interests of the students can prove to be an important factor in effective teaching. Fortunately for visual arts teaching, there is a plethora of imagery and content available that can be relevant to the content they are already teaching. Music videos, television shows, comic books, iPad apps, video games or current movies are all media that can be integrated, if relevant, in to the visual arts classroom. This “persuasive and pervasive power” (Knight, 2004) of imagery is predominantly how students form their understanding of the world today and as a teacher one must appreciate the impact that this has on their cognitive abilities. Knight highlights how the pervasive impact of the media in children’s lives is changing the mindset of a generation who are susceptible to marketing messages that are increasingly difficult to escape. The teacher therefore has the opportunity, if not responsibility, to adapt their pedagogical approach to one that can not only educate the student with regard to visual literacy, but also media awareness through deconstruction. By doing this, students will become more conscious of what messages marketers are trying to convey to their impressionable audience. Although the role of marketing may seem irrelevant to the visual arts classroom, marketing can highlight the incredible impact that aesthetics and the artistic arrangement of imagery can have on the mind. Kerry Freedman, professor of art education, states in her book, ‘Teaching Visual Culture: Curriculum, Aesthetics, and the Social Life of Art’ that

“an education in the visual arts takes place in and through the realm of visual culture…it shapes our thinking about the world and leads us to create new knowledge through visual form.” (Freedman K. , 2003)

The ability to interpret meaning and understanding from an image is crucial to learning effectively in the visual arts classroom. For a teacher to conduct a lesson that enables students to do this and to create this new knowledge through the visual form, an understanding of how students relate to a world saturated in media content is one of the greatest challenges. However, if it can be achieved successfully, it can also be one of the most enriching teaching experiences, for both student and teacher.

Videogames & Transformational Play – Learning in the 21st Century. (2012). [Conference]. Perth, WA, Australia.

Betz, J. (2004). Computer Games: Increase Learning in an Interactive Multidisciplinary Environment. NY: State University of NY.

DeLong, M., & Winter, D. (2002). Learning to Teaching and Teaching to Learn Mathematics: Resources for Professional Development. Mathematical Association of America.

Freedman, K. (2003). Teaching Visual Culture: Curriculum, Aesthetics, and the Social Life of Art. New york: Teachers College Press.

Freedman, K. (2003). The Professional Field: Theorizing Visual Culture in Education’. Teaching Visual Culture: Curriculum, Aesthetics, and the Social Life of Art .

Knight, L. (2004). The Critical Eye: how visual literacy has become a vital tool for negotiating modern culture . Mierzoff, N. (2011). The Right to Look: A Counterhistory of Visuality. Duke University Press.

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