Make the art room a launch pad


ART MAY NOT BE part of the holy trinity of English, Irish and Maths in schools, but few would deny its value or status as a core subject in the secondary curriculum. At the same time, it struggles with competing and contradictory perceptions: it is easy and too hard at the same time.

Results seem to bear this out. According to statistics provided by the Department of Education, only 0.8 per cent of students failed the 2011 Leaving Cert honours exam, and a tiny amount, 1.2 per cent, achieved an A1. Most score somewhere between a B2 and a C3, with the highest percentage in the C range. This contrasts with honours A1 scores of 5.8 per cent in Irish, 3.8 per cent in English and 6.9 per cent in Maths.

The average art grade is perfectly acceptable – an honour is an honour, after all – but, in our points-dominated system, art becomes an unnecessary risk. Why take the chance when you could choose a more predictable subject and get more points?

Approaches to art education vary considerably around the world. For example, due to the vagaries of the US constitution, its federal department of education cannot impose a national curriculum, so content decisions are driven by the need to score well in standardised tests. On one level, teachers are potentially free to design their own courses, but it also means they are at the mercy of their school’s policies and budget, with no larger organisation to support them in a crisis.

This can have benefits. As the US academic Dr Richard Siegesmund notes, the state of Georgia has moved towards a system based more on process than a final goal. “I think it’s a better and more honest approach to art education because I think the process of making visual objects is a way of thinking. For students who may not think naturally in words, visual art provides a base through which they can approach language.

“Similarly, visual art provides a means of gaining insight into mathematical problem-solving. Einstein claimed a symbiotic relationship between visual and mathematic thought was critical for working at the highest levels of science.”

The connection Siegesmund makes between maths and science is better known in the industry by the buzzword “cross-curricular”, and the recent announcement of revisions to secondary education by the Minister for Education, Ruairi Quinn, emphasised the Department’s prioritising of this new holy grail.

How this will be implemented is as yet unknown, as is the budget they have in mind.

In the UK, on the other hand, art has been in a secure position for many years. As in Ireland, there is a standard curriculum, managed by a state department of education. However, a proposed new English Baccalaureate does not include any of the arts, according to Dr Richard Hickman, reader in art and design education at Cambridge University, who says: “In Ireland, education appears to be valued more highly and there is a strong tradition of valuing the arts.”

Such notional value does not necessarily materialise in practice, however. “School examinations examine the examinable. They often have little to do with being alive in 21st-century Ireland and more fundamentally, with what it means to be human. People have a fundamental urge to create aesthetic significance – whether one’s hairstyle, garden or a great work of art; in a developed society people have a right for this need to be nurtured.”

Unfortunately, many working in the area feel there are serious flaws in the current system. Professor Gary Granville of NCAD voices a common complaint. “Second-level art education should be embedded in the practice of making art – there should be theory involved, students should learn the history – but the current structure for the Leaving Certificate is quite inadequate.”

In contrast to the project-based Junior Cert, the senior cycle is broken into historical and practical streams, and is very dependent on performance in a final exam. This places pressure on the student, in what is effectively a test of how imaginative they can be on a given day.

Art history is extremely broad, running from the Neolithic period up to the 21st century. A subtopic, “Appreciation” – testing students’ aesthetic understanding – spans film, product design, architecture, contemporary artists, the environment, exhibitions and more.

The exam is worth 37.5 per cent of a student’s final grade. Given that the later modern Leaving Cert history course runs from 1815-1993 (178 years), art history students are being asked to marshal knowledge of several thousand more years, before even considering aesthetic opinions on shopping centres or the film techniques of Pixar.

Therein lies the problem for art educators. If the landscape is enormous, then they can do little more than scratch the surface. “It crowds out the possibility of more substantial and nuanced learning,” says Siegesmund. “Studio projects become craft projects that must be completed in the shortest possible time. There is no time for reflection, discovery, revision and redirection. To lose these outcomes in art education is tragic, for these skills are at the heart of authentic problem solving in any discipline.”

Lack of time for developing analytical skills is by no means a problem confined to the art syllabus, but in a subject where process is so central, shoehorning aeons of art production into a 11-and-a-half hour exam bears scant resemblance to the practice of art in any form.

We live in an increasingly visual world. For Margaret Keenan, outgoing president of the Art Teachers’ Association of Ireland (ATAI), an appreciation of this is one of the key skills all students should leave with, whether they continue with art or not: “Ideally, to carry a love of art and an appreciation of aesthetics with them into their future life.”

Balanced with “an ability to think creatively and problem-solve” and “to communicate and express through art work or written work on art” are the central goals of a secondary art education. For many, that last might seem ominous, but in reality it is the same goal for every subject: maths teaches students to manage numbers in the real world, while nobody expects you to write Ulysses just because Joyce is on the English course; you are being taught to communicate through writing and to appreciate literature. At the very least, a practical art education teaches the basic skills necessary to represent 3D objects on paper or in a sculptural form.

Irish students are fortunate to have access to a thriving museum and exhibition culture which, although largely concentrated in the capital, provides free educational services to schools and the wider public: so whether you’re eight or 80, the doors are open. According to Helen O’Donoghue, head of education programmes at IMMA, discussions about the educational possibilities of exhibitions begin very early on.

“We look at the content and the timing – the upcoming Rivane Neuenschwander exhibition is a good example of one we thought would be very suited to schools. It’s the type of work that can be enjoyed on a number of levels; it’s playful for younger children, and the older ones will have the opportunity to ask more detailed questions.”

For Ireland and our knowledge economy, Siegesmund suggests that there’s another good reason to put more emphasis on art: Steve Jobs’s example shows the considerable economic benefits to a grounding in art education. “On the basis of who made the most money, Jobs was right. Figuring out we think visually will continue to have economic impact into the future. Like Jobs, whoever gets there first, wins – big time.”