Jensen states several times throughout the book that the arts are not “efficient.” He means that the benefits are not immediate – they are seen in the long term. Art is a creative process. It’s a personal experience and it’s a meaningful way the artist can express him/herself. The arts help in the development of the brain and the benefits to our brain development happen over time. How does one measure attitudes, self-confidence, self-discipline, a sense of accomplishment, or the development of a student’s neurobiological system? A highly structured arts program complete with a highly structured assessment can’t accurately measure these things. And if the arts are highly structured, there is a danger that individual expression may diminish or be completely lost. Many students will turn off to the arts. This is the exact opposite of what we want to accomplish through the arts.
Assessing creativity poses many problems. Creativity is highly individual. To focus on the grading of artwork is, as Jensen states, to devalue learning and minimize creative expression – the very things we want to enhance in our students. If students think they have to “pass a test” on say a particular drawing or painting or musical composition, they will focus on the wants of the teacher and not on their individual form of expression. Students will care more about what their teacher thinks of their work than focus on the sheer joy of the art experience itself. After all, that is a huge goal of the arts: the joy of personal expression through various art forms.
Jensen proposes a better way of assessing the arts through a “pass/fail” approach. The criteria for pass/fail are simple, straightforward and reachable by all students. Students must have good attendance in class, participate in the class activities, develop a portfolio of their work, get portfolio feedback via peer sharing as well as other ideas listed by Jensen, and participate in a student/teacher conference. Such an approach allows the student to reflect upon his/her work and helps created an atmosphere of trust and artistic freedom that encourages individualism in each artist. Reviewing a portfolio with students is also a way to celebrate the student’s work.
After reading this chapter, I believe I have been on the right track with respect to assessment in the visual arts. There are some weak areas that I need to address but overall I find myself applauding Jensen’s ideas.
I’ve always had students make a portfolio that contains samples of their work. But I don’t think I carry this idea far enough and would like to follow more closely Jensen’s suggestions. For one, I’d like to give students more say in what goes into their portfolio. And, since I have over 400 students, I’d need to figure out an efficient way to hold some student/teacher conferences – I see great value in having them but am not sure how to manage the logistics with so many students. I'd like to offer more time for students to share their portfolio work with their peers not only get valuable feedback of their own work, but to learn from the ideas of others.
I’ve always resisted any formal assessments in the visual arts. Observing my students while they are working, and viewing the work in their portfolios gives me some idea of their skill levels and more importantly, their commitment level to the class art activities. An added step would be conferencing with students about their work.
I’ve participated in art shows before, but never had one of my own. I’m thinking of exploring this idea with the music teacher and see if we can come up with an idea for an art night. The music teacher has a group of choir and mallet musicians and together with visual art displays, we could make a fun and informative night for parents and students where they get a chance to share and celebrate in the student’s work.
A final note: I’ve asked my principal to read this book over the summer. Perhaps there isn't enough of an emphasis in the arts in schools. Individual classroom teachers either feel the art specialist covers the art needs for their students, or there simply isn’t enough time for them to do art, or they don’t feel competent in the area of art. Considering that administrators often claim over and over that teaching should reflect current research, it seems that we ought to be putting some of our staff training time into the area of arts considering its value. We spend most of our time learning about reading and math or science. In my ten years as an art teacher, I don’t think we’ve ever had even one art in-service day. Maybe I can help to change that.
Final note: with this post, my series on Jensen's book ends. I'm currently reading his book, "Teaching With The Brain In Mind" and perhaps I'll share some of my reflections when I'm done.
My next series of blogs will offer up some of the ideas I've used in the classroom. I hope you will stay tuned and that you will find some ideas you can use in your own classroom.