Those Who Can (Paint), Teach: A Review of The Art and Craft of Pedagogy

Review of The Art and Craft of Pedagogy: Portraits of Effective Teachers
by Richard Hickman 2011; Continuum

Tanya Perkins, Indiana University East

Enculturation: http://enculturation.net/those-who-can-paint-teach
(Published: January 5, 2013)

If you're looking for lesson plans, you won't find them here. The Art and Craft of Pedagogy is less about classroom methodology and more about how 10 visual artists came to be both producers and teachers of art. Hickman's approach rests on a somewhat provocative claim—that the arts, meaning visual fine arts, are among the best taught of all subjects and, as such, offer pedagogical approaches meriting closer scrutiny by educators across the curriculum. He bases this on a couple of broad studies—Harland et al.'s 2000 U.K.-based Arts Education in Secondary Schools: Effects and Effectiveness, and Hetland et al.'s 2007 Studio Thinking: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education, both of which examine classroom environment, supportive feedback, and the use of apprenticeship and studio models, among other things. As a side point, it should be noted that both studies and Hickman's own work focus mainly on secondary students, with a few exceptions. Hickman argues that the "habits of mind" (9) and facilitative learning climate exemplified in these art classrooms are transferable to other disciplines: "There is no reason why mathematics teachers, for example, could not adopt an 'apprenticeship model'" (9). The trick lies in locating those strategies employed by art teachers that not only create the desired results but are potentially applicable across the curriculum, which is Hickman's aim: "The mission I set myself was to identify what it is that 'successful' art teachers do that is singular or special in some way" (10).

Figure 1

To do this, Hickman employs the genre of the personal narrative, offering autoethnographic accounts of 10 secondary art teachers, ranging from a Zimbabwean political activist to one of the founders of an award-winning art studio for inner city youth to Hickman himself, all told from a first person point of view with minimal interpretive commentary. He takes as a template Education, Power and Personal Biography: Dialogues with Critical Educators, Carlos Alberto Torres' interviews with educational heavyweights like Henry Giroux and Paul Freire, in which the power of the personal narrative and the dialectic between personal experience and professional action form the basis for a fascinating give and take between interviewer and interviewee. Herein lies an important distinction between Torres and Hickman: the latter chooses not to follow the question-and-answer format, instead limiting his comments and observations to brief paragraphs at the end of each narrative, which some readers may find problematic. Editorial questions offer a way to guide and structure a narrative so that the thematic focus—along with a reader's interest—isn't lost in what can feel, at certain points in the narratives, just a wee bit meandering and/or like biographic navel-gazing. Nevertheless, Hickman's 10 teachers are a diverse and intriguing bunch, any one of whom would make a memorable dinner partner.

The first 20-odd pages of The Art and Craft of Pedagogy provide context for Hickman's research, including rationale for his methodology, and the last 19 offer thematic take-aways, leaving most of the textual real estate to the narratives themselves. Here we meet artists like Issam Kourbaj, a Syrian native and current artist in residence at Christ's College, Cambridge, who discovered "the eyes of [his] fingers" (97)—fingerpainting!—as a boy attending a village art school. A performative tactility characterizes, not just Kourbaj's subsequent visual art, but his innovative teaching practices such as, for example, having students "use their hands as their thinking instrument [sic]," handing out potatoes as raw materials for storytelling or papering the floor of an anthropological museum with multilingual newspapers and inviting students to "draw the museum objects of the past on the object of the present" (108). Just as intriguing is Vasavi Koka, who knew from early childhood that she wanted to teach art. Koka's narrative, in particular, suggests pedagogical tactics amenable to cross-curriculum transfer (though likely familiar to most educators)—varying teaching styles, arranging student-led demonstrations, using what she terms 'investigative' art to "facilitate discovery and experiment" (91) and emphasizing the individual as learner over homogenous institutional goals. Although her enthusiasm infuses her narrative with an endearing authenticity, it also propels her across large swathes of biographic territory, some of which comes across as confusing, such as a reference to her "career in the travel industry" (91).

Nevertheless, writing instructors will be interested in how Koka makes use of her own work as a teaching and discussion object by positioning herself as a fellow artist alongside her students, a move that lends itself to the composition classroom where, as in visual arts, process is emphasized. Yet how do writing students ever see process in process—for real—rather than merely encountering it as part of what Ann Berthoff calls the "pedagogy of exhortation" (332)? One way is when instructors share their own drafts of scholarly works in progress with students, as writing professor Mark Blaauw-Hara does. He notes that when students peer into the messy real-life writing process of a professional, they "see [me] step down from my teacher's pedestal and share my own confusions and challenges . . . that great writing didn't leap from my head full formed" (171). Similarly, Koka's own students feel free to take more risks in their own work as a result of seeing what artistic process actually looks like in a professional context. Moreover, her practice disrupts the usual hierarchy of the classroom, shifting it away from the teacher as "sage on the stage" and creating what Hickman describes as "a reciprocal relationship between [Koka] as artist and her students' personal growth" (93). It should be noted that aspects of critical pedagogy—particularly the decentering of the traditional power structure—permeate the narrations. To what extent they result in superior student outcomes is difficult to substantiate within the ethnographic structure Hickman uses, but it is safe to say that the democratization of the classroom is characteristic of the general studio environment for which most of the narrators consciously strive.

A further theme that emerges from the complex interplay between personal and professional experience, and its effect on pedagogical practices, is, not surprisingly, the question of identity. The struggle to integrate or, at least, balance conflicting personas is taken up in Hickman's own narrative, in which he invokes Daniel Miller's race-based metaphor of the double helix as a way of conceptualizing how the threads of personal and professional lives "overlap, mutually influence, mutually inform and are inextricably tied" (Miller qtd in Hickman 33). While Keith Winser's narrative, the last in the collection, is unambiguously entitled "I am Not an Artist Who Teaches, I am a Teacher Who Sometimes Makes Art," Hickman admits his own professional ambivalence, particularly early on, recalling that he "drifted into [teaching] as a way out of the tedium of having to save for things like soap and food" (34). Reconciliation of his artist and educator identities occurs when, like Koka mentioned earlier, he paints along with his students: "I found this to be fulfilling as well as pedagogically useful, in that a suitable studio atmosphere was created and solutions to technical problems could be shared and explained with direct reference to my artwork" (44). Upon realizing that the works he'd created over past decades seem as if painted by different artists, Hickman, in a slightly schizo-epiphanic moment, decides to exhibit them under different names, explaining that "the realization, as I was reflecting on this in the context of my identity as an art educator is obvious—I had multiple identities that sometimes merged together, occasionally disappeared (sometimes for good) and metamorphosed into new identities" (46).

In the last chapter, "Emerging Themes and Pedagogical Implications," Hickman identifies five prevailing commonalities within the narratives: education, practical engagement, identity, exploration and curiosity, and what he terms "going against the grain," or resistance toward authority. But resistance isn't for resistance's sake alone—"challeng[ing] orthodoxies" goes hand in hand with opening up the classroom for what he describes as "creative and meaningful 'play'" (161). This might challenge those of us who teach academic writing until we remember that, whatever the genre, all writing begins with an act of imagination. Engaging that imagination is critical in spurring intrinsic motivation in students which, according to rhetoric scholar Patrick Sullivan, must happen if students are to succeed in any meaningful way. Sullivan's research finds that students identify creative assignments as key to fostering their genuine motivation, assignments which involve "reading, writing, and thinking, but . . . do not present themselves to students as typical English assignments" (124). Interestingly, in developing these kinds of assignments, Sullivan draws on Elliot Eisner's The Arts and the Creation of Mind, which makes somewhat similar arguments for the role of visual art in core curricula and model pedagogy as does Hickman.

The remainder of the book integrates Hickman's analyses of these themes into the broader research landscape, bringing the work of Freire, Mary Zander, Jean Lave, and Etienne Wenger, among others, into the conversation. Although this makes for absorbing reading, the broader application implied by Hickman's original mission might have been enhanced further by additional examples and suggestions about how these concepts might play out in disciplines beyond fine arts, as well as clearer links with the preceding narratives to alleviate the slight sense of disconnect in the second half of the chapter. Still, The Art and Craft of Pedagogy seems to solidify the link between creativity (which can take many forms) and effective teaching practices already suggested by Gregory Feist and others. Ultimately, for Hickman, the ideal learning environment is one where teachers share "a willingness to empathize and recognize an individual's worth," acting within a curriculum where "practical imaginative activity" isn't just for the artist or sculptor, but augments and enlivens all subject areas (163). So stop worrying about lesson plans—and start mapping out art galleries.

Works Cited

Berthoff, Ann E. "Is Teaching Still Possible? Writing, Meaning, and Higher Order Reasoning." Cross-Talk in Comp Theory. 2nd ed. Ed. Victor Villanueva. Urbana: NCTE, 2003. 329-343. Print.

Blaauw-Hara, Mark. "Why Our Students Need Instruction in Grammar, and How We Should Go About It." Teaching English in the Two Year College 34.2 (Dec. 2006): 165-178. Print.

Eisner, Elliot W. The Arts and the Creation of Mind. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002. Print.

Sullivan, Patrick. "'A Lifelong Aversion to Writing': What If Writing Courses Emphasized Motivation?" Teaching English in the Two Year College 39.2 (Dec. 2011): 118-140. Print.