Please Don't Eat the Artwork


Authentic Curriculum in Art Education: Progressivism, and Constructivism and Caring Culture in the 21st Century Art Classroom


The following post is a research paper I wrote for one of my classes which primarily focused on curriculum philosophy and theory. I wanted to share it here because I think it can invoke some interesting ideas about today’s (art) education curriculum. It is super academic but if you choose to read it, please enjoy and I would love to hear your thoughts! 


The heart and soul of teaching has all but disappeared and hangs on by a thread kept alive only by those passionate enough to go beyond the standards and provide a truly authentic education that encompasses academic as well as social skills. Mali (2012) argues that “if teachers were allowed the freedom to teach the best way they know how, they could design lesson plans and activities that would encourage in their students a passionate pursuit of knowledge or even just simple curiosity” (p.107-108). Schools teach students a prescribed, explicit curriculum that support core subjects, goals, and objectives to propel students forward through a system of habitual teaching and learning. (Eisner, 2001). Kohn (2004) claims that “the hidden curriculum, if you will – is that test scores are a useful and appropriate marker for school quality” (p. 11). What about skills that travel beyond the walls of the classroom and can help students succeed in life and become quality people?

Even in the art classroom, there is an on-going and systematic restructuring of curriculum, protocols, and art learning. The ‘powers that be’ in education are trying to force the art classroom to look like general education classrooms with data, assessments, accountability measures and endless hoops to jump through to prove that art is meaningful and important. Because of this tangled web of red tape, many “art activities in schools do not actually support creative self-expression and that they are not effective in teaching students about methods of artmaking outside of school contexts” (Gude, 2013, p. 85). One purpose of art making in school is to allow students to think and learn ‘outside of the box’ in order to grow as people. Its time that educational policy-makers stop trying to fit such an expressive and subjective subject into a mold meant for objective, academic-driven subject matter and consider providing an authentic education.

The only way to provide a truly authentic education for students in the art classroom is to combine aspects of progressivism, constructivism, and caring culture to create a curriculum which recognizes the student as an individual learner and human being. This curriculum focuses not on test scores and quantitative achievement that fits into neat little bar graphs but instead looks at the learner holistically and creates an environment in which a student is nurtured and transformed from a decent small person to an extraordinary grown person. This lofty notion of what (art) education should be is not as idealistic as one might think. In fact, for over a century educators have been arguing for authentic instruction.

One true proponent of real world learning is Maxine Greene who supports engagement and dialogue through which students are able to build relationships and create a community. Greene supports her notion of a humanist ideal by encouraging students to “care, to wonder, to become” (Ayers & Miller, 1998, p. 135). A new literacy is needed in which there is a connection between education and the common world. The American public expects a process-product system in which students exist passively in an educational setting which is rarely illuminated by a new idea (Greene, 2009). Today we live in a world moving forward and our students deserve an education in which they are active participants in meaningful learning.

According to Linda Darling-Hammond, there are several key features of environments which promote and support meaningful learning. Darling-Hammond acknowledges emphasis on authentic performance, opportunities for collaborative learning, and structures for caring, democratic learning, and connections to community as key features. (Hammond, 2009). Another important feature is active, in-depth learning. This type of learning strives to foster genuine understanding through hands-on activities in which students do work and projects with higher-order thinking and inquiry. Darling-Hammond (2009) asserts that true learning through deep-understanding has the following features: “it requires the use of higher-order cognitive functions, taking students beyond recall . . . and reproduction . . . and production of arguments, ideas, and performances” (p.56). Through this type of learning, students are invited to be engaged in activities that they feel they actually have a reason to participate in.

This ideology of meaningful learning and active participation correlates closely to Dewey’s Progressivism. Eisner (2001) cites Dewey as caring about “the human being as a growing organism whose major developmental task is to come to terms, through adaptation or transformation, with the environment in which he or she lives” (p. 67). Dewey’s ideas of intelligence and growth require the student to experience culture and life through active hands-on learning. By providing “educational situations through which the child becomes increasingly able to deal with ever more complex and demanding problems” (Eisner, 2001, p. 68) a teacher can provide a truly authentic education.

Progressivism not only emphasizes real-world learning but a democracy in which education is student-centered and students share concerns, interest, and participation in creating an educational experience. Even at the dawning of the 20th century, Dewey knew that originality, expression, invention, and individuality were important (Dewey, 2009). Experiences in the classroom must be more than passive memorizing, but unfortunately, more often than not, “acquiring takes the place of inquiring” (p.4). Modern schools still stick to this antiquated way of teaching and learning – evidence of which can be seen through the high emphasis placed on testing and summative assessment – but it is possible to foster a democratic and individualized instruction in the form of constructivism.

Contemporary constructivism places “emphasis on the active social participation of the learner with the environment” (Milbrandt et al. 2004, p. 20). When students are in control of their own learning, they become active, creative, and social. By providing social interactions of active learning, a teacher opens up avenues for students to connect meaning and learning to the real world. Connections allow students to be invested in their learning and education. In the constructivist art classroom specifically, students participate in art activities that include purpose and meaning to produce artwork that is investigative and encompasses critical thinking skills. (Milbrandt et al. 2004).

Salvador Dali’s (1948) claim that “if you understand your painting beforehand you might as well not paint it” (p. 15) rings true for art education as well. In order for students to truly inquire and create meaning, the process of learning and exploration must be the focus of a progressive and constructivist curriculum. If students already know the answer or the product, what is the point of engaging in a process? Product over process is a real problem in art education, especially when art educators are constantly re-affirming and advocating for the quality and very existence of their program. A great project that focuses on a process has no product to show. Without a product, it can be difficult to ‘sell’ the art program to stake holders like administrators and the community.

Because of this paradox of teaching process vs. product, the art curriculum has been structured to be more academic. However, teaching art vocabulary and pre-determined projects with step-by-step production recipes does a disservice to students and is not authentic art making. (Gude, 2013). It is easy to spot this kind of teaching because product is emphasized over process and all of the products ultimately end up as cookie-cutter carbon copies of the teacher’s meticulous example. “Quality art generates new knowledge” (Gude, 2013, p.88) and emphasizes a process which includes rigor in that each student is experiencing something individualized and true to their own creative process and experiences.

There is a current shift from the prescriptive natured Discipline Based Art Education (DBAE) towards a progressive-constructivist hybrid in art education today in the form of choice-based art also known as Teaching Artistic Behaviors (TAB). For the past few decades, DBAE has reigned as the “overly academic, Eurocentric, and disconnected” (Milbrandt & Anderson, 2005, p. 8) way of delivering art curriculum. Though DBAE presents important artistic concepts such as art criticism, art history, aesthetics, and art production, the main criticism of this type of education has been that it does not allow for enough creativity and meaningful self-expression. (Milbrandt & Anderson, 2005). Enter TAB, the creative hero that is turning the traditional art classroom (sometimes literally) upside down.

Choice based art classrooms function as working studios in which students guide their own learning through creative tasks and challenges. TAB aims to teach 21st century skills and prepare students for the future. TAB involves reflection, deep learning, and above all stresses the importance of authentic learning. (Teaching for Artistic Behavior, 2015). This open-endedness starkly contrasts with the DBAE method of teaching art because the student becomes masterful by participating in creative self-expression rather than structured teacher led lessons.

Outside of the art classroom, this type of learning is known more commonly as experiential learning. Experiential learning is based on Dewey’s ideas of progressivism specifically in learning through experience and doing. Experiential learning is a “holistic integrated perspective on learning that combines experience, perception, cognition, and behavior” (Kolb, 2015, p. 31). These features are parallel to Milbrandt and Anderson’s (2005) definition of authentic instruction in which “students participate in the construction of knowledge through disciplined inquiry and connect that knowledge to the world beyond school in order to deepen learning” (p. 25). This connects to the idea that meaningful learning involves continued practice on complex work that builds skills to achieve accomplishment. When students participate in work like this they become flexible, active learners. (Darling-Hammond, 2009).

Paolo Freire (1970) also touched upon the notion of authentic education when he claimed that “education either functions as an instrument . . . to bring about conformity to it, or it becomes ‘the practice of freedom’ the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world” (p. 34). Freire is referring to the same thing that the constructivists and progressivists support: student-guided learning in order to make meaningful connections. Making connections through progressivist and constructivist ideals is only one part of an authentic education. The whole student needs to be considered and that includes academics as well as social and emotional well-being. Through a progressive and constructive academic curriculum, students can learn how to be great artistic thinkers. But that is not enough.

The current explicit academic curriculum has gaping deficiencies that emphasize recall, skills, and test scores. This creates a culture in which students are not engaged and struggle with “lessons they find neither relevant nor engaging” (Kohn, 2004, p. 155). In a 2015 report by the U.S. Department of Education, a study found that in 2012, 2.6 million 16-24 year olds had not earned a high school diploma.  (Stark & Noel, 2015). There are many reasons why students leave school but one important thing that can get them to stay: a culture of caring. If a student feels support for their emotional and social well-being as well as their academic success, they are more likely to stay in school and graduate. This is possible through a strong community of students and teachers working harmoniously in the classroom. (Canter & Hale, 1998).

In a time when students are considered to be numbers on a spreadsheet and the hidden aim of education – the implicit curriculum – is to score well on the test or achieve high grades, it is more important than ever to create a culture of caring in the classroom. By organizing curriculum around themes of care, student’s cultural literacy will be expanded, connections will be made to content learning, to each other, and to the world (Noddings, 1995).

Caring culture starts with continuity. There must be continuity of purpose, place, people, and curriculum in order to take on a new significance of caring culture in schools (Noddings, 2009). Noddings (2009) goes on to reimagine a curriculum that is organized around themes of care for self, others, animals and plants, the environment, things, and ideas. Through a caring culture curriculum, “the school must do more by way of education than mere job preparation” (Noddings, 2009, p. 119).

Besides continuity, caring can be cultivated in the classroom through character education. Often referred to as social emotional learning or SEL, this type of education gives students the tools and skills to handle real world problems through conflict resolution, empathy, kindness, responsibility, and group well-being (Scelfo, 2015). Variables like social competence actually have an impact on a student’s achievement in school and in real life. Research shows that social emotional connections can help students maintain positive relationships, achieve goals, be responsible, and succeed academically (Durlak et al. 2011).

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (2015) have identified five SEL competencies for students: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making (Social and Emotional Learning Core Competencies, 2015). These competencies are important in promoting positive social behavior as well as academic success in students and in teaching human values to students which will foster ethical and responsible behavior and ultimately reduce risk behaviors and improve overall well-being (Berkowitz & Bier, 2015).

By providing character education and a culture of caring, educators can cultivate a classroom environment where the art room transforms from just another class to a true experience that will help students become good people. After all, according to Nel Noddings, the main aim of education is for students to be “competent, caring, loving and loveable people” (as cited in Kohn, 2004, p. 2). Combined with this, a thoughtfully curated experience in the art classroom encompasses constructivist and progressive aspects and incorporating rigorous projects which challenge students to use critical thinking skills. This will ultimately strengthen student’s overall education and provide an authentic experience in the art room and in life.



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Author: artwithmsk

Hello! My name is Ms. Katzin and I am an art teacher at an elementary school near Atlanta, Georgia. Teaching art is my passion and I love what I do!

5 thoughts on “Authentic Curriculum in Art Education: Progressivism, and Constructivism and Caring Culture in the 21st Century Art Classroom

  1. Well said Mollie Katzen. We face the same issues in the media center. Well I guess all special areas do.

  2. Exceptionally well written and a pleasure to read! You bring up a ton of great thoughts… many of which are shared by all “specials” teachers of any age group. I have personally been thinking a lot about process vs. product as well as the idea of “reality pedagogy.” I was first introduced to this idea through a TedTalk by Christopher Emdin (

    Anyway, give the talk a listen if you have a chance and thanks again for sharing!

  3. Pingback: Clay Animals | Please Don't Eat the Artwork

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