Modernism of Art Education Theory

Lindsay Esola
The Pennsylvania State University, USA

Keith Nelson
The Pennsylvania State University, USA

Citation: Esola, L. and Nelson, K. (2019). Modernism of Art Education Theory. Transdisciplinary Inquiry, Practice, and Possibilities in Art Education. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Libraries Open Publishing. DOI: 10.26209/arted50-08

Abstract: The article that derived from the 1965 Art Education Conference at Penn State University; Learning Theory, Cognitive Processes, and the Teaching-Learning Component written by Dale B. Harris, speaks of important contributions to teaching methodologies. This article draws attention to groundbreaking research that occurred at the time and was intended to pave the way for a deeper understanding of how students learn, in the arts and all other domains of education. Since this time, new theories and findings in psychology have emerged that will be reviewed in this paper in order to frame new opportunities for teaching innovations that would have been impossible to design from the perspective of the 1965 literature.

Individual Differences Matter More than We Realized Before

G. Stanley Hall is credited by Harris in 1965 as the father of American Developmental Psychology, and he advocated that the curriculum be fitted to the child’s developing nature. John Dewey’s emphasis on the child’s experience as the source of educational curricula proved to be the fundamental change that swept education in the early 20th century. One of his greatest contributions was his attention to interest and motivation in the learning process, his emphasis on the importance of direct experience in children learning. These men set the building blocks for new psychological theories in education, such as Gestalt psychology and Educational psychology (Harris, p. 142)

Nevertheless, from the perspectives of 1965, ideas about how individual differences play out in learning were remarkably vague. However, there were important seeds for further more differentiated research. Despite an emphasis primarily on shared, universal stages in development, Piaget’s account of his own three children in the first 2 years of life brilliantly illustrates individual differences in the rates and details of cognitive development. Bruner and others in the early stages of the cognitive science revolution were busy identifying component processes of memory, thinking, and planning. Again, the emphasis was on shared levels of cognition at successive ages/stages of development, but the future would hold much finer differentiation of component cognitive processes and motivational processes that would provide foundations for dynamic systems and other theoretical perspectives to give integrated accounts of how these components work together to support developmental advances.

Keep Challenges “Close” to the Current Level/Zone of the Learner

Piaget’s work influenced many others studying methodologies in education. Jerome Bruner (1960) stated that “any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any state of development” (p. 33) which Harris classifies as a “bold hypothesis” which remains a hypothesis (p. 156). This theory affirms the foundations that a subject may be taught in some form at any age based on three assumptions; that knowledge has an inherent structure, that cognition may proceed intuitively as well as analytically, and that an intuitive approach is more likely at any age (Harris, p. 156).

Recent developments in cognitive learning theory cast doubt upon Bruner’s hypothesis. In Wood, Bruner and Ross, (1976) article, the term scaffolding was first used, and it describes how an interaction between a teacher and a child employs “a ‘scaffolding’ process that enables a child or novice to solve a problem, carry out a task or achieve a goal which would be beyond his unassisted efforts” (Wood et al., p. 90). This idea led to Vygotsky’s (1978) concept of the zone of proximal development in scaffolding. Defined as the zone of activity in which a person can produce with assistance what they cannot produce alone (or can only produce with difficulty). The zone of proximal development concept depended on a view of human development that had a number of important and distinctive properties (Pea, p. 426).

Consider Some Challenges That Introduce Versions of a Skill Surprisingly Early

Bruner and colleagues drew attention to possibilities of more advanced information processing and thinking capacities in preschool children than most writers had discussed, thus providing the potential for surprising learning achievements—perhaps. This doesn’t necessarily mean that 3 year-olds are capable of doing algebra but, rather, suggests important aspects of combinatorial thinking may be possible in a 3 year-old, for example. We will see that, in both art and language at the preschool level, Bruner’s conviction is robustly supported — but only when a very complex mix of learning conditions is dynamically brought together.

In Art Education, Stress Awareness and Judgment Rather Than Opportunities for Direct Interaction by Children with Skilled Artists

Harris also drew attention to Elliot Eisner’s work. Eisner (2004), in his long and prestigious career in art, reiterated the importance of how we should educate our children. He stressed that schools should educate for judgment, critical thinking, meaningful literacy, collaboration and public service.

Dynamic Systems Theory

The learning of new representations for syntax, vocabulary, narrative structures, literacy, mathematics and art are among skills considered here within a variant of dynamic system theorizing we call a “Dynamic Tricky Mix Theory.“ This will help put in perspective the changes in data and theory since the 1965 conference. The pace of acquiring or learning new communicative structures and other complex human skills depends upon patterns of challenges together with the richness of convergence on-line of favorable motivational, social process, emotional regulation, expectancy, and self-esteem variables along with domain-specific enhancers of processing key structures.

Here, we review empirical research that fits with this theoretical frame in many respects, at the same time pointing out some aspects of the theory that have yet to be tested thoroughly. In research to date, the dynamic convergences measured have been at the psychological level, as in measurements of expressed emotion, ongoing conversational dialogue, motivation to persist in an activity, and levels of performance on cognitive and communicative tasks. Possibilities for incorporating a range of physiological and brain imaging techniques that would provide valuable complements to psychological behavioral variables also will be briefly discussed. In addition, extensions of the same theoretical framework and research approach to a wider range of skill domains, including for example emotion regulation and social interactive skills, and executive function and planning, are considered.

In much developmental literature, emotional, social, cognitive, and language development are studied separately. A related trend in educational and clinical settings is to strip down procedures to concentrate on a narrow band of skill in a single domain. The position taken here is that there is much to gain at both the theoretical and applied level by studying domains in interrelated observations and by enriching the complexity of educational/intervention procedures. By less narrow concentration it often is demonstrable that more powerful dynamic mixes of emotional/social/communicative conditions can be established that support more rapid acquisition of a mix of skills from the same, multi-purpose interactional episodes.

Research that supports this position is reviewed for language-typical children acquiring syntax and art skills, for autistic and deaf children acquiring both first language and literacy skills, and for language-delayed children acquiring syntactic structures.

Dynamic Systems Theory Looking Back at 1965 Knowledge and Learning Tips

Dynamic Systems theories stress the embeddedness of multiple complex components within ongoing, real-time systems. Examples of dynamic systems include fluid dynamics, emergence of weather patterns, gene expression, chemical reactions, protein synthesis, and embryological development, as well as children’s and adults’ learning of complex skills. These systems are self-organizing in the sense that there is no overarching guideline for development, even though highly specific genetic, chemical and physical structures comprise one kind of contributor. Rather, system behavior is the result of the ongoing convergence of many nonlinear components. Further, human behavior is not determined solely based on internal or external influences but through highly particular interactions between the here-and-now environment, past experiences, current activations, and anticipation of future experiences.

In 1965, none of the theories presented and reviewed briefly above addressed such dynamic systems. Further, no empirical findings on children revealed how slow versus rapid rates of learning art skills, language skills, literacy skills or other domains could be well explained. In consequence, the various “learning tips” were based more upon one’s preference for a particular theoretical emphasis than on detailed evidence on how learning proceeds.

Dynamic Systems Theory Looking at New Methods and Findings up to 2016

The dynamic “tricky” mix theory of development

Dynamic “Tricky” Mix theory or DTM is a relatively new example of a Dynamic Systems theory that makes use of the general framework of Dynamic Systems theories, while specifying in some detail the different components that contribute to children’s learning. We suggest that learning is dependent upon a complex, tricky-to-achieve, converging set of conditions that must cooperate at high levels for high rates of learning to be achieved. The crux of the theory is this: There are numerous social, emotional, motivational, cognitive, structural challenges to the learner, and current neural network conditions that must cooperate and converge to support any advance in learning. Each of the contributing conditions can in part be separately tracked, but also sits in relation to the other contributing components and the real-time, ongoing, emergent, interacting mix. The optimal convergence of the components that could contribute to children’s highly accelerated learning is relatively rare for most children and most domains of learning—precisely because the complexity of needed interaction of conditions is so high and because conditions will sometimes detract from favorable mixes for learning. At the same time and for the same theoretical process reasons, whenever a child experiences regular, repeated highly-positive Dynamic Tricky Mixes, then sustained levels of very powerful learning will be seen across periods of months and years. This has occasionally been demonstrated in children with severe, multiple-year lags behind norms in reading or mathematics or oral language, when they are placed in dramatically new mixes of conditions. For example, 6-year-olds so delayed in language that they are talking like 3-year-olds shift toward strong gains across multiple months when provided challenging but richly supportive new conversational conditions. (Camarata, Nelson, & Camarata, 1994; Dickinson et al., 2004; Lepper, Woolverton, Mumme, & Gurtner, 1993; Nelson et al., 2001; Nelson et al., 2004; Nelson, Camarata, Welsh, Butkovsky, & Camarata, 1996; Nelson, Heimann, & Tjus, 1997; Torgesen, Wagner & Rashotte, 1997).

If social-emotional adjustment factors truly contribute to dynamic converges online that affect learning of varied kinds of new communicative challenges, this should be a measurable phenomenon. Fortunately, there now are a few such studies that have helped to account for children’s rates of language progress and serve to illustrate new methodological steps stimulated by the theory. In each of the studies, videotapes of two early sessions of intervention were analyzed to determine the child’s “enjoyable engagement” or “social-emotional-cognitive” engagement. As Dynamic Tricky Mix theorizing predicts, children’s higher enjoyment/engagement scores early in intervention were predictive of larger learning gains across several months of intervention. These developmental gains were shown in syntax for children with SLI in Haley, Camarata, and Nelson (1994), in syntax for language-typical children in Newby (1994) and Nelson and Welsh (1998), and in reading levels and language levels for autistic children (Heimann, Nelson, Tjus, & Gillberg, 1995; Tjus, Heimann, & Nelson, 1998, 2001). In related research that is naturalistic and longitudinal rather than interventionist, Hart and Risley (1995) found that positive “Feedback Tone” (including responsive recasts and positive affective tone) by the parents of children at 1-3 years of age predicted child language level at age 3 and at age 9 years. Similarly, Nicely, Tamis-LeMonda, and Bornstein (1999) demonstrate that children’s more rapid language development in the period 9 to 21 months is associated with high levels of maternal attunement (matching) to infant affect at 9 months. Pianta and colleagues (1997) document that in early elementary education classes higher teacher-child engagement is correlated with more rapid progress in the children’s academic achievement. In each of these studies with some measurement of affective patterns, part of the dynamic mix contributions to language learning may have rested upon positive and well attuned affect of parent (e.g. excitement, warmth) to child on particular learning occasions.

Delays in First Language

When children have no other identified problem except language delay, the following combination of quite simple assumptions served for a long period to hinder the discovery of effective treatments for these SLI children:

  1. The fact that the children have fallen several years behind peers in language proves that the children cannot ever learn well from conversations
  2. All adult conversations with children are highly similar
  3. The fact that the children have fallen several years behind peers in language implies to many that they have a biological and unremediable deficit in their language-learning mechanism, which further implies “don’t expect very much new language learning”
  4. These children can only be expected to learn if the targets of learning are tiny challenges to their current language — syntactic forms such as “-ed for past” and “-s for plural nouns” which for the individual child are already being used about 10% to 30% of the times where they would be appropriate.
  5. These targets for learning should be presented out of conversational context and made obvious to the child through asking the child’s imitation of lists of sentences displaying the targets’ correct uses.
  6. If the child in a clinical treatment room over 20 or so sessions of imitation raises their percentage of correct use to 70 to 100% this change has been caused by the imitation procedures in the treatment room.

These assumptions, separately and in combination, seem so obvious and familiar to most clinicians and parents that no energy is devoted to seeking evidence that could confirm or deny the accuracy of the assumptions.

Amazingly, though, we have seen that once research was framed and conducted on all aspects of these assumptions, every one of the assumptions proved to be faulty.

Delays in Art Skill Acquisition: “Art Impaired Children”

In the preschool period, mastery of language accompanied by acquisition of world-class skills in art have been seen in the case of one Chinese girl, who became by the age of two years part of her artist father’s community of artists studying at his studio. Challenges to launch her progress in art thus could come from her father’s paintings, from his student’s paintings, and from the artistic dialogue among this community. High positivity in her father’s emotional stance and ways of encouraging her art were also part of the mix. This girl, Yani, sent her paintings on international exhibit by age eight and continued on the path to become an accomplished artist in adulthood (Ho, 1989). Substituting for the moment language for art, it is not at all unusual to find that children encounter sufficiently positive Dynamic Mixes for acquisition of first languages in the preschool period and continue on to be fluent first language users as adults. What is unusual, as with Yani, is to see anything like the richness of Dynamic Mixes for art in the preschool that approach the richness of what most children encounter in language.

Yani had the benefits of an extremely unusual situation, an Active Art Studio in her own backyard. We have encountered other children with this rare situation in early childhood. One example from North Carolina fits here. A young girl from age three years on regularly visited her father’s art studio in the backyard where she could make her own drawings and observe/interact with not only her father but her father’s adult art students. She became quite skilled in her art by first grade entry in making drawings of nudes. Unfortunately, such drawings were immediately rejected by her teachers as uninteresting and inappropriate.

Emily, yet another exceptional early artist, began producing recognizable drawings of people, clocks, cars, and other referents at 17 months of age. Bruner would love this example! The readiness of this child in terms of motor and perceptual skills and pattern analysis skills was demonstrated through her own art productions. Such cognitive readiness met an exceptional set of learning conditions. Both parents were skilled artists working at home side by side with “E.” More than that, E saw highly sophisticated challenging art unfold before her eyes and was part of positive, highly engaging social exchanges accompanying her drawing episodes. It is truly remarkable that Emily at 17 to 20 months loved drawing and controlled drawing instruments well enough to produce quite varied drawings, including, for example, different faces with distinct emotional expressions. Emily continued her development toward complex art all through childhood, and became a skilled adult artist.

Individual Differences Matter More than We Realized Before — Updated to 2016

From a dynamic systems point of view, being “close” with only some conditions being favorable will not support learning. A fuller set of well-timed conditions must co-occur and interact. High variability of learning rates and pathways will be expected for individuals across relevant learning contexts. As more and more studies have unfolded on contextual variations that affect learning along with variations in what the learner brings to the table, it has become evident that creating and maintaining highly effective learning episodes requires monitoring multiple learning conditions.

Dynamic Systems Theory Processes Explain Both Very Slow and Extremely Rapid Learning

Learning may be slowed to a crawl by limited convergence of one or more key components of a Dynamic Mix. Unfortunately, a narrow view of Vygotsky’s zones of learning has often led to planned teaching that restricts challenges to only those barely above the learner’s current skills. Even if motivational social-emotional conditions are very positive, with restricted challenges learning rate will be restricted. If other conditions are weak or negative, then low challenges combined with such conditions will lead to near zero rates of learning. Even worse, after many cycles of such learning episodes, the learner will now bring into new learning situations a set of low expectancies, poor mood, low persistence and attention, and inferior motivation which will converge dynamically to create even lower rates of learning.

Conversely, the same learners stuck in cycles of low learning will leap forth in their learning when the same components under discussion are somehow newly mixed to create a set of learning episodes with very high challenges supported by high positivity in all other components.

Very rapid learning under well-specified mixes of learning conditions can be related back to Bruner’s claim that some form of any skill can be taught at any developmental stage for the learner. As just one example from art teaching, we see that four to seven year-olds whose spontaneous art work to date might seem to indicate an unreadiness or incapacity to deal with perspective in drawings readily learn perspective techniques when an engaging adult artist sits beside the child and an art dialogue unfolds.


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Lindsay Esola and Keith Nelson

Lindsay Esola is a fourth year Ph.D. Candidate in Art Education at Penn State University. She is conducting research within Art, Neuroscience, Education and Psychology. She holds an M.S. in Art Education and a B.A. in Psychology, which led her to serve as an art therapist for suicidal youth, a behavioral analyst for brain injured adults, and an art educator over the past fifteen years. Her current research interest lies in finding out what cultivates creativity within an individual, and the transition between early child art as “creative” and preadolescent art as “skillful”. She has done research looking into progesterone and its effects on the image process system, the effects of dopamine on creativity, art as a placebo in medicine, and the influence of the “Eureka Factor” (Dr. Kunios) within a classroom. She is seeking to endorse the arts within an educational curriculum by showing the importance of creativity on development, as well as comprehend the impact of hormones and neurotransmitters on teaching creativity.

Dr. Keith Nelson is a professor of Psychology at Penn State University. His interests concern cognitive developmental theory. His research involves children’s acquisition and use of language and art. He also works with microcomputer-multimedia applications in educational research aimed at improving communication, art, and thinking in normal and handicapped children. Another facet of theorizing deals with the ways that cognition, emotion, and motivation are intertwined in children’s learning.