Art Teachers Include Design to Connect Pupils to Their World

As part of the governor’s education agenda, public schools around Ohio are trying to make their curriculum more career-oriented to guide kids towards what he calls “in-demand jobs.”

The focus is more on STEM subjects – Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math – that are the crux of standardized tests.

The Ohio Board of Education this year eliminated the so-called "5 of 8 Rule" that placed importance on art classes. Critics fear classes in the humanities will dwindle.

But some art teachers in Ohio and around the world are trying to keep the arts “relevant.”

At an international conference at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago this summer, art educators held a workshop, asking 5th graders to design their own classrooms. Many of the kids added some kind of quiet area, often up high above the class.  Others built in teaching amenities.

“It’s got a globe. It’s interactive and you could touch a country and it would tell you things about it and you could spin it to see a lot of information…”

Professor of Architecture and Environmental Design Linda Keane and her architect husband Mark do these kinds of workshops for students who don’t get art classes at school.

Linda Keane has kids analyze and then redesign not only their classrooms, but their schools, homes, neighborhoods and cities.

She and other design proponents say kids never see their surroundings the same way again.

“Artists would say it’s really about seeing and looking closely.  That is one of the foundations of ‘learning to learn.’ And once that’s open in different venues and aspects it changes you for life..”

Design Education

K-12 arts programs around the country are increasingly including design, an element that you might say, brings a practical side to fine art.

Former art teacher Mark Graham, is now a professor at Brigham Young University.

“I used to often have parents discourage their boys from taking art because they said to me ‘Well, what are they going to do when they grow up?’ They didn’t see what would happen if he became an artist.  But now when they’re thinking about film or design or advertising or photography they’re seeing some practical applications.”

The Creative Economy Worldwide

There’s also web design, game design, industrial design, fashion,. … the list goes on.  But the U.S. is late to the game compared to Europe.

Schools there have already bolstered design in their art curriculum.  Like Americans, Europeans do feel the pressure to compete on STEM subjects.    But Professor Ingvald Digranes at Olso and Akershus University says Scandinavians still maintain their art and craft classes.

“Both visual communication and the design part is built on the old traditions that we have. We make things, especially wood and textile.  In the Nordic countries that’s bedrock.”

Tapping into history helped Pakistani students parlay traditional design skills in textiles into jobs with western fashion companies.

And during the Great Recession a few years ago Latvians made use of their craft heritage, says Professor Aije Freimane of the Art Academy of Latvia.

“People discovered they had the skills to transfer to creative businesses and suddenly there was a rise of creative businesses based on crafting, based on skills, making and knowing the craft.”

In Asia, China, Korea, and Singapore have been importing western designers to help their economies become more than just manufacturing sites.

One Chinese design professor says his country wants to change the phrase from “Made in China” to “Created in China.”

One person who’s helping them is Case Western Reserve University Professor of Design Richard Buchanan.  He says China now has some top notch high schools teaching design.

“In Wuxi they do not teach to the test. They have the students engaged and making things in the world and experiencing things, thinking and reflecting. That’s important. That’s a key.

And I think that’s why we look at K-12 as so important it’s not the tests or the subjects alone that they learn but how they practice and learn together.”

Design Now Part of Art Standards

Three years ago the National Governors Association issued a report saying arts, culture, and design could enhance economic growth by delivering a better prepared workforce. That same year Ohio included design in its state standards for art classes.

At the STEAMM Academy @ Hartford Middle School in Canton, art students are asked to solve a real life problem. A local business has some proposals for signage for its new headquarters building and teacher Kathy Pugh runs them by her 8th grade student William Ogden.

OGDEN  “This is really busy right here.  PUGH  “Yeah! That’s what they said. These don’t seem to go together. How do you feel about the colors on that?”

Hartford is a STEAM school, one that focuses on the STEM subjects but includes A for art.  Pugh has a goal that’s common in design education: incorporate art into other subjects.

“I found out what they were doing in math, which was proportional ratios. So when we did our sculptures they had a small sketch and before they could start their sculpture they had to do their proportional ratios to enlarge it at least 4 times bigger than the sketch.”

This kind of multi-disciplinary art class is practiced in several Ohio schools but is not common.  Even at Hartford Academy it’s pretty much Kathy Pugh doing it on her own.

Professor Buchanan says it should be more common in the Midwest, with its history of manufacturing.

“It troubles me that Ohio is ambiguous about this future. The rebirth of the rust belt is so intimately connected to design and innovation.  We have great strategic strengths.”  

Supporters of design education hope Ohio school superintendents will make that connection.

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