Harvard Educational Review
  1. The Learner-Directed Classroom

    Developing Creative Thinking Skills Through Art

    Diane B. Jaquith and Nan E. Hathaway (Editors)

    New York: Teachers College Press, 2012. 176 pp. $29.95.

    The Learner-Directed Classroom: Developing Creative Thinking Skills Through Art is an exciting anthology that makes a strong case for learner-directed arts pedagogy that moves away from top-down, teacher-driven instruction toward student autonomy and educational self-determination. Editors Diane B. Jaquith, an elementary school art teacher, and Nan E. Hathaway, a middle school art teacher and gifted education specialist, argue that “educators should find a balance between direct instruction and independent learning so students have sufficient opportunity to inquire, engage, discover, apply, and evaluate their own ideas” (pp. 1–2). Each contributor to the anthology supports this argument in his or her own way, including Tannis Longmore, who poignantly declares that “educators must stay on the side of children and their creative growth. Children’s art needs to be about children’s ideas” (p. 59). The focus of the collection is on primary and middle school education, while the detailed accounts from an array of classroom teachers bring a sense of authenticity to the text that invites the reader into some very curious discussions.

    The Learner-Directed Classroom is neatly divided into four parts. Part 1, “Planning for Paradigm Shift,” includes four chapters that focus on the process of transitioning from a teacher-directed to a learner-directed approach to practice. Within these chapters, contributing authors offer suggestions for getting students, parents, and administrators on board with choice-based pedagogy that “provide[s] nourishment for a child’s developing inner voice” (p. 47); for transforming classrooms into visual resource studios, stocked with “art books, postcards, and [visual art] reproductions of all sorts” (p. 42); and for managing learner-directed practice within the tight parameters of a regimented school day. Part 2, “Supporting Learner Autonomy,” contains three chapters that discuss strategies for developing arts-based environments where students take control of their own learning. Access to materials, support for curiosity and risk taking, managing school/home balance, and the importance of play are among the core themes explored in these chapters. Part 3, “Special Considerations for Special Populations,” explores the application of learner-directed practice for unique student groups. Among the populations discussed in these chapters are gifted students, middle schoolers, integrated students with special needs, and boys. Lastly, part 4, “Thoughts on Reflection and Assessment,” discusses different approaches to documenting, assessing, and reflecting on student learning in choice-based classrooms.

    Though each part of The Learner-Directed Classroom has its merits, the highlight of the book is part 3, “Special Considerations for Special Populations.” Within these chapters are some of the most intriguing ideas within the anthology. Ellyn Gaspardi’s chapter, “Teaching for Innovation: Supporting Diverse Learning Communities,” does a wonderful job of making connections between learner-directed arts instruction and Universal Design for Learning in integrated classrooms that combine students of mixed ability levels and special needs. Nan E. Hathaway’s “Outlaws, Rebels, and Rogues: Creative Underachievers” makes the powerful, and potentially controversial, point that disaffected outliers, “the outlaws and rogues who seem hell-bent on breaking rules and demanding attention” (p. 79), are potential geniuses—unidentified gifted students who are more likely to reach their full potential in the self-directed arts classroom than in more structured and less expressive learning environments. In the final chapter of this section, “The Secret Art of Boys,” Clyde Gaw takes on an important topic—capturing the attention of young boys and maximizing their potential—in a most controversial way: by advocating for “fantasy violence” and “pretend weapons play.” Gaw puts forth a radical argument that “fantasy violence is a natural part of boys’ emotional development and boys will flourish in schools where they are able to create art and express ideas related to their fantasy realms” (pp. 117–118), while also taking into consideration zero tolerance policies on violence and safety issues surrounding content that often emphasizes the maiming or killing of fictional characters.

    While The Learner-Directed Classroom provides an exciting look into the world of self-directed education, there are several aspects of the book that are potentially challenging. Though Developing Creative Thinking Skills Through Art is the subtitle for this text, the concept of creative thinking and other critical terms (especially the elusive “creativity”) are never clearly defined. This has the effect of leaving the discerning reader questioning the concrete outcomes that would result from the curricular moves suggested in the various chapters. Additionally, the majority of authors discuss self-direction (and its synonyms) in terms of it being an untapped, bottled urge that exists within young people. Only Hathaway’s and Ilona Szekely’s chapters about art for unique student populations seem to acknowledge that too many schoolchildren have been programmed to follow lockstep directions; therefore, when given a self-directed task, they stare blankly at the materials placed before them, waiting to be told what to do. Furthermore, though it is clear that the majority of chapters are not the write-ups of empirical studies, it is problematic that large claims are made about children as though they are universal truths. Without evidence to support these claims, the reader is left questioning the reliability of many authors. Lastly, many chapters fall into two arts education traps. First, other than the occasional casual reference to other arts disciplines, the authors restrict their discussion of “art” to the visual arts—failing to give a nod to music, dance, theater, media arts, or other emerging art forms. Second, and perhaps more important, the authors restrict their discussion of creative skill building to the domain of the arts, likewise failing to give any sort of tip of the hat to other disciplines, particularly STEM subjects, where creativity and innovation are apt to be core objectives for educators.

    Despite these challenges, The Learner-Directed Classroom highlights an exciting approach to twenty-first century pedagogy that will prove important not only to how we educate in the arts classroom—but in all classrooms. While the text may seem too prescriptive for some, the step-by-step approach of many chapters may be exactly what others need. How readers choose to engage with this book in a manner that best meets their interests as teachers and learners is a choice left up to them.
    e.p.c.
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    Abstracts

    Foreword: Exploding Parameters and an Expanded Embrace
    A Proposal for the Arts in Education in the Twenty-First Century
    STEVE SEIDEL
    Editors’ Introduction
    Expanding Our Vision for the Arts in Education
    Edward P. Clapp and Laura A. Edwards
    Expanding Our “Frames” of Mind for Education and the Arts
    JENNIFER S. GROFF
    Expanding Our Vision of Museum Education and Perception
    An Analysis of Three Case Studies of Independent Blind Arts Learners
    SIMON HAYHOE
    Universal Design for Learning and the Arts
    Don Glass, Anne Meyer, and David H. Rose
    Graphica
    Comics Arts-Based Educational Research
    STEPHANIE JONES AND JAMES F. WOGLOM
    Why the Arts Don’t Do Anything
    Toward a New Vision for Cultural Production in Education
    RUBEN A. GAZTAMBIDE-FERNANDEZ
    Afterword: The Turning of the Leaves
    Expanding Our Vision for the Arts in Education
    MAXINE GREENE

    Book Notes

    The Learner-Directed Classroom
    Diane B. Jaquith and Nan E. Hathaway (Editors)

    Critical Aesthetic Pedagogy
    Yolanda Medina

    Hip Hop Genius
    Sam Seidel

    Design and Thinking
    Mu-Ming Tsai (Director)

    Changing Lives
    Tricia Tunstall

    Art Education Beyond the Classroom
    Alice Wexler (Editor)