Today’s guest post comes from Ms. Fiona Purton, who is currently pursuing a graduate degree in Policy Education Studies at the University of Alberta. She opted to hand in the following piece—a painting accompanied by a written statement—in lieu of an essay as her final assignment in one of her classes last term.
A Visual Auto-Ethnography
This leg of my journey towards self-understanding began with a single question. I had spent countless hours on my research, compiling quotation after quotation about how essential the arts are to learning and being in the world. Nothing I found surprised me; in fact, in the process of researching I experienced confirmation after confirmation. On the pages in my texts—in the accounts of experiences, observations and research, others were finding that the arts are an indispensable component of teaching and learning. Yet, no matter what I found, there was still a piece of the puzzle missing and I found myself getting increasingly frustrated. The research is there, we have the proof and it is abundantly clear: the arts are integral to teaching if we seek deep learning and students who are able to actively engage in the world, be innovative and respond to unexpected challenges and hardships.
As my frustration grew I became paralyzed. I didn’t know how to proceed with my assignment. Then came the question, “why am I so emotionally attached to my research, why am I finding the proof and research paralyzing instead of liberating?”. I let that question sit with me for a few days, and slowly, an answer took shape and rooted itself in my consciousness. I realized that I have spent much of my adult life justifying the arts as a pedagogical tool. As an academic I can argue for the use of the arts by drawing on recognized theory (Critical Pedagogy, Aboriginal Pedagogy, Multiple Intelligences, Brain-based research, etc.). As a professional educator who uses arts-based pedagogy I can speak about what I have observed in my classroom, and I can speak from experience as an elementary school student who attended a school that employed arts-based pedagogy. So why the need to justify? why the need to prove to others that this way of teaching and learning is legitimate? As I thought about this I realized that as a student, I never felt like my artistic way of learning, thinking and demonstrating my knowledge was valid or equal to ‘traditional’ learning (by ‘traditional’ I am referring to those methods where students are expected to work independently and absorb information taught to them in a logical sequential way and demonstrate their learning using the same methods; I am referring to teaching and learning that meets the needs of those students whose dominant strength is left-brained thinking). I realized I have had trouble owning my success; there is a part of me that still believes that when I use the arts (either as a student or teacher) I am somehow cheating. Finally, I realized that this mission I have undertaken is for my students and for future generations (which I knew before embarking on my current degree), but it is also because I have a need to legitimize and validate my own experience and way of engaging in the learning process.
This brings us to the painting. As I was struggling to create a coherent paper, I expressed my struggles to two classmates. They suggested that I express myself through a painting. At first I was apprehensive, I felt like somehow a painting would not be a legitimate intellectual endeavour or meet the academic standards I was expected to achieve as a graduate student. After some cajoling and encouragement I agreed they were right. If I was speaking about art-based pedagogy, I needed to also practice it. As soon as I made this decision everything became clear, the images and symbolism came together, I had a clear direction, and I knew how my assignment would take shape. When I thought in terms of a painting, I suddenly knew exactly how I could convey the tension I was experiencing. The project soon took the shape of a visual auto-ethnography.
Now I’ll explain the painting.
The mirrors represent the process of confronting myself (my biases, experiences, perceptions) and situating myself not only within this assignment but also my career as an educator and the research I am doing. As someone who will often use qualitative research in my work, it is important that I critically examine what ‘baggage’ I am bringing with me. This knowledge will help me understand the lens through which I am interpreting my data. This is the first time that I have stepped back and taken a look at how my experiences as a student are motivating and informing my research.
The landscape is divided between the foreground and background. I did this to convey my perception (as a student) that traditional learning was somehow more legitimate than learning through the arts. As a student I put traditional learning on a pedestal, on higher ground so to speak. Intellectually I now know this is not the case, but it continues to be a struggle for me. The cut-out trees on the traditional terrain are meant to show that traditional teaching in a neo-liberal economy is meant to produce productive and efficient workers who will engage in the wage economy. This type of teaching prioritizes skill and knowledge acquisition rather than self-actualization and the cultivation of individual capacity.
The large tree in the centre, combined with the birds, creates a circle. This circle represents the holistic nature of arts-based pedagogy, a pedagogy that develops the intellectual, emotional, spiritual and social well-being of a student while also promoting supportive communities within the classroom. The tree is a representation of the characteristics that arts-based pedagogy can cultivate: wisdom, strength, resilience, confidence, and respect for difference. Arts-based pedagogy also makes contextualization and meaningful connections between and across disciplines natural. Through the colours of the leaves I am locating myself in this learning. I was born in the fall and grew up where there were maple trees that turned brilliant colours each autumn. I don’t believe we can start critically examining the baggage we bring to our research until we can feel a sense of place, or belonging in a community.
The ravens taking flight symbolize the independence that can be encouraged through an arts-based pedagogy. By learning through the arts students can discover their unique capacities. They learn to rely on themselves and gain the confidence to try new things (or fly to new places). Ravens are also playful and intelligent birds; a sense of wonder, curiosity and playfulness are qualities that teachers who use arts-based pedagogy must possess.
The clasping hands represent my own experience as a student. Despite often feeling like my way of learning was not valid beyond the boundaries of my elementary school (“artsy-fartsy”, as people used to tell me) I have always had a sense of confidence, and have been able to trust myself and follow my dreams, regardless of what was going on around me. I believe that this resilience and strong sense of self can be attributed (in part) to my education in elementary school.
The dark, stormy sky is meant to convey the skepticism, apprehension, fear and pressure from standardized assessments and accountability; these are obstacles that hinder teachers from using an arts-based pedagogy.
The stars in the sky represent those risk-takers, visionaries, innovators and courageous educators who are willing to use arts-based pedagogy despite the immense pressure to conform to traditional methods. Not only are these educators giving direction to others (as stars do), they are also lights of encouragement and confirmation for students who need to be reassured that their way of learning is valid.
The variety of textures (cardboard, newspapers, glass, paper) and the layers on the painting express the complexity of the issue. Our idea about the purpose of education, the way our educational institutions are run and administered, and the way teachers are educated would all have to change if we were going to adopt arts-based pedagogy in all classrooms, in all schools. I believe this change is possible and necessary, though it will not be easy or simple.
So why does this represent a crisis in education? I believe—in fact, I would go so far as to say that I know—that all students need the arts. Yes, many can be successful without being taught through the arts, but if we want to empower our students to develop their unique capacities for the purpose of contributing to the well-being of humanity, addressing social justice and creating vibrant and true democracies then we must use the arts. When students do not feel like their epistemologies or ontologies are validated, they become disenfranchised and this often results in their marginalization; they become “troublemakers”, drop-outs, etc. When our students are oppressed in this way, how can we expect them to arise and have the desire to wholeheartedly participate in the creation of vibrant, healthy communities? The neglect of the arts in our schools is a crisis because many students’ are not being empowered, nor their learning styles validated. We (rightly) expect a tremendous amount from future generations, and so we owe it to them to provide them with what is necessary for them to self-actualize, become confident, resilient, independent and innovative thinkers who can engage in the world wholeheartedly and reach their full potential.
Thank you, Fiona Purton; you have raised the clarion call.
Ms. Purton’s own educational experience included spending her elementary years at a Waldorf school in Ottawa, Ontario. Years later, she taught junior high (grades 5–9) at the Calgary Arts Academy, a unique charter school in Alberta where the provincial curriculum is taught through arts immersion.