"Man's main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain but rather to see a meaning in his life."
~ Viktor Frankl
Teaching Philosophy Empathy and Authenticity: The Role of Art Education
I believe that knowledge exists as but a means to develop empathy and purpose. That is, an educator who focuses on mere instruction fails to foster any lasting impact among students. With this conviction, I emphasize that my students actively construct meaning through relating art to their surrounding world, interpreting others' intentions behind creation, and developing personal artworks to relay their own experiences.
The model of authentic instruction lies at the core of my convictions about art in the classroom. According to Tom Anderson and Melody K. Milbrandt, authors of Art for Life, authentic instruction emphasizes learning as an active construction of meaning, "rather than a passive acceptance and memorization of others' meanings, based on their authority" (Anderson & Milbrandt, 2005). That is, through authentic instruction, both interpreting and creating art compels students to rely on personal experiences as they synthesize, analyze, and evaluate information. In connecting art to a real-world context, this approach engages both students' intellects and their emotional investments in their learning.
During her time at Miami University as our 2015 Distinguished Lecturer in Art Education, Dr. Renee Sandell similarly encouraged the active, authentic construction of meaning as a central component to successful art education. As the designer of the Form+Theme+Context approach, Sandell advocates both the encoding of personal meaning through creative expression and the decoding of others' meaning through critical response. Indeed, while at Miami, Dr. Sandell cited Daniel Pink's bestselling book, A Whole New Mind, as holding particular influence on this understanding. As I continue to explore both Sandell and Pink's work, I find their emphasis on empathy and meaning especially pertinent to my own interests in authentic instruction.
In his A Whole New Mind, Pink describes empathy as "a universal language that connects us beyond country or culture," going on to assert, "Empathy makes us human. Empathy brings joy... Empathy is an essential part of living a life of meaning" (Pink, 2005). As Dr. Sandell also espouses, perhaps no subject better instills empathy–and the ensuing meaning and purpose–within a child's life than art. That is, not only does art compel students to discover the context behind historical works but to also explore the creations of their peers and relay their own identities. Art serves as a mode of visual conversation, in which students acquire deep comprehension about others while also communicating their own understandings and experiences.
If empathy is humanity's universal language, then the search for meaning is our motivation to speak. Indeed, Pink describes the quest for meaning as "our fundamental drive, the motivational engine that powers human existence" (Pink, 2005). My fundamental aim as an art educator is to foster this collective search for purpose, encouraging individual and communal discovery through empathy–our universal language–as students interpret, share, and create art. Following this aspiration, I strive to align every component of my instruction to the unfailing reality of human worth, the importance of social responsiveness, and the uniqueness of individual experiences. Ultimately, I seek to teach with authenticity, empathy, and compassion as I encourage students to cultivate their own sense of meaning.
First grade students completing a collaborative artwork about Pablo Picasso's "Bouquet of Peace." Students discussed how they could promote peace, kindness, and compassion around their school.
First grade students showing off masks inspired by the Masai tribe. We sent this photo to my friend who lives in Kenya while she recovered from surgery. We called this lesson "Making Friends Around the World."
Resources: Anderson, T., and Milbrandt, M.K. (2005). Art for Life. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill
Pink, D. (2006). A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers will Rule the Future. New York, NY: Riverhead.
Sandell, R. (2016, April 5). 2015 Autobiographical Lecture. Lecture presented at The John A. And Betty J. Michael Autobiographical Lecture Series in Art Education at The Miami University Art Museum, Oxford.