Adult Learning in and through the Arts. ERIC Digest.
by Kerka, Sandra
It has become increasingly clear that millions of contemporary adults...have
grown up with little or no grounding in the arts, and do not even consider
participating in an artistic discipline or attending an arts event when
choosing among their leisure and entertainment options (McDaniel and Thorn
1997, p. 6). The focus of much contemporary research and policy in arts
education is on the K-12 level. However, arts learning experiences also
benefit adults. Lifelong learning in the arts is a broad subject that may
be viewed from many perspectives. This Digest discusses adult learning
in the arts and addresses current issues in adult arts education.
ADULT ARTS LEARNING: SOME EXAMPLES
The motivations and objectives of both providers and participants in
adult arts learning are diverse. Adult educators seeking to foster transformative
learning invoke the role of imagination in developing new perspectives;
they view the arts as a way of engaging adults in imaginative exploration
of themselves and their relationship to the world (Dirkx 2000; Kazemek
and Rigg 1997). In adult literacy education, analysis of paintings and
poems can be a means of developing visual and linguistic acuity, critical
thinking, and aesthetic judgment (Dreybus 2000; Kazemek and Rigg 1997).
Greene (in Elias, Jones, and Normie 1995) speaks of aesthetic education
as a form of critical literacy to empower people to read and name their
For prison inmates, the arts can be a route to reconnecting with learning,
developing interpersonal and reasoning skills, and exploring different
value systems. For example, drama workshops in a prison literacy program
draw on learners' experiences, involving them in role playing to reinforce
literacy practices and helping them reinterpret their experiences metaphorically
(Kett 2001). Another approach to the arts as experiential learning is the
Duke University business school's Leadership and the Arts course (Alburty
1999). The program equates leaders and artists in that both know how to
coach, encourage, take risks, innovate, inspire, and express a vision;
both use the capacities of emotional observation and critical judgment.
Intergenerational arts projects foster the development of communication
and reflection skills and formation of new perspectives about oneself and
others. Apol and Kambour (1999) used dance and writing with elders and
adolescents to engage both verbal and nonverbal ways of knowing and help
them express "the complex physical, social, and psychological issues in
their lives" (p. 107). Such therapeutic benefits of creative activity are
often an important motivation for arts participation. In Bardsley and Soskice's
(1998) survey, one-third of adult arts learners sought job-related skills,
but the majority were motivated by increased confidence, maintenance of
physical and mental abilities, and recovery from loss or illness. Similarly,
in a music appreciation course, two-thirds of adult participants cited
therapeutic motivations such as coping with stress (Buell in Jones, McConnell,
and Normie 1996).
These examples involve different providers: adult educators (Dirkx,
Dreybus, Kazemek and Rigg), artists/arts educators working with adults
(Apol and Kambour, Buell), and educators using the arts in other subject
areas (Alburty). In addition, a great deal of adult arts learning takes
place formally and informally in museums, parks, galleries, theatres, and
similar venues, organizations that may not view their role as primarily
educative (Chadwick and Stannett 2000). With many different providers,
there are multiple, sometimes competing, purposes for adult arts education.
Is it to develop the individual, to maintain the dominant culture, or to
change the culture (Elias et al. 1995)? Is it to develop appreciative audiences
or creative practitioners (McDaniel and Thorn 1997)? To liberate creativity
or to develop technical skills (Milton in Elias et al. 1995)? Is art the
means or a goal in itself; that is, are the arts used for instrumental
purposes such as critical thinking, literacy, therapy, or other outcomes
often used to justify arts education, or does arts learning have intrinsic
value (Maguire in Jones et al. 1996)? All of these purposes may have value,
if the programs based on them match the goals and motivations of learners.
ISSUES IN ADULT ARTS EDUCATION
These multiple purposes raise certain issues for providers. First, what
counts as art and who decides? The concept of "High Art" has perpetuated
an image of the arts as limited to the art forms and aesthetic values of
an elite. Folk art, popular culture, and the like do not meet the standards
of the dominant value system (Jones 2000). For many, creative activity
ceases after childhood, as "social values, cultural attitudes, and educational
practices contribute to a loss of art making experience over a life time"
(Jongeward in Jones et al. 1996, p. 116). Mullen's interviews with "ordinary
Canadians" (in Elias et al. 1995) acknowledged participants as active members
of their culture, creating and transmitting cultural knowledge, yet they
often expressed "a sense of inferiority or inadequacy in relation to definitions
of 'art' and 'artist'" (p. 254). Maguire (in Jones et al. 1995) argues
that too often the art work of people with disabilities is viewed merely
as therapy instead of having inherent value.
On the other hand, the Adult Arts Education Project began with the assumptions
that every person is endowed with creative impulses and that the arts can
play an integral role in everyone's life (McDaniel and Thorn 1997). Defined
more broadly, the arts are a means of organizing and making meaning of
experience (Lomas 1998); they are "languages for the communication of new
ideas" (Milton in Elias et al. 1995, p. 75). To Nolan (in Jones et al.
1996), the function of art is "to destabilize fixed ideas and existing
identities; to help us find a new way of seeing, of hearing, of thinking,
of feeling.... And to find from those experiences new ways of experiencing
our communities, our neighbors, our society" (p. 48).
Based on these definitions, a second issue is what are the goals of
adult arts education? Adult educators have challenged the limitation of
education in the arts to induction into a canon of great art works (Jones
1999). Arts education can help foster identification of and appreciation
for cultural heritage (ibid.). However, cultural institutions such as museums
can sometimes serve as purveyors of "official" knowledge and culture (Chadwick
and Stannett 2000). Rather than a one-way transfer of this knowledge, arts
education can play a more dynamic role in developing adults' abilities
to analyze, interpret, and produce cultural knowledge (ibid.). For example,
adult learners can question dominant cultural representations in museums,
asking what is suppressed/forgotten, in whose interest has the selection
been made, and whose voices and cultural preferences are portrayed (ibid.).
These activities reflect the social change purposes of adult education.
However, learners may have more instrumental goals--such as the acquisition
of technical skills and experience to become professional practitioners
or teachers (Milton in Elias et al. 1995)--that may clash with providers'
goals. Brown and Brownhill (1998), for example, questioned the purpose
of art history in a part-time adult degree program: for art appreciation,
development of aesthetic judgment, or acquisition of skills? They shaped
a course in which art is first contextualized (its time, place, reason
for creation, creators, medium), then adults bring their experience to
bear on it. The intent was not to produce expert art historians but to
develop visual and interpretive skills, which are transferable to a critical
viewing of the world.
A third issue is how should learning in the arts be assessed? According
to Jones (2000), assessment in adult visual art classes typically involves
an exhibition or portfolio and uses subjective and aesthetic criteria,
ignoring the learning that has taken place. Jones also notes that values
and standards in the arts change over time. He proposes a model of creative
activity in which learners' work is compared to expected learning outcomes
such as the development of visual perception, the ability to exploit potential
of the medium, involvement in the creative process, and acquisition of
relevant knowledge. The focus shifts from outcomes based on content to
developmental processes. Using Milton's (in Elias et al. 1995) definition
of the arts as languages, the emphasis of assessment "is placed upon the
understanding of social and communicative processes ... on the social functions
of the artistic language used, rather than on its grammar and vocabulary"
COMMUNITY ARTS AND ADULT LEARNING
Community arts is an approach that illustrates the issues of what art
is, what the purposes of arts education are, and how arts learning should
be assessed. Community arts are focused on the production of art as the
expression of community culture, not as a commodity (Williams 2000). Collaborative
artistic production is a powerful vehicle for experiential learning and
appreciation of other value systems. Community arts have been used by adult,
feminist, and popular educators (Clover 2000) and community development
and social work practitioners (Williams 2000). They have both instrumental
and intrinsic purposes. For example, a Toronto project engaged women in
photographic explorations of violence and poverty and the creation of both
individual and collective artistic products (Clover 2001). Because art
had been viewed "as something that is done only by naturally born talents
or those highly trained," the women were empowered by seeing the artistic
process as accessible and possible (ibid., p. 5). Community arts projects
can also be therapeutic [e.g., a project in which feminist artist-educators
used women's crafts as artistic expressions to overcome feelings of isolation
and create a sense of community (Clover 2001)] and transformative [e.g.,
in an environmental adult education project, community members created
paintings on Toronto garbage trucks to raise awareness of garbage and the
process of waste removal (Clover 2000)].
Community arts address the issue of what counts as art. Lomas (1998)
charges that community art is devalued because established traditions,
theories, and control of taste, aesthetics, and interpretive skills are
in the province of "High Art." She notes that funders more often support
arts teaching via technique (content, form, adaptive behavior) rather than
authentic experience. Williams (2000) discusses the need to acknowledge
community art as an important catalyst for cultural development and outlines
suggested outcomes for evaluating the impact of community arts programs,
with indicators for each: building social capital, effecting social change,
contributing to economic development, recognizing diversity, and defining
Humans are impelled to interpret and make meaning of experiences. Moreover,
"adults will eagerly engage in learning and growing and will participate
when meaningful opportunities and conditions are presented" (McDaniel and
Thorn 1997, pp. 67-68). Adults may find a rich source of meaningful learning
opportunities in and through the arts. Education in the arts includes activities
whose primary purpose is to encourage people to engage with the arts as
creators, participants, or appreciators (Jones 1999). Education through
the arts involves activities that use the arts to achieve ends that are
tangential to the arts (ibid.), developing new ways of seeing, knowing,
and experiencing. "The different spaces in which these activities take
place embody different value systems. Maybe it is time to reconsider what
we mean by the arts and by creativity" (p. 7).
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