AT the Van Deene Avenue Elementary School here, kindergartners are learning about Russian-born, expressionist painter Wassily Kandinsky. One of the modern master's famous paintings of cubes, squares, and triangles is being projected on a screen while Thomas Brinker, age 6, points out the different shapes. The teacher has the kindergartners repeating words such as ``symmetry'' and ``abstraction.'' Across the playground, in a fifth-grade classroom, a teacher has just finished a filmstrip on Henri Matisse's ``Jazz Period.'' ``What did we learn here today?'' she asks.
``That not everyone sees or depicts the world in the same way,'' says one boy.
This school and these classes are prototypes for what the Getty Center for Arts Education hopes will one day be the norm in schools across the country. They call the idea Discipline-Based Arts Education, DBAE for short. Its premise is that arts education should consist of more than just production - learning how to cut, paste, paint, sculpt, etc. It should also include the study of aesthetics, art history, and criticism.
``Artists speak to us in a language that carries meaning that cannot be conveyed through words,'' says Elliot W. Eisner, professor of education and art at Stanford University. ``Will our children be able to understand what they have to say? Even more, will they know their messages exist?'' he asks. To teach less is to seriously deprive America and its citizenry of fundamental skills in perception, creativity, comprehension, and judgment, says a spokesman for the Getty Center. Understanding art, separate from the ability to produce it, not only broadens an individual's intellectual and emotional life, it also enriches and enlivens the possibilities for an entire culture across many fields of endeavor.
In many communities, this kind of arts education is missing. ``But we are out to change that from grades K-12 in every state,'' says Leilani Duke, director of the center. In the late 1970s, staff members from the center - one of eight entities developed and run by the trust of billionaire J.Paul Getty - spent a year in schools across the country looking at the quality of arts education.
``We read the literature, talked to teachers, administrators, and scholars,'' says Ms. Duke. ``We kept hearing that arts education in this country is considered an ornament, a frill, a recreation - a therapy. It's nice if you can afford it, people said, but it doesn't really convey content and knowledge the way math, history, and English do.''
To develop a curriculum that would help spur prototype programs of their own, the staff looked around the country for schools whose approaches to art resembled what they were after. Case studies of nine such systems led to this conclusion: A fourfold, discipline-based arts education is viable; but until the public perception of art changes from ``frill'' to ``essential,'' battles will rage over spending instructional time and school budgets on it.
Four years ago, the center decided to take on that public perception in a big way. A ``theoretical'' project arm commissioned papers and symposia. An ``advocacy'' arm aimed findings at teachers, parents, superintendents, school boards, and arts administrators. National conferences, and such projects as TV programming for children, have stirred interest and raised consciousness.
The center not only looked at what art teachers teach but also at what they are taught in college. And it developed a model curriculum with the aid of art scholars and teaching experts. For four years, the staff has been working with 21 school districts in Los Angeles county. Teachers are trained during intensive, three-week summer seminars that include workshops, visits to area museums, and talks with art scholars and historians. Those same teachers, in turn, are responsible for starting in-service training for other teachers at their schools. The center pays the administrative costs of the seminars for the first two years of the five-year plan. The programs have led to a regional grants program for museums and schools in Oregon, Utah, and Minnesota.
``These past four years have given us the assurance that this approach to arts education is not only one that is applicable in the classroom, but also seems to be embraced and endorsed by more and more people,'' says Duke. She cites a recent college board report on academic preparation, new initiatives by the National Endowment for the Arts, and support from Education secretary William Bennett. Nineteen campuses of the California State University system now require a year of art training for admission, she adds.
The Getty Center's DBAE model and other model curricula are being debated in Boston this week as part of a conference of the National Arts Education Association. ``Many aspects of this multi-discipline approach to arts education have existed in the literature for many years,'' says executive director Thomas Hatfield. ``We're asking questions about continuity, needed expertise, and curriculum focus.'' He says NAEA goals call for certified arts specialists, not necessarily the model for teachers now being used by the Getty Center. ``We're not sure there's one way of achieving the goal, or one easy curriculum,'' Dr. Hatfield says.
At a recent meeting of project administrators from the 21 Los Angeles school districts, near unanimous enthusiasm was voiced. ``The districts and our own evaluators are reporting such a solid commitment to implementing DBAE that it has become part of their basic curriculum,'' says W.Dwaine Greer, director of the Getty Institute for Educators in the Visual Arts, a subgroup of the center. ``They're telling us they will never return to the way they taught arts before, even if the Getty were to withdraw its support.''
The four principles of Discipline-Based Arts Education
Here is the argument in favor of the fourfold Discipline-Based Arts Education, as set out in a paper by Dr. Elliot W. Eisner, professor of education and art at Stanford University:
Art production: The making of visual art provides opportunities not only to experience the pleasures and frustrations of creation, but also to practice and develop a valuable array of our most complex cognitive skills.
Criticism: DBAE expands our perceptual habits and teaches us how to look that we may see more. The result is that children develop both the attitudes and the skills to experience, analyze, interpret, and describe the expressive qualities of visual form.
History and Culture: All art is part of culture. The austerity of a Shaker chair or table is a reflection of the religious convictions of the Shakers and how they thought life should be lived.... The aggressive force and movement of futuristic artists in early 20th century Italy reflect powerful ideological beliefs about what Italian society should become.
Aesthetics: DBAE is interested in encouraging students to join in the continuing conversation about the nature and meaning of art in life.