Northern Illinois University

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Doug Boughton
Doug Boughton

Kerry Freedman
Kerry Freedman

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News Release

Contact: Mark McGowan, NIU Office of Public Affairs
(815) 753-9472

January 31, 2006

NIU art professors invited to respond
to UNESCO recommendations for global education

DeKalb — Doug Boughton, a professor in the Northern Illinois University School of Art, is among the leaders of an upcoming global call to keep college-trained arts educators in the world's classrooms.

Boughton, president of the International Society for Education through Art (InSEA), is joining the presidents of related world organizations for music and theater in drafting an urgent response to a recent position paper released by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) that recommends art be taught by artists not educated to be teachers in the schools.

Delegates from Boughton's group will meet in Viseu, Portugal, in March at the InSEA world conference to formally finalize their response on behalf of their respective professional associations.

One week later, Boughton and his colleagues from the International Society for Music Education and the International Drama/Theatre Education Association will address UNESCO's World Arts Education Summit in nearby Lisbon, Portugal.

“Teachers are better equipped to teach arts in schools,” Boughton says. “The power of the arts educator is in assisting students to negotiate the world of visual culture. Artists tend to be people who make specific artifacts in a particular genre. They don't have the broad background to educate a child's view.”

“It's a great benefit for students that UNESCO is giving much-needed attention to creativity, but it's important that the people involved understand the changing conceptions of this concept,” says NIU School of Art Professor Kerry Freedman, who also has been invited to speak at the UNESCO summit.

“A fundamental shift in international art education has taken place in recent years, based in part on these new ideas about creativity. The shift depends on knowledge about the breadth of visual culture, such as socio-cultural contexts and developments in newer technologies, that influence the visual world,” Freedman adds. “Students need to be able to understand what it means to create something that influences their lives and the lives of other people. They also must be able to thoughtfully analyze the range of images that come into their home and that they see out in the world every day. Students create meaning from visual culture.”

The UNESCO paper advises principals to “open the school doors” to practicing artists so “the theoretical elements as taught by the teachers and professors can be experienced in a more concrete and living manner.” 

“What the artist transmits to the child or adolescent is a concrete and living relationship with a cultural activity, a knowledge and a know-how emanating from a sensitivity, long familiarity and experience,” the paper continues, “whereas school knowledge and its customary restrictions sometimes combine to undo the link between culture and feeling, knowledge and experience.”

Not everywhere, Boughton says.

Adopting such a simplistic policy might benefit schools in underdeveloped nations, he says, but elsewhere it will leaves children behind in modern thinking about teaching the arts.

The recommendation also could provide school administrators with an easy excuse to save money on salaries and benefits for art teachers by opting for artists-in-residence, Freedman says.

Boughton and Freedman, a husband-and-wife team, are the world's top advocates for a “visual culture” curriculum in schools. They first held a national meeting of art educators around their kitchen table in 2001; since then, the annual meeting has been held at four other universities in the United States and Canada and has attracted hundreds.

Going beyond the traditional creation of art projects, it enables students to critically interpret the visual culture surrounding them. Art teachers should strive to educate “critically responsive citizens in a democratic society capable of integrating with visual imagery both critically and comfortably.”

Visual culture includes drawing, painting and sculpture, but also includes television, movies, video games, toys, comic books, clothing, housing, furniture, advertising and, of course, the Internet.

“The model is one that moves away from exclusive focus on the fine arts, broadening the focus on the arts in everyday life,” Freedman says. “Images seduce people. It's why so many people spend so much time watching TV.”

“Kids now are situated in imagery, and in the past they haven't been taught how to read it carefully. Only art teachers are equipped to do that,” Boughton adds. “Kids learn when they are interested in the content, and the popular culture kids are bombarded with and pursue is what interests them.”

It also helps students to understand that not all art deserves automatic or unconditional approval, he says. For example, he says, some works of art are racist or sexist; an analytical eye can tell.

The research on a visual culture curriculum is ongoing and building, Freedman says.

“Whenever we work in schools, which is almost every week, we look at curriculum with a researcher's eye,” she says. “We work with a lot of teachers who are doing a good job of teaching visual culture and report that their students are much more excited about the new curriculum. The students are more invested it, and they're taking greater ownership of their work.”

Meanwhile, Boughton is in the first phase of preparing the response as he solicits and collects opinions and ideas from his group's members across the planet.

Despite his opposition to some elements of the UNESCO position, he appreciates the organization's support of the arts in education and the fact that people are talking about art education. “It's not a bad paper, but there are concerning elements,” he says. “It will hopefully progress the debate internationally.”

“It's not that we don't welcome visiting artists. But one of the important criteria for a quality art education is that the people who work with children must have a broad background in educational practice. Most artists don't have great deal of knowledge about child development, instructional methods and curriculum,” Freedman adds. “We would support many kinds of guests to come into the art classroom, particularly if the idea of guest artists is defined broadly: not only in terms of fine art, but also in terms of popular visual culture.”

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