Teaching with Contemporary Art

The Right Questions


I was reminded today that good teaching involves taking more time to create high quality questions for our students to explore than it does planning the necessary steps to carry out units and lessons themselves. The essential questions that guide discussion and encourage exploration need to be big enough, but not too daunting, for those we are working with. They need to be phrased in language the whole class understands and not dressed up to initiate the answers we might expect (or secretly want). The questions need to leave room for multiple perspectives and the teacher needs to be prepared for surprises. Contemporary art teaches this. It should also guide our work in the classroom.

Pictured above: Laylah Ali, Untitled 2004. Gouache on paper, 8 13/16 x 10 15/16 inches. Courtesy 303 Gallery, New York


  1. Jay Heuman says:

    Along this same vein, I enjoy the role of facilitator rather than aurhotity when discussing artists and artworks. [Note: I’m a huge fan of Socratic dialogue and Visual Thinking Strategies.] This approach presumes no special knowledge from participants and no “rights” or “wrongs”; instead, it’s about sharing and respecting personal observations and associations that may (or may not) link with others’ perspectives. Isn’t education about building a wide web of possibilities and encouraging research, rather than funneling all knowledge toward one predetermined goal?

  2. Amy P. says:

    I think this is a very important point, Joe. And, one that probably needs to be revisted everytime a lesson is taught. Students are very capable of developing a personal perspective. If we can faciliate a valuable discussion from the get-go, their critical thinking skills will flourish. Thanks for the reminder!

  3. Joe Fusaro says:

    I am so glad you brought this up. Socratic Seminar and the incorporation of dialogue (vs. discussion) has also made a huge difference in my teaching. Studying with Nancy Letts and making this approach part of how students not only look INTO art, but how they respond to each other, is crucial. The web we build doing so sustains multiple perspectives.

  4. Joe Fusaro says:

    Valuable dialogue and a variety of possibilities… good visual examples that show a range… all important considerations. Thanks to Amy and Jay for their comments so far!

  5. Jay Heuman says:

    I come by my ‘educational facilitator’ personality honestly, from my darling parents who were both teachers and always insisted, during my growing up, that the ultimate goal ought not to be teaching information, but teaching how to access information and — once found — what to do with that information … analyze, compare and contrast, put in context, link with related information, etc.

    To ‘yak at’ a bunch of students is unlikely to inspire much beyond disinterest; hence my dissatisfaction with traditional “guided tours.” We must admit we do not know everything and just because we know specific information about specific artworks … is that all everyone should know about that artwork? Will everyone appreciate one interpretation, feel it’s relevant in their lives? I doubt it.

    I prefer seeing faces perk up when I declare, “I supposedly know a lot about this artist/artwork but let’s start by talking about what you see!” Asking open-ended questions, encouraging sincere comments grounded in real visual evidence, and celebrating the organic nature of dialogue that embraces diverse perspectives. Anyone who can see and articulate even the simplest perceptions can have an ah-ha moment when looking at artwork during such group dialogue. And, to satisfy the academic art historian in me, I can toss in appropriate terminology or interesting “factoids” at appropriate moments … but only to keep the momentum going.

    Truthfully, it’s harder to ‘manage’ this kind of multi-dimensional dialogue; but it’s more rewarding for all participants … perhaps the most rewarding for the facilitator!?

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