Re-sketching pedagogy, one page at a time

How art textbooks have evolved in Singapore

Two art textbooks I’m reviewing: Art Starts: Art Design for Upper Secondary (1999) (C) and Artworks: Art for Upper Secondary (2006) (L)

My pet project of 2012 (more of that later) has been pushing me into the direction of researching about Singapore’s art education system. What are students learning today? How has the art curriculum changed since I was a student back in the early 2000s? Why are there changes? Will art for the masses truly be less of a miracle?  I was curious to find out.

I made some discoveries after a brief study comparing art textbooks used for Secondary level students (from the age of 12-16) over the past 7-10 years. The books that I will be reviewing are (right to left): Artworks: Art for Upper Secondary (2006), Art starts: Art & Design for Upper Secondary (1999) and Eye for Art: Visual Arts for Secondary One (2007).

Their similarities and differences not only reflect profound changes in the focus of art pedagogy in Singapore but also symbolic of paradigmatic shifts in the State’s emphasis and value on nurturing visual arts.

According to the 2011 budget allocation, Singapore is significantly increasing government spending on arts and culture. Over the next five years, the average annual programme spending will be about $365 million, an increase of more than 50% over the current level. This commitment towards increasing arts expenditure can be considered surprising, considering the current trend of budget cuts in Europe for the arts as a result of the eurozone  debt crisis.

First, let’s take a brief look at the structure of art education in Singapore. Art is offered as a compulsory subject at the primary level from grade 1 to 6 (age 7 to 12), but it is non-examinable. When it reaches to Secondary level, there are two possibilities. One, students who belong to  schools that offer the Art Elective Programme (AEP), which is basically a much more advanced and rigorous art curriculum, can choose to sign up for the four-year programme.  The second case happens for students of non AEP schools, who study art till the end of Secondary 2 when streaming takes place and they have a choice to discontinue with Art. Most do, crying “good riddance” with a celebratory sprinkling of confetti, to concentrate on subjects – Math and Science- perceived to matter more to their future, at least their future careers in Singapore. There are currently five Secondary schools and 3 Junior Colleges offering the programme, where admission is based on portfolio and interviews.

A section on identifying the elements of art (form, colour, line, shape etc)

A quick flip through the book Artworks: Art for Upper Secondary and one immediately gets the sense that the publication is very text intensive and meaty in information. The front sections which start with foundational art studies and visual literacy reads like a history text book – in other words,  a likely chore for most students. It’s a real pity, because the information has quality. Perhaps a better approach would be to whittle down to the basic points and then putting more emphasis on show and tell through examples, when the lessons are conducted?  But then again, students who still continue with Art in Upper Secondary (discounting those who were driven to taking it up in desperation) should have a genuine interest for the subject, so the book could afford to go more heavy with words. I actually wonder if students would be tested on these theoretical material, and if so, it might just become another sad case of minimal enjoyment and rote memorizing of facts for students.

The content page — comprehensive content at one glance

The next thing I noticed was the neat and organized flow of information. It starts with introducing the elements of art and design, then methods of coming up with ideas, information gathering, and finally developing and executing these ideas. One interesting element in the content is the case studies showing story boards of other students’ works. These offer valuable insights into how other students illustrate their thought processes and document them, and in the context of our grading system, detailed storyboards will also reflect well on the final evaluation of the artwork.

Showcasing examples from other students’ storyboards for the final coursework

There is also a noticeable attempt to insert important works in art history into the content. This is something that is negligible in my Secondary school days of studying art. As compared to the past when a student not in AEP would have no idea who is Montien Boonma or Dorothea Lange, it’s a gratifying feeling to know students now are gaining exposure to notable art figures much earlier. Yet these seem to exist more as vehicles to exemplify themes or techniques rather than an exploration of their backgrounds – the contexts around the creation of the works and the significance of them in history. I hazard a wild guess that students might come out of this being very good with name dropping but lacking a profound understanding behind the historic value of these works.

To conclude, there are many strengths of this textbook, especially the breadth and depth of its content. But there’s also a nagging sense of a sizable lack of spontaneity. It seems like too much is being spoon fed to students, as though there is a specific formula given to them for success. Information is presented so nicely to them on a silver platter, while in time, I had to copy and write my own notes. All these hand holding – is this the right kind of approach to art? Arguably, there are merits in such a pedagogy – it is very systematic and comprehensive. And most importantly, it is a major shift from the technique and skill-based approach from the past. But the presentation of information might feel rather uninventive.

The showcase of “model” storyboards is also evidence that the book is geared towards a grades-oriented end result, to help students produce a coursework that would score them As, rather than encouraging them to experiment and take on daring ideas.

My personal view on a successful art education is providing just sufficient information (or hooks) to spark some curiosity and interest in students to take on further learning and research independently on their own. They should be motivated to try solving problems with art. At least that was what worked for me. I found the best type of learning was self-directed learning, where I had a hunger to excavate knowledge. Those were the lessons which stuck with me, not those that I had to memorize for an examination.

Next post: Read more about my review for an older art textbook published in the late 90s, and how it compares with the newer edition.


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