Teaching Children the Language of Beauty

Abigail Housen’s theory of aesthetic development as a guide to our presentation of art for young audiences
1. How can we actively teach children to experience and develop their understanding of the aesthetic?

Being able to describe our aesthetic encounters is an essential way for us to explore and enrich our experiences with the arts. This is especially important for children who are entering the world of art for the first time.

How many fine arts organizations present quality works of art for children and simply hope for the best? We would like to believe that mere exposure to the arts will enrich the lives of children, but how can we actively teach children to experience and develop their understanding of the aesthetic? To achieve this, we need to understand the nature of art and aesthetics, as well as the developmental processes that affect children.

Anyone who works with young audiences has their own background, practical experience and opinion about ”what works”. Arts researchers also have their own experience in the field. The difference is that research is systematically conducted over a period of time – and challenged in relation to method and effect. It is important that we use relevant research to analyze, understand, and challenge best practice in the young audience field.

Photo credit to Lars Opstad

2. The Study of Development

Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget was one of the most important developmental theorists of the 20th century. Piaget began intensive studies of children’s reasoning processes in the 1920s. These studies led to his explorations of the nature of intelligence. Piaget and his collaborators repeatedly found that children could only be taught concepts that they were already on the verge of understanding. They noted the relation of learner “readiness” to teaching and learning. A child cannot learn the cognitive concepts of a later stage until ready. At each new stage the cognitive strategies of the previous stage/s are integrated.

Piaget's theory is useful in conceptualizing how children come to think as they do, but provides a limited explanation of how cultural and contextual differences influence the process. The research of Lev Vygotsky is better known for exploring these differences. Both Piaget and Vygotsky emphasized the importance of the child's interaction with the external world in the construction of meaning. While Piaget largely focused on the intellectual growth of the individual, Vygotsky put more emphasis on the contribution of other people in the child’s environment to that growth. 

In Vygotsky’s theory, the creation of meaning begins with the child's interaction with the primary people in his/her life, most frequently parents and teachers. Vygotsky identified these persons as the carriers of a culture's symbolic systems. The act of learning requires that the learner engage with these people in facilitated interactions. These interactions or social processes are first observed, but not necessarily fully understood or accepted. Eventually these processes are internalized such that they become a part of the learner’s strategies. Vygotsky called these learned social elements psychological tools.

Vygotsky’s focus on language as an essential tool in thinking and understanding, gives insight into the ways in which children develop through language. He observed that children routinely talk themselves through the process of solving a problem that is new to them. This observation led to another of Vygotsky’s main beliefs: the importance of words. Spoken language is one of the first sets of symbols learned by an individual. We think with words, and as our language and vocabulary develop, so does the complexity and range of our thinking and learning.  This might be especially true for abstract problems that a child must visualize conceptually, or actions which the child is able to verbally describe, but is not able to perform. Later in a child’s development, a significant change in a child’s capacity to use language occurs when the child attains the ability of metacognition (the ability to think about thinking), and can use language for internal processes instead of (or in addition to) posing questions to the outside world.

A third central concept of Vygotsky’s is that learning typically occurs when a task is both within the range of an individual’s existing capabilities (a view that concurs with Piaget’s findings) and involves the support or assistance of an adult or competent peer. Children can independently complete tasks and solve problems within their scope of ability, and they can also solve more difficult problem with the assistance of a facilitator/teacher (as long as the solution is within their developmental range). If it is too difficult, they cannot master the task even with assistance. If the attainable task is repeatedly presented to the child, with decreasing levels of support and increasing demands on the child’s own resources, the child develops the capacity to move from dependency to self-direction. Vygotsky called the distance between a child’s actual developmental level (as exhibited through independent problem-solving) and the child’s potential developmental level (as exhibited through problem-solving with a helper) the zone of proximal development.

3. Aestethic development: Housens' model

Developmental stage theory provides a framework to explain the way a person constructs an understanding in many areas, such as science, language, ethics, or aesthetics. In the mid-1970s, Abigail Housen attempted to understand how varying degrees of exposure to viewing works of art affected people’s viewing experiences. Her work in aesthetic development was based on the same empirical approach that had guided both Piaget and Vygotsky. She looked for observable patterns and behaviors, and drew conclusions from her observations. Housen used unobtrusive measures that left the study subjects free to behave naturally. Unlike many theorists in arts education, she did not begin with a hypothesis that she then tried to prove. This sets Housen’s theory apart from many other prevalent theories on learning in the arts.

Housen closely observed the movements of viewers in a museum gallery. She noticed that some moved quickly from work to work, and others stopped selectively in front of fewer works and looked at each one at length. Some viewers read all the labels on the wall; others read none. From watching many people in different museums, she gradually saw that there were discernible patterns, and groups of people who generally conformed to each. However, these patterns represented only outward behavior, and Housen realized that what she really wanted to know was what was going on inside the heads of these different sorts of viewers—their patterns of thought as they encountered a work of art. For this she needed to develop a unique method of study. 

Taking her point of departure from Vygotsky’s views on the inseparable relationship between thinking and language, Housen spent most of the 1970s and 1980s developing a reliable method of studying people’s aesthetic thought through their speech. She wanted a method that allowed her subjects to speak freely, candidly, naturally and without influence from her presence. During that time, she listened to people of all backgrounds and ages as they looked at and talked about works of art. 

Housen states: “When viewers of visual art talk—in a stream-of-consciousness monologue—about an image, and every idea, association, pause, and observation is transcribed and analyzed, the different stages of aesthetic development become apparent. Each aesthetic stage is characterized by a knowable set of interrelated attributes. Each stage has its own particular, even idiosyncratic, way of making sense of the image."

This underscores the importance of the use of language to explore aesthetic experiences. Adults usually feel that it is important to teach or explain art to children, but Housen’s research stresses the importance of talking with children about art, or simply listening to, and guiding children’s attempts to describe their art experiences.

4. Housen's stages of aesthetic development

Housen has identified five distinct patterns of thinking that correlate to the amount of exposure subjects have had to art. These five patterns are described as the following aesthetic stages: 

Stage I — Accountive viewers are storytellers. Using their senses, memories, and personal associations, they make concrete observations about the work of art which get woven into a narrative. In stage I, judgments are based on what is known and what is liked. Emotions color viewer’s comments, as they seem to enter the work of art and become part of the unfolding narrative. 

Stage II — Constructive viewers set about building a framework for looking at works of art, using the most logical and accessible tools: their own perceptions, their knowledge of the natural world, and the values of their social, moral and conventional world. If the work does not look the way it is “supposed to”—if craft, skill, technique, hard work, utility, and function are not evident, or if the subjects seem inappropriate— then this viewer judges the work to be “weird,” lacking, and of no value. The viewer’s sense of what is realistic is a standard often applied to determine value. As emotional relevance weakens, the viewer begins to distance him or herself from the work of art. 

Stage III — Classifying viewers adopt the analytical and critical stance of the art historian. They want to identify the work as to place, school, style, time and provenance. They decode the work using their library of facts and figures that they are ready and eager to expand. This viewer believes that properly categorized, the work of art’s meaning and message can be explained and rationalized.

Stage IV— Interpretive viewers seek a personal encounter with a work of art. Exploring the canvas, letting the meaning of the work slowly unfold, they appreciate the subtleties of line and shape and color. Now, critical skills are put in the service of feelings and intuitions as these viewers let underlying meanings of the work—what it symbolizes—emerge. Each new encounter with a work of art presents a chance for new comparisons, insights, and experiences. Knowing that the work of art’s identity and value are subject to reinterpretation, these viewers see their own processes subject to chance and change.

Stage V — Re-creative viewers, having established a long history of viewing and reflecting about works of art, now “willingly suspend disbelief.” A familiar painting is like an old friend who is known intimately, yet full of surprise, deserving attention on a daily level but also existing on an elevated plane. As in all-important friendships, time is a key ingredient, allowing Stage V viewers to know the ecology of a work—its time, its history, its questions, its travels, its intricacies. Drawing on his/her own history with one work in particular, and with viewing in general, this viewer combines personal contemplation with views that broadly encompass universal concerns. Here, memory infuses the landscape of the painting, intricately combining the personal and the universal.

5. So now our goal is to get all children to stage five. Right?

Significant to understanding aesthetic development is that while growth is related to age, it is not determined by it; in other words, a person of any age with no experience with art will be in Stage I. An adult will not be at a higher stage than a child simply by virtue of age. One consequence of this is that a teacher and her students might quite possibly share the same stage of aesthetic development. Exposure to art over time is the only way to develop, and without both art and time, aesthetic development doesn’t occur. 

As with all stage theorists, Housen is clear that all of the above stages are equally important. Though they occur in sequence, no stage is "better" than another. Intelligence and creative thought are exercised at each stage. Stages are “modes of operation” or of problem-solving strategies. It is important to note that an aesthetic stage is fundamentally characterized by ways of thinking about aesthetic objects. Each thoughtful encounter with a work of art adds to a viewer's strategies for making meaning of subsequently encountered aesthetic objects. 

Like all developmental change, movement through aesthetic stages must occur naturally. A teacher must offer strategies fitting to the stage of the viewer: developmentally inappropriate concepts will not be internalized as learning. This is confusing, because students can be “taught” stage-inappropriate information, and it can be memorized and retained for the short-term (and perhaps even recalled with prompting). Housen’s studies have shown that teaching anything but what the students are on the verge of learning or what is within their “zone of proximal development” will not become operational to the student. Just as indicated by Piaget and Vygotsky, behaviors that are not part of a natural arc or not relevant to a student’s needs will not show up in unprompted, independent behavior.

6. The beginner's view point

Most viewers (and certainly most children) are at Stages I and II. The Stage I viewer makes random observations that are concrete and obvious. This viewer also relies on personal, idiosyncratic observations that are unlikely to be made by anyone else (“It looks like my aunt’s house”). The Stage I viewer's style is generally characterized by an egocentric perspective. Judgments of images and objects are based on whether or not the work lives up to personal associations and standards. 

The Stage II viewer is engaged in building a framework for looking at objects by relying on readily available information. This information is not art historical in content, but consists largely of the standards of the "real world." In addition to a wide range of general descriptions, the Stage II viewer relies on descriptions which are based either on the viewer's concept of "reality" informed by personal criteria or by the viewer's concept of "reality" informed by photographic or idealized criteria (“That doesn’t look like a horse to me”). 

A significant finding of Housen’s research is that the majority of adult museumgoers fit within these two first stages. They might thus be called beginner viewers, something that most museum educators have noted. This finding calls into question the usefulness of the traditional art historical presentation of information in museums, a practice more suited to the needs of stage III and IV viewers. The interests and needs of beginner viewers, both children and adults, would be better served by developmentally-appropriate encounters with works of art, such as the Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) developed by Housen, Philip Yenawine, and their colleagues at Harvard University’s Project Zero.

7. Education and Stages of Aesthetic Development

Children’s particular ways of processing their arts experiences, and their developmental stages must be taken into account if we are to design educationally effective experiences. Having a detailed map of aesthetic stages is a useful tool in this endeavor, since it gives us the ability to select images based on our understanding of viewers’ interests and needs at each stage. (Housen & Yenawine, 2000a, 2000b, 2001b, 2002). 

The central question for stage I viewers is: “What is going on in this picture?” (Housen & Yenawine, 2001a). It is the first question Housen uses in the Visual Thinking Strategy. Although this type of question works for all stages (and can be adapted to all forms of art), it emerges from the beginner viewer, who is asking, “What is happening in this image?” By using the active phrase, “is going on,” we encourage beginners to do what they do naturally: enter into the picture and then create a list or tell a story. This question focuses the viewer’s attention on the picture. When a group of beginner viewers responds to this question, everyone starts looking longer and more intently, discovering new details, and listening to multiple points of view. As viewers present their different viewpoints, everyone in the group is able to access new interpretations and strategies.

To keep a group of beginner viewers (Stages I and II) focused on the image, the next question, “What do you see that makes you say that?” (Housen & Yenawine, 2001a), asks that viewers support their interpretations. This question concentrates the group discussion on the image, prompting everyone to look longer and harder, see more complexity, interact with one another, and revise and expand their initial interpretations. Viewers learn to reason by citing evidence found in the image. A third question: “What more can you find?” revitalizes and renews the process of looking and ensures that the group continues to look intensely, discovering that the more they look, the more they see. The openness of the discussion has the added benefit of assuring the students that there can be more than one correct answer, or indeed no “correct” answer at all. 

Stage II viewers’ central questions concern the way the image looks and how it was made; questions about technique and skill mix with ones about artistic choice and values. VTS images should be selected that meet viewers where they are, as well as challenging them to explore new subjects and pursue lines of questioning. As Stage II viewers begin to be aware of a body of information unknown to them, the images they view allow them to feel comfortable, while at the same time stretching them to look at new things and to voice their thoughts. If the viewers value good draftsmanship and Cezanne’s painting of his son does not look acurrately drawn, the VTS question, “What do you see that makes you say that?” (Housen & Yenawine, 2001a) will lead the viewers to hear and consider different points of view. They begin to see that there can be paradoxes. The discussion provides an arena to think about why an artist (who is technically capable of drawing a realistic human figure) chooses to depict the figure in another manner. In time, the Stage II viewer arrives at the concept of intentionality as they considers that marks left on the canvas, which might at first look like carelessness or mistakes, were intentionally left there by the artist. With more viewing experience, more complex, less narrative images are introduced, drawing the Stage II viewer further from his or her personal preconceptions and deeper into the work of art (Yenawine, 2003).

8. The pratical value of aesthetic stage research

Aesthetic stage research offers insights into when and how learning takes place. First, a viewer’s thinking is characterized by a wide range of thoughts, with those of one stage intermingled with adjacent stages. In other words, a range within a developmental architecture, not a single point, best represents each learner. Identifying the precise developmental level of each learner is less important than successfully estimating the general level of the group. This means that the teacher does not have to know the exact stage of each viewer. As long as the most prevalent stage can be estimated, engagement in learning predictably takes place (Housen, 2000, 2001).

Second, stages are characterized by core questions in the viewer’s mind. Therefore, as long as we understand what these questions are and develop experiences that allow the learner to be challenged by those questions directly, development will occur. In other words, identifying and addressing the children’s own questions leads to pedagogical success. 

Third, to design and create powerful developmental experiences, we need to track how thinking patterns shift from one stage to the next. In other words, we must understand the character of the next developmental step our students will be taking, and target experiences towards that turning point. These new challenges require more perception and reflection on the part of the learner, and yet each learner is supported by pedagogical structures that bridge the gap between current needs and newly emerging questions and interests (Vygotsky, 1978).  Education is about providing a taste of the next, proximal way of thinking. Exercises that are rooted in the logic from each side of this boundary promote learning most effectively.  

Housen has found that the most effective experiences for stimulating aesthetic development are:

  1. Question-based
  2. Give the learner repeated opportunity to construct meaning from different points of view
  3. Take place in an environment that supports looking in new and meaningful ways
  4. And are inspired by rich, varied, and carefully chosen works of art. 

The act of constructing meaning cannot be something taught; the learner must discover his meaning on his own. Teachers and facilitators must encourage student participation and the sharing of each student’s current understanding by asking carefully designed and sequenced questions that have been paired with carefully selected artworks. Both questions and artworks should be targeted to the viewers' questions, interests, and skills based on their aesthetic stage. Students are asked to do what they are already capable of doing and understanding, and are then challenged to do what they are ready to do in extension of their ability. Facilitators paraphrase, in a nonjudgmental way, each student’s contribution, ensuring that each voice is heard and understood. They link ideas, ensuring that the conversations deepen, encouraging learners to continue to look for and construct meanings. In the course of talking about the image, learners effectively teach each other, bringing new observations to light, offering opposing views, and ever widening the discussion. The carefully designed, suitable, and sequenced questions of this learning environment, paired with carefully selected images and paraphrased responses, are critical in the process of fostering aesthetic growth and critical thinking (Housen, 1992a, 1992b, 2002). 

Art affords an ideal environment for such teaching and learning. It provides an object of collective attention—something concrete for a classroom to observe and experience, provoking thoughts and feelings while at the same time generating simultaneous and distinctive meanings. The more one looks and discusses images (together with well-chosen questions and adept facilitation by a teacher), the more there is to see, and the deeper and richer the learning experience becomes. There are many ways to move through a developmental stage, and each viewer discovers their own path. Well-chosen works of art support these multiple pathways, and well-crafted educational designs can support a wide variety of learners as their thinking develops. Together, they provide the foundation for lifelong viewing and learning. 

Well-selected art has several remarkable attributes that allow children to immediately exercise

their thoughts. First encounters with art do not take years of background preparation. A well-chosen work of art is a self-contained world. It has all the information one needs to begin to interpret it. And its presence is a challenge to make new meaning. 

  • Art is accessible. Art can speak to all viewers, allowing them to enter its space early and easily. Children can ‘read’ a picture long before they can read print.
  • Art touches timeless issues. Art can take the viewer as deep as the viewer has the capacity to go.
  • Art is compelling. Seeing a work’s meaning change as interpretations grow can rivet attention.
  • Art is ambiguous. Art has more than one ‘right’ interpretation. Its crafting contains carefully shaped clues. Its ambiguity invites speculation.
  • Art viewing unfolds. The more one looks, the more one sees. The interpretative possibilities in art are constantly unfolding. (Housen, 2001) 

Each new viewing of a work of art is a new episode, an invitation to begin the spiral of meaning-making all over again. When exposed to new works, the viewer repeatedly experiences that moment when something he might have previously turned away from, becomes something he is curious about and now has the capacity to see and understand. 

Housen’s five-year longitudinal study in the Byron Minnesota schools concludes that reasoning about art is an effective way to develop critical thinking, also outside of the fine arts. 

In our study, achieving Stage II of Aesthetic Development appears to be a necessary but not a sufficient condition for the flourishing of Content Transfer. Thus, VTS appears to create its impact by both raising Aesthetic Stage in the experimental group, and by making those at any Aesthetic Stage, but especially at higher Stages, more capable of exercising evidentiary thinking. Our data show clearly that critical thinking scores in our elementary school population increase sharply by developmental level, an effect that is made much more pronounced by exposure to VTS. (Housen, 2001) 

That being said, art should not have to be justified as a means to other ends, but neither should we ignore any of the depth that art can contribute to a child’s development because it has pedagogical value. 

9. How does this affect our work with young audiences?

Although Housen has chosen to demonstrate her theory of aesthetic development using the field of visual art and museum exhibits, the theory is equally applicable to the fields of drama, music, film and literature. Housens longitudinal study in Byron, Minnesota has also shown significant crossover effect to a wide range of academic subject areas. As a result of this, we can use Housen’s theory to significantly strengthen the way we create and present art to young audiences, and at the same time create strong relevance for schools. There are especially four main areas that would benefit from Housen’s developmental approach: 

  • Dialog with children about art: We need to develop good dialog techniques and discussion guides to assist meaningfull discussions about art with children of different ages.
  • Design of teaching materials to accompany arts experiences: We need to revisit the way we design educational material to accompany arts experiences for young audiences so that they are not only age appropriate, but also crafted for the appropriate stage of aesthetic development.
  • Selection of arts programs for children: We need to incorporate the stages of aesthetic development into our programing process for choosing which arts programs we should present, and how we should limit our audiences in terms of age grouping and size.
  • Training programs for teacher/facilitators: We need to develop seminars and instructional materials to build and extend the competancy among teachers and other fascilitators, so that children are ensured a skillfull guide in their explorations of art.
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