“Art Can’t Change the World…or can it?” Part 3

A critique of an art project, part 3

Part 3- Assessing effectiveness

There was some truly brilliant work in the Art Can’t Save the World…or can it? (ACCTW) exhibition. One student used a laser cutter on their site to create templates of houses and invited viewers to participate in building a city. Another used augmented reality to change her paintings into a fulmination on ocean pollution. One young woman used whiteboard material and magnetized statements that stereotype women to address inequality. They had the freedom to use any media, and my role became the keeper of the supply closet key. Without a doubt, their solutions went far beyond what they would have accomplished with more direction from me.

We arranged to make an announcement at a high school assembly about the opening for the exhibition. Unfortunately, as with many things in a busy school, it got lost in a sea of announcements, and we did not get the turnout for which we had hoped. Debriefing the project with the students a few weeks later, they raised some interesting points about their experience.

  • They found the project unique in their art course experience as they had to research a social or political issue rather than research art. This research raised their global awareness in ways that were both positive and troublesome. Students reported that they enjoyed learning about the world outside of their bubble, but as they learned more, they became frustrated that they had limited power to help solve the problems they identified. However, I think this frustration meant they were becoming true advocates.
  • The lack of response from the community was also a source of frustration. Even though the gallery is centrally located, and right across from the cafeteria, it leads to the art studios. My students indicated that the general feeling among high school students is that unless you take art, you shouldn’t go into the area. An irony that in eight years I never noticed! While they had poured their newfound advocacy into their artworks and saw the value in educating the community, the lack of connection made them feel that their work had not made the impact they desired.
  • While they were excited to share their work, all their artwork is exhibited in the gallery at the end of a unit. This may have diminished the impact of this particular project. We discussed how the project might have been more powerful if we had been able to make contact with the community outside of ISB and make art that might have included those community members and that was visible to a wider audience. Even though that would have changed the visual outcomes of the work, students agreed that the experience would have been more authentic and perhaps more satisfying. Making those community connections is not one of my strengths. I need to step it up.

One of the models that IC promotes can be summarized as Care-Aware-Able-Act (thanks, Mr. Moniz). You can learn more about this empowering approach here https://inspirecitizens.org/impact-campaigns/. While I think that the ACCTW project covered those four aspects, there are ways to make the project more impactful for students. Here’s my short list.

Time – While I had provided enough time to do some initial research, make the studio work (about six weeks) and put together a reflective portfolio, the students would have benefitted from more time to do primary source research, expert interviews, or site visits. We should have dedicated more time and energy into promoting the exhibition. Could this project be a semester or year-long one?

Connections – Building an on-going relationship with a community outside of school who could collaborate with the students and guide them to an understanding of the real-world impact of the various issues addressed in the SDGs. For example, there is a brilliant film called Landfill Harmonic which tells the story of an asentamiento bajo in Paraguay where the community makes musical instruments from the refuse in the landfill that is the community’s main source of income. What if ISB students (who can afford expensive instruments) connected with those students? Not only so the ISB students could exchange ideas about music with them, but so that the kids from the village could teach the ISB kids about resilience and passion? I’d like to find a connection like that for my classes.

Action – The students used their creativity and intelligence to make some intriguing artworks. I feel that they appropriately used the power of art. However, a community venue outside of school for the installation of the art and the opportunity for community collaboration would have been more satisfying – not making art about a group affected by a particular social issue, making art with them.

Integration – This project is begging to be interdisciplinary, but not as a one-off project where each disciplines’ proficiencies are co-opted to make a multi-layered investigation of a narrow issue. Over-arching questions of what it means to be a global citizen need to be mined from the specific attributes that each subject area can add and integrated into the school ethos. Those attributes likely need to be enlarged and viewed in new ways. The core class/elective model collapses and maybe even distinct disciplines themselves (but that’s another critique!). If the goal is building behavior that leads to empowered and competent global citizens the mindset is consistent, the habits adaptable, and the academic content interchangeable.

My students have told me that the SDGs are being integrated into their English and social studies classes. The idea is germinating at my school from the ground up. That’s where its power lies, and I think that’s where it should stay because school-wide initiatives scare me for the way they often become cumbersome despite their good intentions.  But, like a 17th-century Dutch painting where the still-life is the subject matter and the theme is the changing nature of life, the SDGs are the are the vehicle for the big idea of changing what our students become: people of purpose.

The question now is, do we go all in?

“Art Can’t Change the World…or can it?” Part 2

A critique of an art project, part 2

Part 2 – An attempt at designing authentic experience


A few years ago, I created a project titled, “Can Art Change the World” for my IB Year 1 Art students. I presented them a roster of artists for research whose art leans towards social activism, and then let them have a go at making their own studio work addressing a social issue. As usual, the results were visually remarkable due to the talents of my students, but I felt that the project had no more or less impact on them than any of the other ones based on issues from contemporary art they completed. Of course, I want all my projects to be life-changing (I’m a teacher, dammit) and this one met all the criteria of expanding their knowledge of art, but if it impacted their growth as global citizens, that was purely by luck.

Two friends and colleagues, Steve Sostak and Aaron Moniz, had recently left my school to start the organization, “Inspire Citizens.” IC works with schools, both students and teachers, to purposefully address issues of global competence in designing and delivering curriculum. I was impressed by their work and wanted to see if I could improve my project using some of their resources. Adapting various tools and methods with an art-education perspective, I was able to infuse a grade 10 version of the project with some additional aspects which I hoped would “level up” (as the IC guys say) the student’s experience with global competency.

The objective of this new project was to employ Sustainable Development values into making an interactive artwork which convinces a viewer of a POV on a social issue. Before students started, they completed PISA’s Global Citizenship Survey to gauge their understanding of various global issues such as climate change and sustainability. Because they were also learning about the U.N.’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in their social study classes (a happy accident- my left hand admits not knowing what the SS department’s right one was doing) these issues were somewhat familiar to them.

They chose as a starting point an SDG they felt strongly about and began researching issues surrounding it. Using a planning tool adapted from OECD’s Global Competency matrix they investigated hypothetical solutions, and just as importantly possible negative ramifications of their proposals. Then, they began to plan and execute their artworks.

As always, the more I stay out of their way, the more impressed I am with the creativity and intelligence my students unleash when tackling an artistic problem. They always blow me away. You can see their solutions here. As importantly, their reflections about their approach to the project were inspiring for their level of awareness and complexity surrounding their given issues, but also the amount of genuine empathy expressed. Of course, this project was not responsible for their research abilities or the fact that they are caring people, but their ability to translate these traits into visual form was nevertheless impressive. Here’s an excerpt from a grade 10 student’s portfolio from the project.

  The most important part in my first work is the audiences’ interaction with the work. They are not only looking at the problem I am trying to show, but also feeling that they are the one who have responsibility to solve the problem that they have caused. Usually, when we just read about the endangered gorillas in a country somewhere in Africa, it doesn’t feel like a serious problem, and we often just look away. However, when someone actually point out that you are the one who is doing something wrong, you start to feel that you should care about it. So, I decided to use a mirror to make them realize that they have the responsibility of gorillas’ death.

  The most effective way to protect the gorillas is to mine less tantalum, and to mine less tantalum, our responsible consumption of phones is very important. Recycling phones, it sounds very simple, but there are not many people actually doing it. I think the biggest reason is because they don’t know the reason why they should recycle phones. So overall, the main purpose of my artwork is to inform people about the endangered gorillas that are dying out because of our irresponsible consumption and production of phones.

We held an exhibition in ISB’s art gallery. That’s when the skeptical and highly self-critical part of me kicked in.


Part 3- Follow up – the good, the bad, and the ugly.

“Art Can’t Change the World…or can it?” Part 1

A critique of an art project, part 1

 Is art a problem-solving discipline?

As the understanding of what skills and mindsets people need in our rapidly changing world evolve, many schools are exploring ways to make education more meaningful and applicable to preparing students to solve real problems. Providing real-world experience through project-based learning, collaboration with community experts, or service-learning projects, expose students to broader perspectives and authentic problem-solving opportunities. Unfortunately, there is no lack of serious problems that need solving. How then might schools choose where to focus this energy?

A good place to look is towards developing students to become aware and caring global citizens. This includes promoting sustainable thinking, global competency, empathy, and effective action. There are many organizations whose research is defining what this means and working on the development of programs to do it. Using the Sustainable Development Goals from the U.N. and the Office of Economic Co-Operation and Development’s global competency matrix are two good starting points. I am meeting more and more teachers, across all subject areas, who are working towards this goal and inventing or utilizing effective programs, projects, and tools for cultivating global citizenship.

Design thinking is a natural fit for authentic problem-solving, and one of the most focused and distinct frameworks for this is the Design Cycle. Incorporation of the design cycle allows students to experience the same problem-solving approach that professionals from many disciplines use as well as encourage a systems-thinking approach apropos of our interconnected world. It’s clear, easy to follow, and takes students on a journey from empathy towards the client’s needs through a final problem-solving product. It’s no wonder that so many schools are creating maker spaces and design departments.

But what about art?

It is said that art feeds the soul and certainly empowered global citizens should be good and ethical people. As an art teacher, soul-feeding is important to me, but I’m also skeptical and unnaturally self-critical. As much as I think art is the most valuable subject in school for a lot of reasons, taking an art class does not mean that you are automatically learning to be creative. Neither does studying art ipso facto make you a better global citizen. There is a long list of artists who are world-class jerks.

During my recent presentation, Art Can’t Change the World…or can it? at the ARWAE conference in Hong Kong, I raised the questions, “Is art a problem-solving discipline the way that design or service-learning projects can be?” and “Should it be?”  In writing about the movement Effective Altruism in Axios, Rhys Southan makes the bold statement, “If you express your creativity while other people go hungry, you’re probably not making the world a better place.” For someone who has devoted a good part of my career to teaching art, I have to say I was a bit gobsmacked by that throw down. After I got over my defensiveness, I began to consider: was that true, or is there a way that art as an academic discipline can contribute to the development of empowered and ethical global citizens beyond exposing students to cultural diversity?

I believe that art addresses aspects of our human experience that are different, but certainly no less important than primary practical concerns. Economist Amartya Sen writes, “Music and the creative arts will never, of course, replace the need for food and medicine, but nor would food and medicine replace the need for the creative arts.” But just as the practice of creativity must be intelligently embedded into an art curriculum, so too must awareness, empathy, and action leading towards enhanced global citizenship be purposefully integrated.

Part 2 – An attempt at designing authentic experience