Monthly Mentor

Shelly Breaux (December)
Each month, a different member and NAEA awardee is the guest writer for the NAEA Monthly Mentor Blog. Shelly Breaux established the Art Program at David Thibodaux STEM Magnet Academy in Lafayette, LA. In her classroom, Breaux focuses on inquiry-based learning, problem solving, collaboration, conceptual thinking, and constructive criticism. She believes in using art as an educational tool, and that art provides her students with a voice and an outlet. Click "GO" to read her full bio.



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November 15, 2017

Using Big Ideas in Art Education

From: Heather Kaplan

In our previous installment, we discussed the relationship and differences between VCAE and DBAE in order to think about and expand curricular possibilities for art educators. In this installment I will discuss another curricular approach, Big Ideas. Walker (2001) has written extensively about the possibility of using Big Ideas within art education but Big Ideas are not limited to the visual arts. In fact, one of the advantages of Big Ideas is their ability to reach 21st century learners, who are themselves arguably more connected than previous generations, and to create curriculum that is both interconnected and interdisciplinary.

In fact one the real advantages to studying Big Ideas is that it presumes a disposition of interconnectedness and connection making. Big Ideas are by definition, ideas are that BIG, in that they are large and overarching. This means that Big Ideas are bigger than one discipline (like math or art), and that the study of Big Ideas can be done either within a discipline or interdisciplinary and in a more holistic fashion-meaning that an entire grade or school could explore a big idea through its many curricular incarnations.

Walker (2001) claims, “Big ideas – broad, important human issues- are characterized by complexity, ambiguity, contradiction, and multiplicity… big ideas do not completely explicate an idea, but represent a host of concepts that form the idea.” (p. 1) Because Big Ideas are able to entertain ambiguity, contradiction, and multiplicity, curricula that use Big Ideas should aim to and will be able to entertain varied understandings and perspectives. Students engaged in this way will be able to, to some degree, direct their own learning, compare and contrast their perspectives against that of others, entertain multiple perspectives, and manage contradiction and ambiguity – skills that are preeminently needed today.

While Big Ideas can be adopted on a large scale (grade level or school-wide), Big Ideas can be effective at the classroom level as well. Walker champions the effectiveness of Big Ideas in art classroom curricula by making clear the professional (or discipline based) connection between ideas and artmaking. She claims that artists are not strangers to Big Ideas, stating  “Big ideas drive an artist’s artmaking over time.” (p. 2) Likewise, the educational resource and public television series Art 21 (Art in the 21st Century) claims that contemporary artists often do not work in a single medium in the ways they might have in previous generations, contemporary artists often work with and through ideas.

Walker helps elucidate how Big Ideas manifest in an artist’s work over time. She points out the difference between a Big Idea and a more pointed, discrete understanding of content. I like to share her example of Andy Warhol to help illustrate the difference. Let’s look closer: According to Walker the content or subject matter of Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Can prints is the Campbell soup can; however, if we look at the artist’s larger oeuvre, or the entire body of his work, Big Ideas like “the denouncement of the sacred values and ideals of high art” (p. 3) and concepts such as reproduction and multiples, consumerism, and the consumption of fame emerge. While it may require a deeper understanding of art, artists, and meaning-making, studying Big Ideas creates students who are not only able to think deeply about the works they are creating, but it also creates dynamic thinkers who are able to wrestle with complexity, ambiguity, and contradiction in their thoughts and the thoughts of others.

For more curricular information about Big Ideas please check out the following links:

What's the Big Idea? - Missouri Alliance for Arts Education


Walker, S. (2001). Teaching meaning in artmaking. Worchester, MA: Davis Publishing, Inc.


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