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Visual investigations across the curriculum

Laura Dortmans looks at how artworks and artefacts can be used across all areas of the curriculum to unlock new knowledge.

The power of art

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James Rosenquist: F111

James Rosenquist’s monumental F-111, painted in 1964, portrays the U.S. Air Force F-111 fighter plane: the deadliest piece of technology being developed at the time. This magnificent bomber stretches the length of the 86-foot painting, which is wrapped around the four walls of a small room in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Collaged over and around the main subject like glossy magazine advertisements are illustrations of mundane consumer items – light bulbs, canned spaghetti, a cake and a car tyre – as well as the angelic, smiling face of a sweet, blonde-haired little girl juxtaposed alongside an exploding atomic bomb. Here, in front of our eyes, questions about history, society, politics and technology are presented in a powerful visual text.

Artworks and artefacts are powerful resources that relate to every school subject. They can be used across all areas of the curriculum to unlock new knowledge by engaging students in critical thinking and visual literacy, crucial 21st-century skills that no longer pertain solely to the Arts. Engaging with works of art in a meaningful way promotes literacy, knowledge creation and problem-solving, as well as important attributes such as curiosity, empathy and patience. Art objects provide opportunities for authentic learning that connects our curriculum content to the world in which we live, allowing students to access contemporary thinking and gain broader understanding of the world across cultures and times.

va-ny_moma_jardinVisual investigations

Visual investigations lead students through an inquiry process to view, interpret and synthesise information from visual material. Students work collaboratively to explore key concepts and questions related to a particular subject or issue, using subject-specific vocabulary to build knowledge with their peers. In a fantastic conversation recorded recently at the Aspen Ideas Festival, Leon Wieseltier of the Brookings Institution stated: “Knowledge requires inquiry, method and time”. These three factors are at the core of visual investigations.

The first question in an investigation prompts students to engage in the simple act of looking – close, intensive looking.

What do you notice? The simple act of observation is vital to any form of investigation in any field: scientific, social, artistic or otherwise. The ability to stop, look and think is a critical first step. Give your students two to three minutes (resist the temptation to jump in too soon) then discussion begins.

So, what do you notice about this object? Cue awkward silence. This can take some time to get used to. I find it useful to have students pair up at this stage and write down their observations on sticky notes or on the page if working with printed material. As they are doing that I encourage them to capture any initial questions or thoughts that have arisen when viewing the work.

Let’s try that again: who would like to share their observations? From here, let the students take over. Reinforce the observations being shared, use extended wait times and allow for many responses – aim for more than ten. Encourage continued close looking and ask students to provide visual evidence: “What do you see that makes you say that?”

img_0157-vaOnce you have established this visual connection with the work, lead the discussion towards interpretation by introducing one or two small pieces of information. You do not have to be an art expert to run an effective visual investigation; you just need to be as curious as you want your students to be. A little bit of prior research to gather relevant details will be enough to lead the discussion. The key is to weave in bite-size snippets of information, coupled with two to four open-ended questions that align with the focus of the investigation.

F-111 investigation

Let’s consider Rosenquist’s F-111 and how we might use questioning to lead students through a visual investigation:

  • James Rosenquist painted this in 1964. What can we see that tells us about the time period?
  • Consider the objects we can see in the painting. How might these motifs be symbolic of issues and themes that Rosenquist was concerned about?
  • Rosenquist called this painting ‘F-111’ after the name of this aircraft, which was being developed at that time for use in the Vietnam War. He was interested in the aircraft but also concerned about the power and cost of this technology: the cost in money and in human lives. Imagine Rosenquist was making this artwork today, how might it be similar or different?

Crucial questioning

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Alice Neel – James Hunter Black Draftee

Quality questions are central to an effective visual investigation. The aim is to guide students through unpacking the visual clues they have observed in the artwork or object, which may not necessarily lead to the ‘right’ answer. In fact, this inquiry should lead students to more questions than answers. An investigation is not about finding the one-and-only true meaning of the work, but to understand that there are many possible interpretations that can be validated by drawing on visual evidence.

In order for your students to leave this investigation with new ideas about a theme, issue or question, it is critical that the conversation leads students to make connections with their existing knowledge. This is done by posing questions that challenge students to think laterally.

“Think about what we have been learning about (the topic, issue or question). How might this object relate to what we already know?”

The aim is for students to synthesise the new information they have developed from the investigation in relation to knowledge they have previously developed, to leave with an enriched understanding comprising new ideas and associations.

Enhancing learning

Using artworks and artefacts in your classroom can allow for broader and deeper engagement with key concepts, issues and questions. Visual investigations enhance student learning by pushing higher-order thinking to new highs. Students examine, connect and create ideas, helping them to build new knowledge which is shared through subject-specific languages, be that written, verbal, visual or otherwise.


This article was originally published on the International Teacher Magazine in 2016. Laura teaches DP visual arts at Canadian Academy in Kobe, Japan, working in both the Middle Years and Diploma Programmes. She is the Head of Fine Arts and a co-founder of the Creative Connections Art & Design Forum. You can email her at ldortmans@canacad.ac.jp

  • Raymond Genet

    Research in the sciences and the humanities can be enhanced from insights gained from a study of relevant works of art – painting, sculpture, and literature. This is part of the STEM to STEAM process of integrating the arts and sciences. Through the new Facebook page Nature, Art & Language
    (https://www.facebook.com/NatureArtLanguage.org/) all students are invited to post a precis of their research project and a relevant work of art will be suggested as soon as possible. This page is administered by Ray Genet who recently completed his doctorate in Education at the University of Canterbury. He specialized in curriculum coherence through consilience; that is, the study of human culture from an evolutionary perspective as a means to connect the sciences and the arts.

  • Kate Taverner

    Hello Raymond, I’m posting this response on behalf of my colleague and IB visual arts curriculum manager, Joel Adams:

    Great and useful post Raymond! I completely agree with you about the power and value of an integrated arts education.

    At the IB I’ve also been researching how we can add a little more “A” into the STEM disciplines.

    I just finished a great article from July 2016’s Art Education: “Putting It All Together – STEAM, PBL, Scientific Method”* that really gets to the heart of the issue:

    Currently, most STEAM education in K–12 is delivered as special challenges; usually with an engineering approach. In [the most effective approaches to] STEAM, the A(rt) enables students to look at design or engineering problems through the additional lens of artistic or aesthetic experience. Through this lens the student applies creative problem solving, design, and aesthetics.

    In other words, the most innovative (and exciting) examples of STEAM are those that leverage the critical and creative habits of our students artists (in the visual arts, dance, music, theatre and film) in ways that inform, broaden and deepen the often more analytical approaches of the STEM subjects.

    Thanks again for the awesome resource and the post!

    * Gettings, Michael. “Putting It All Together: STEAM, PBL, Scientific Method, and the Studio Habits of Mind.” Art Education 69, no. 4 (2016): 10-11.