Reflections on Consenses
Jessica Hoffmann Davis was the founding director of the Arts in Education Program at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, and held the university’s first chair in arts in education. Dr. Davis is the author of numerous articles and books on arts learning including Why Our Schools need the Arts (2008), Ordinary Gifted Children (2010), and Why Our High Schools Need the Arts (2012).
If learning were a house…
it would have many doors to let in many different children and many windows out of which there would be many different ways to see the world. It would not just have a front door through which most were meant to enter and two windows: one for right; the other wrong.
In the house that I envision, the arts are not troublesome outsiders locked in a small attic room. Instead, they flood every room and enlighten the whole house. Difference here is celebrated as a multi-faceted threshold to learning and not a problem with which educators must deal.
“If learning were a house…”
I fashioned my introductory line after the prompts that artist Sally Taylor has created for her extraordinary multi-arts cross-disciplinary curriculum, Consenses. Taylor invites students to think beyond the given, to experience the unexpected connections that are at the heart of meaning making in the arts. “If this song were a person in your life, who would it be?” “If this image were a movement or a gesture…”
Consenses provides a structured and inter-relating series of arts encounters designed to introduce children to the arts, as Taylor explains, both as “a language and a lens.” A way to speak and listen and see. With metaphor as its fuel, Consenses not only encourages students to learn to represent their own understandings through art but also to learn from the different and equally valid expressions of meanings that others create.
Consenses students experience first hand that their world views are theirs to create uniquely even as they have a dialogic place in a chain of others that are there to interpret and respect. At the heart of this learning is an affirmation of self and other that transcends the judgment of right or wrong, better or best, and enables students of all learning dispositions to enter the scene on equal footing: to participate in the conversation that the arts perpetuate across time and space; to have a voice and to experience its use.
Notably, the Consenses curriculum is in itself as beautifully constructed as a work of art. Inter-relating exercises build on one another and each includes: 1) an introduction to a different arts medium (from visual arts to dance); 2) an exploration of the medium’s potential to express emotions and ideas; 3) exercises that invite the student to see beyond the given-to imagine “what if” (from a person as a fabric to a sculpture as a melody); 4) clearly articulated scaffolding for reflection on one’s own work and the work of others.
In the Consenses curriculum, the inter-relationship between artistic production (making), perception (discernment) and reflection (making sense)* occur fluidly and within the larger social emotional goals of self-expression and empathy. Features of arts learning that have been identified as intrinsic to the arts and essential to student learning include: Imagination (the “what if”), Agency (the capacity to achieve different objectives in art), Expression (articulating emotion), Empathy (recognizing emotion), Interpretation (making sense of a work of art) and Respect (honoring the sense that others make of works of art). These qualities resonate throughout the Consenses curriculum and are addressed in refreshing and authentically artistic ways.
At its core, Consenses is based on adult conversations through art that Taylor has initiated and mounted in gallery presentations. A visual artist will create a drawing; a musician will respond to what she sees with a song; a dancer will interpret the song in movement; and a baker will create a cake out of her response to that dance. Presentations of these “interpretive chains” have most recently included childrens’ paintings. Imagine students responding to each other’s artistic productions not with weary criteria such as what works and what doesn’t but with their own responsive creations.
In a culminating exercise, Consenses students identify major themes and present them and their art work in a gallery design. Taylor likens the chain to the game of Telephone where players whisper meanings that change from person to person. But she has added purpose and depth to the game. In Consenses, participants are co-constructing knowledge that is informed by their individual contributions to a whole that is greater than its individual parts.
Consenses is not promoted as interdisciplinary, but the structured invitation to create meaning metaphorically—to represent your mother as a vehicle or a fabric or a color—not only engages imagination, but also introduces children quite naturally to the magic of metaphor—the implicit comparison between two disparate entities that perhaps surprisingly clarifies meaning. Taylor calls these explorations of metaphor, “essences.” My mother is green; she is corduroy; she is peppermint; she is the scent of a rose. The five senses are employed to ground these “what if” discussions that are at the heart of artistic production even as they set the stage for insights about language arts.
The process of the interpretive chain as a game of telephone in which meaning changes as it is spoken through different voices; the fable of the blind men and the elephant needing each other’s understanding of the part each has touched to gain an understanding of the whole. Expanding these frameworks, Taylor threads her explanations of the goals and practice of Consenses seamlessly with narrative and image that provide multiple points of entry. She is always encouraging, appreciating, inspiring students to see the world illuminated through art.
The immediate benefits of this curriculum are evident: the acquisition of artistic skills; the appreciation of and facility with multiple interpretations; the ability to see beyond the given and imagine “what if;” respect for self and other; the exquisite joy of making something of one’s own creation that was not there before it was made. But the curriculum’s possibilities to reach not only across artistic domains and student populations but also across non-arts disciplines, perhaps especially to the field of language arts, will I believe become evident as its use is expanded.
In closing, I will call my house of learning Consenses and I will name its windows “autonomy,” “empathy,” “creativity,” “imagination,” and “metaphor.” And the front door will be covered with words like “visual art” and “music” and “fragrance” and “dance” edged with symbols for our five senses. But in block letters at the top it will simply say, “Welcome.”
*a model for learning fashioned after the artistic process of professional artists in Arts Propel at Project Zero in the early 1990’s. http://www.pz.harvard.edu
** see Davis, Why Our Schools Need the Arts,(2008) pp. 50-51.