What do artistic representations of classrooms, teaching and learning tell us about how a society’s positions on pedagogy have progressed over time? This post examines paintings, photographs and other artworks where classroom learning is the muse. Aesthetic portrayals of education convey how social, cultural, economic and political ideologies shape the way pedagogy has been valued throughout time.
Depictions of classrooms prior to the 20th century are fairly different than what we are used to seeing in schools today (The Eclectic Co. blog has an informative two part series analyzing paintings of classrooms from the 1600s through the early 1900s). Many of the classrooms, like the one in Charles Hunt’s A Visit to the Classroom (1859), have a domestic atmosphere, which is a sharp contrast to the institutionalized classroom layouts within contemporary schools.
Another notable difference is that the student body within many of these pre-20th century classes consists of children of varying ages. These paintings represent village schools (a.k.a one-room schools), which are situated in rural settings (see: Proctor, 2005). In the one-room school Hunt painted, students are engaged in a myriad of activities. Some are partaking in academics (i.e. solving math equations, sharpening their literacy and vocabulary skills), while others are playing games and a few are acting mischievously. We see examples of pedagogical methodology and materials, such as individual slate boards, which are being used as a medium for solving math equations. There are also ample books for the children to read, and a pin cushion and basket full of fabric for sewing. This signifies the breadth of the curricula. Students are learning core reading, writing and arithmetic, but also important life skills and techniques like sewing. The mood in A Visit to the Classroom is lighthearted, it seems that the children are generally content to be in school. Socialization, as well as collaborative and independent learning are all exemplified in this composition.
An informative detail, which can be found in both Hunt’s painting and Thomas Brook’s The New Pupil (1854), are clocks, likely symbolizing the development and growth of the child. Also notable in Brook’s painting is a large world map below the window. The map is indicative of the maxim ‘education is your window to the world and compass in life’.
Around the mid-19th century, social and cultural reformers inspired significant types of educational transformation. The pedagogical goal was to develop well rounded individuals through curricula and methodologies in support of children’s physical, emotional and cognitive health. Early proponents of progressive 19th and 20th century education were influenced by philosophies like transcendentalism, which valued a blend of environmental, spiritual and social conditions that nurture and express the sanctity and holistic nature of the soul. These principles inspired educators to consider pedagogical approaches that would encourage students’ thirst to explore, discover and construct humane understandings about the world through direct social and cultural experiences. As John Dewey aptly put it in his 1897 article “My Pedagogic Creed,” “Education is the process of living and is not meant to be the preparation of future living” (Dewey, 1897).
In 1837, an early childhood educator named Friedrich Fröbel, founded a school for young learners and coined the term “kindergarten,” which is German for ‘the children’s garden.’ Kindergarten revolutionized the way that society thought about teaching and learning. It was the first time that children under the age of 7 were given a formal education (see: Early Childhood Today Eds., 2000). Fröbel’s curricula for early childhood development foresaw the importance that play and materials based exploration has on innovation and critical thinking. The methods of embodied learning and social and emotional learning that were taught at Fröbel’s inaugural Kindergarten included singing, dancing, gardening and playing with Fröbel Gifts (see: We all scream for STEAM).
Fröbel Gifts are educational materials that inspire active learning through guided play. Each of the Fröbel Gifts has a numerical value, which determines the order in which they should be introduced to the child. The gifts build upon the child’s prior knowledge and experience. Through the modification of materials during artful and playful activities, children form concrete understandings about spatial relationships and abstract concepts.
The pedagogical value of play is an emphasis on physical and mental health, as well as the development of self-discipline and the ability to work cooperatively and empathically among a team of peers.
The importance of play during the school day is the subject of Snap the Whip (1872) by Winslow Homer. In the painting, students are enjoying recess outside of their little red schoolhouse. They are playing a popular game called Crack the Whip, which is a fun team building activity that exercises both social and physical coordination (for a detailed analysis of the game, see: Carlisle, 2009).
Fast forward one hundred years, and we see similar artistic depictions of play through Francis Alÿs’ multimedia art series called Children’s Games.
Children’s Games conveys how play is a universal element across disparate geopolitical environments. To create Children’s Games, Alÿs traveled the globe to film scenes of child initiated play. Each segment in the series is from a unique location in the world. The games are largely archetypal and should be familiar to nearly everyone, like musical chairs (Children’s Game #12) rock, paper scissors (Children’s Game #14) and Wolf and Lamb (Children’s Game #11). The common thread between all of the videos is the artful manner in which the children imaginatively activate routine objects (like rocks, coins and mirrors) and embark on a whimsical collaboration with their peers and the surrounding natural and synthetic settings (see: Children’s Games).
French painter, Henri Jules Jean Geoffroy’s depictions of classrooms and interactions between teachers and students, are more in line with what we might consider to be modern educational experiences and settings. Geoffroy was a well respected realist painter who made a niche for himself by painting genre scenes of youth around France. Living with educators Louis and Julie Girard in an apartment that was directly above their private school, provided Geoffroy with plenty of inspiration and a chance to observe teaching and learning firsthand.
Geoffroy’s school scenes embody the sweeping societal reforms of the French Third Republic (1870-1940). During this period, France developed into a welfare state, providing economic and social wellbeing protections and advancements. Modern approaches to medicine and education benefited citizens in both the rural and urban areas. Schools during this period were known as Republican schools (l’école républicaine). They were the result of the 1881 and 1882 Jules Ferry laws, which brought about nationwide free public secular education. The epitome of the welfare state’s influence on educational reform is reflected in the painting In School (c. 1900). This classroom scene, which takes place within a turn of the century nursery school, captures a moment of compassionate adoration between the teacher and student.
Artistic depictions of modern mid-20th and 21st century classrooms, exemplified in photographs by Catherine Wagner and Chemi Rosado-Seijo, communicate how educational philosophy has shifted over time due to factors like capitalism, globalization and civil rights. Modern day schools are more heterogeneous than ever before, although there is still much work to be done in order to make schools equal and equitable (see: Bridging the Gap, Crossing the Bridge).
Wagner’s American Classroom, 1983-1987 series, is part of the artist’s steadfast investigation into structures that are built to serve specific social, cultural, political and economic purposes (she has also photographed theme parks, convention centers and the process of real-estate development). The classrooms that Wagner photographed are treated like archeological sites. They are devoid of human figures, but in most cases, it looks like a class was just dismissed or on break, because we can decipher fresh erasure marks, strewn out paperwork and other materials and objects related to the curricula. These black and white photographs of educational settings sans students or teachers, treat the classroom as a skeleton or foundation for learning. The variety of objects and architectural elements related to educational spaces focuses on the psychical and instructional scaffolding that builds and maintains learning environments. Wagner says that:
“In visiting different sites of learning, or educational systems, throughout the United States I was drawn to the marks left on blackboards, the arrangement of chairs, and the basic information in the room. This evidence of human presence speaks of our endeavors and aspirations, addressing who we are as a culture.”
The photograph, Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy Classroom, Kansas City, MO, shows how educators are supporting emergent bilingual learning by pairing tangible everyday objects (articles of clothing) with their Hebrew definition.
While the aforementioned works of art are all two-dimensional documentations that artistically depict classrooms, Chemi Rosado-Seijo’s Salón-Sala-Salón (Classroom/Gallery/Classroom) is a real-life, experiential project that presents the classroom as a work of art. Rosado-Seijo is a Puerto Rican contemporary artist who blurs the line between works of art and social experiences that are intended to be accessible for communities and citizens of all social classes. For Salón-Sala-Salón, he transported an actual High School classroom into the gallery of a major contemporary art museum.
The first incarnation of Salón-Sala-Salón was realized in Puerto Rico where students from the Rafael María de Labra public school attended classes at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Puerto Rico. The second, occurred at the Whitney Museum during its esteemed Biennial in 2017. Desks and materials from the Lower Manhattan Arts Academy were moved into the museum, and students reported for their art class there for the duration of the exhibition. Salón-Sala-Salón is the physical embodiment of Luis Camnitzer’s text-based public artwork, A Museum is a School (2009-ongoing), which states that “The museum is a school, where artists learn to communicate and the public learns to make connections.” Students attended classes when the museum was closed so that their privacy would be respected. Their work (both finished and in progress) was then presented to the public, who were given access to the classroom during museum hours. After a few incidents of museum goers using the classroom supplies, students decided to incorporate the viewers into their space by posting a notice encouraging them to create their own works of art, while being mindful of the students’ own work and sacred learning environment.
Salón-Sala-Salón prompts us to consider the physical and cultural architecture of education. It makes a statement about how education should be given the same value as the priceless works of art within museums. If we maintain our educational structures and cherish educational resources as highly as six figure works of art, then we will all live richer lives. Salón-Sala-Salón also exemplifies how art can benefit other areas of the curriculum. As Rosado-Seijo describes:
“I was interested in how architecture would affect the students’ experience, and how students would affect the museum experience. The museum became a more active place, full of adolescents every day from 8 AM to 2:30 PM. Math, science and Spanish teachers used the art on view to teach their curricula. The museum lost its sepulchral silence and became a school again, which for me was a surreal experience. Students reclaimed the old building: We literally opened a door and created a passageway between the institutions. The school gained a calm, reflective exhibition space, and art spectators experienced life at a public school on their way to see videos that would normally be displayed in a museum.”
Artistic representations of classrooms provide many lessons in and of themselves. They symbolically express how teaching and learning have undergone changes in ideologies and methodologies. They also present intimate and whimsical perspectives of both structured learning and unfettered discovery. Artists are teachers who learn ways to visually communicate abstract ideas and emotions. As viewers, we learn to make connections between the art we observe and our own lives.
References, Notes, Suggested Reading:
Carlisle, Rodney P. 2009. Encyclopedia of Play in Today’s Society. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publishing.
Dewey, John. (1897). My pedagogical creed. School Journal. Retrieved 23 November 2020 from http://dewey.pragmatism.org/creed.htm
Early Childhood Today Editorial Staff. “Pioneers In Our Field: Friedrich Froebel – Founder of the First Kindergarten.” Early Childhood Today, August 2000. https://www.scholastic.com/teachers/articles/teaching-content/pioneers-our-field-friedrich-froebel-founder-first-kindergarten/
Oakley, Howard. “Painting the Class: schools from 1640 to 1860.” Eclectic Light Co., 16 June 2018. https://eclecticlight.co/2018/06/16/painting-the-class-schools-from-1640-to-1860/
Oakley, Howard “Painting the Class: schools from 1860 to 1907” Eclectic Light Co., 17 June 2018. https://eclecticlight.co/2018/06/17/painting-the-class-schools-from-1860-to-1907/
Proctor, John. 2005. Village schools: a history of rural elementary education from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century in prose and verse. Oxford: Oxford University Press.