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September 12, 2019
Vol. 15
No. 1

How Art Analysis Addresses Cultural Bias in the Classroom

Public schools in the United States have a history of cultural and racial oppression that remains evident in today's classrooms. That might show up as lowering expectations for students living in poverty, viewing schools outside the country as inferior to our own, or having a mindset that non-English speakers must overcome the barrier of their native language to assimilate into our system.
We must be conscious of the deep-rooted racism, biases, and prejudices in our culture and address them when they manifest in our classrooms. Teaching students of all ages to analyze the world from a culturally responsive viewpoint is one crucial step in confronting bias. To help student artists develop this mindset, visual art interpretation can serve as a pedagogical tool to facilitate students' understanding of multiple perspectives.

Visual Thinking Strategies as a Tool for Change

A common approach to multicultural education is to have students explore ethnically, racially, and culturally diverse texts, music, and art. As an advocate for arts education, I like to use the Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) tool to analyze these works. This allows students to apply their own experiences, thoughts, and feelings to art interpretation, observation, and analysis while enhancing their critical thinking, communication, and evidence-based reasoning (DeSantis & Housen, 2007; Yenowine, 2013). The VTS framework is simple: In a whole-class discussion, teachers ask students what is going on in a work, what they see that prompts those conclusions, and anything else they might notice.
For this strategy to attain its full value, teachers must validate all student interpretations and encourage students to support their statements with visual evidence, as well as providing students with adequate time for interpreting the image (Yenowine, 2013). I give my students a specific timeframe based on the piece and their reactions—typically about 20–40 minutes at the elementary level.

An Unexpected Roadblock

Yet, student-centered VTS questioning does not address what to do when students verbalize prejudices or racial biases. As a result, students can drag their collective understanding of an artwork into the depths of their biases or come up with racist interpretations if teachers don't steer the class in a more productive direction.
Consider this example: Using VTS, I was guiding a 4th-grade group comprising mostly white, middle- to upper-middle class students in the use of VTS to interpret the painting "Three Wise Men Greeting Entry into Lagos" by contemporary African American painter Kehinde Wiley.


<BQ> Source: Wiley, K. (2008). Three Wise Men Greeting Entry into Lagos [oil on canvas]. Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts . </BQ>
Some students interpreted that the three men look angry and are wearing dresses. Others said they are slaves or are making a Black Power gesture. Pure VTS would call for a teacher to respond by asking, "What do you see that makes you say that?" But, in this case, I knew the question would have allowed the students to delve deeper into their cultural biases toward racist interpretations of the work. My approach was to halt the conversation entirely. In looking back, I missed an opportunity to show students how to confront their own biases.

Battle Biases with Informed Questions

To transform VTS into a tool that develops culturally responsive thinkers, teachers can use one of two lines of questioning.
First, when VTS conversations take a biased turn, teachers must correct and redirect the situation with intervening questions, yet also use language and phrasing that doesn't discourage students' further participation. Scholar Gloria Ladson-Billings suggests that "despite current social inequities, students must develop their academic skills" (1995, p. 160). This means that we must maintain academic rigor while battling biases in school. We need to teach our students to confront their prejudices throughout the learning process.
Though students are not exposed to historical context and artist information in the VTS model, teachers must study the work's background knowledge and provide information for an intervention when a student makes a potentially problematic comment. For example, I had researched the background of the painting above. I knew that the picture was of three Nigerian men wearing dashikis and holding their arms and fists in poses appropriated from the sculpture "Welcome to Lagos" by Bodun Shodeinde, a work depicting three men welcoming visitors.
What I should have said back then to my students was, "What would you say about their poses if I told you that they are based on a sculpture to greet visitors to a community?" or "How might you think differently if I told you that these men are contemporary and from an African country?" These questions avoid turning the conversation into a discussion or lecture on art history and provide just enough context to see the piece through a different lens.
The second line of instruction aims to develop students' ability to visually analyze from a cultural relativist perspective—the idea that people's beliefs and practices should be understood based on their own culture, rather than judged against another culture—and develop awareness of the preconceived notions they might hold about a culture other than their own. This part of the whole-group conversation should begin to support culturally sustaining pedagogy—which doesn't see society as only catering to one culture or language but instead celebrates cultural pluralism and equality (Paris).
Students can start by objectively identifying the major differences between the subject matter's characteristics and their own characteristics. Teachers might ask, "Using one word, state some imagery that is unfamiliar to you." Student responses can be as simple as "clothes," "gestures," or "setting." Identifying and sharing these observations without interpretation will set the stage for dissecting the piece in a culturally responsive way.
Students can also develop critical consciousness, which is the third aspect of culturally relevant pedagogy. Teachers' questions could run along the lines of, "When you first looked at this, you may have had some biases about the subjects. What did you need to keep in mind when interpreting unfamiliar characteristics?" or "What do you think other people who might have those same biases should consider when analyzing this work?"
It is crucial to create a class environment in which all students understand the existence of biases, prejudices, and racism. A culturally responsive approach to VTS, where teachers design learning experiences to help students question their perceptions of others and consider multiple perspectives when discussing artwork, supports this understanding.
Despite our best intentions, there is no denying that we all have prejudices. A student-centered strategy for analyzing artwork with diverse subjects created by diverse artists lets the art do the teaching.

DeSantis, K., &amp; Housen, A. (2007, October 5). Highlights of findings: Aesthetic development and creative and critical thinking skills study. Retrieved from https://vtshome.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/4HighlightsSanAntonio.pdf

Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). But that's just good teaching! The case for culturally relevant pedagogy. Theory into Practice, 34(3), 159–165. Retrieved from https://nationalequityproject.files.wordpress.com/2012/03/ladson-billings_1995.pdf

Paris, D. (2012). Culturally sustaining pedagogy: A needed change in stance, terminology, and practice. Educational Researcher, 41(3), 93–97. Retrieved from https://web.stanford.edu/class/linguist159/restricted/readings/Paris2012.pdf

Wiley, K. (2008). Three Wise Men Greeting Entry into Lagos [oil on canvas]. Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Kehinde Wiley Studio, The World Stage: Lagos &amp; Dakar. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://kehindewiley.com/works/the-world-stage-lagos-dakar/

Yenowine, P. (2013). Visual thinking strategies: Using art to deepen learning across school disciplines. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

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