Transcript of The conceptual framework

This transcript has been edited slightly for clarity. Listen to the Conceptual framework podast (31:54).

Jackie – The following podcast is brought to you by the Creative Arts Curriculum Team from Secondary Learners Educational Standards Directorate of the New South Wales Department of Education. As we commence this podcast today, let us acknowledge the traditional custodians of all the lands on which this podcast will be played around New South Wales. Their art, storytelling, music and dance along with all First Nations People hold

the memories, the traditions, the culture and hopes of Aboriginal Australia. Let us acknowledge with honour and respect our elders, past, present and future, especially those Aboriginal people in our presence today who have and still do guide us with their wisdom.

Kathrine – Hello everyone. My name is Kathrine Kyriacou and I am the Visual Arts Advisor 7 -12. My guest today is Dr Karen Maras. Dr Maras is a senior lecturer in the School of Education at the University of New South Wales. As a specialist in arts education, she's program convener, Visual arts, Media Arts and Design Education. Dr Morris has a longstanding involvement in curriculum development projects and advocacy in visual arts at state and national levels in Australia. In her research, Dr Karen Maras investigates the ontological basis of critical reasoning in art. Recently, she published a journal article titled ‘Ahead of its Time,’ reassessing what is core content in Visual Arts in the New South Wales curriculum and it focused largely on the conceptual framework. So that leads us to our discussion today.

So we're going to start with a very straightforward question, Karen, can you just briefly outline for our listeners what the conceptual framework in visual arts is?

Karen – Thanks Kathy and thanks for inviting me here today to talk about this. It's been something that I've been interested in for a long time and certainly has strong connections to my research on students’ conceptual development in our subject and describing visual arts as a conceptual domain is not something that is readily taken up in other countries or in other states even or in the national curriculum. But we certainly have developed a very particular kind of understanding of how art learning occurs in New South Wales. And this framework is central to that way of considering how we describe what is content in the syllabus and how we describe how learning gravitates from, I guess naive or simple forms, to more autonomous and more complex ways of understanding what art is. The conceptual framework is like a map that defines the field of visual arts. It informs teachers of what the domain of visual arts is as a field of study and it's a conceptual system, hence the name conceptual framework. And it features four core concepts and they are the artists, the artwork, the audience and the world represented. And sometimes we call that subject matter. This network of concepts helps teachers and students to explain the relationships between these ideas of artist, artwork, audience and world. And it helps us work through explanations of art when we are making it. And also, when we're talking about it as critics or interpreting it.

Kathrine – Can you give us a little bit of a history lesson in a sense? How did the conceptual framework come about in 7-12 Syllabus documents and what needs did it meet?

Karen – Well, in the late 1990s, there was a significant review of the Higher School Certificate courses in New South Wales. This was the McGaw Review of the new HSC. And during that time, a group of us, and what I mean, who I mean by us were representatives from universities, experienced teachers, representatives from the Board of Studies, which was the predecessor of NESA and other people working in the field. And we were asked to form a project team and work through what would be the optimum content framework for Visual Arts at Stage 6 Level. And at that time and prior to that, during the 1990s, there had been considerable work undertaken by researchers on what are the conceptual basis of students’ understandings of art or their intuitive theories of art and how those theories develop. One of the key priorities for this project team or the evaluation team was to develop a report which outlined all of the empirical evidence that could be used to inform the redesign of the visual arts curriculum. And it was really excellent that we started with Stage 6 because it gave us a way of then being able to see what the endpoint was for the complexity of content at that level and then make decisions further about what content would be like in 7-10 and then what would be the foundations of content. So, in other words, this research provided us with the empirical basis of art understanding from kindergarten through to stage six or the HSC. So that was a very important decision and the conceptual framework was called to this.

So, the research came from work by Professor Norman Freeman from Bristol University and he collaborated with Professor Neil Brown from NSW in what was then called the Faculty of Art and Design. Between them, Norman and Neil did quite a lot of experiments with children of primary school age and what they worked out was children advanced their understandings conceptually using these four concepts of artist, world, work and audience. And they also identified ways in which that conceptual understanding increases in complexity as students get more confident, more autonomous in their way of explaining what artworks are and learn to develop very high-level complex ideas about art by the age of 12 or so. So, this framework is something that consolidates in students thinking by about the time they get to year seven. So, we realize that this is a really important part of the subject in terms of explaining what is the conceptual basis of learning in the subject rather than just deciding that this is all about process and we'll just get kids to explore things. We are very committed to working with students, thinking as much as they're doing about in terms of what we do in the classroom. And I think it's been an innovation that has helped many teachers too be very focused on what are the big questions I'm asking students in my classroom to consider as they're planning their programs of work.

Kathrine – Really interesting history and good for so many teachers who are so familiar in New South Wales with that syllabus to have an understanding of. So, look, there are three content areas in our current syllabus documents. Can you please briefly explain for us, and I know this is a challenge to do briefly, the relationship between the conceptual framework, the frames and practice?

Karen – This is a complex question, seemingly simple but complex, and that's because the nature of art is complex and while it's complex, there are very easy ways of dividing up how and on what terms we can think about it. What I mean by that is that we can apply logical systems of thinking and understanding in our subject, which moves us beyond common sense sort of descriptions of me, myself and my expression, to ways of thinking about art in a range of different ways which helps us. And I guess the syllabus has been around for so long and it's been able to be adapted to a very fast changing art world, the nature of which can never be anticipated. The three areas of content in the Syllabus are the conceptual framework, the frames and practice. These three areas form an interrelated system for understanding art and they help us in our thinking about art, making how we position ourselves as artists and also how we position ourselves as critics when we're interpreting art. The conceptual framework provides a map of the field, as I said earlier on, and identifies the core concepts and the relationships between them. So that's one area that we can use to start with in investigating what is art or what this instance of art might be and how it works within the art world. But using those concepts alone in the conceptual framework isn't sufficient for understanding how they actually can be applied when you're working with examples of artworks or instances of practices it's called in the syllabus. So, we need to have a way of thinking about these. What an artwork is, for example, and the very instance of looking at an artwork triggers in us all sorts of thoughts and ideas. And we see teachers doing this with students in classrooms all the time.

But what emerges in the theory about what is art is the need for a set of belief systems to help us explain what art is, and this is where the frames come into play. So, if we're talking about the relationship between an artist and an artwork and why the artist made it, we need a belief system to help us build an explanation of the reasons for the artwork existing in the first place and also the intentions of the artist. So, in other words, we activate the frames as value systems. They help us work out what to say about meaning and what the purpose of the artwork is and why artists have made them and how audiences respond to these things or interpret them as, which would probably be a better word there. They help us work out what are personal ideas that are represented in art, what kinds of cultural traditions and ideas are communicated to audiences, what sorts of symbol systems are used and how artworks. And I'm thinking here, if someone like Banksy can be quite irreverent and satirical takes on art itself and we love the ironic sort of play in those sorts of works. And we would think of the postmodern frame as something that would come into play when we're thinking about those sorts of works. So, in other words, the beliefs we have about art or the framing systems were used to explain art help us bridge the gap between those concepts in the framework. So, in other words, those lines between the concepts in the framework, in the diagrams that we see in syllabus documents are actually lines of reasoning that we can apply the frames to see what happens when we explain them from different points of view. So, the frames themselves are different points of view. The other part of the puzzle here is the concept of practice. So, in other words, when we're investigating the practices of artists, one of the things we might start with is what is the role of the artist in this particular instance of practice. So, again, practice overlaps with the conceptual framework. The framework gives us a way of talking about the concepts and talking about the field, and the theory of practice helps us talk about what is the role of the artist or the role of the critic, for example, it helps us talk about what are their intentions? What are their actions about? How do they strategize, what sorts of conventions of practice do they enact when they're working on an artwork or constructing a critical review of an exhibition, for example. So, again, that still needs to be framed. We can't talk about that in a neutral way. We necessarily have to say that some of the works by Jackson Pollock, for example, necessarily are about self-expression, which is framing it from a personal position, and the way in which we talk about those works also has to be framed from that position. And so, his practice is very much about the intuitive, self-expressive demeanour of an artist, making the sort of work that he did in the 1950s.

Kathrine – Thank you. I love hearing you unpack all those concepts because your rich discussion of the relationships between those three areas of content and even your discussion of the relationship between the aspects of the conceptual framework and those lines, signifying reasoning is fascinating to me. Lots of words there that teachers could, if they don't already, could incorporate into what they're feeding into their classes and their classroom learning. So, thank you. So, let's unpack just one aspect of the conceptual framework for our listeners. I'm going to pick area of the audience. Can you speak to us briefly about the importance of learning about this aspect of the conceptual framework?

Karen – So one of the important areas that we emphasise in the New South Wales curriculum is the concept of audience and we do that very strongly because we have included in the curriculum from K-12, the area of the critical study of art and the historical study of art. So, what we do is we say in art, we can make works and that's obviously a logical starting point for many teachers, particularly in the primary years, that might be something that seems more obvious to them and certainly lends itself to exciting classroom activities. And these activities are based on the study of artists and their practice. One of the things that perhaps could be further emphasised in the curriculum is the student's own role as audience in the work that they make, but also in studying the work of other people. So, by asking students to take on the role of audience, what we're asking them to do is to become critics of the works by other artists and also of their own and be able to make judgments about what those things mean and what they look like. What's interesting though is that often the role of the critic is reduced to this idea that you just have a response to an artwork and that that's going to be an immediate range of ideas about the artwork and that somehow that artwork will represent its own meaning to you, or it will come streaming into you from somewhere and hit you in the head like a lightning bolt and suddenly it will all become self-evident. Well, in New South Wales, what we say is that that's not actually the case. You actually need to think about meanings in terms of logical concepts, ways of reasoning about them, and also knowing something about the work itself.

So, this points us to the idea that in order to be an audience and to learn to be an art critic or an art historian who wants to tell the story or the narrative about artworks and by default, has to deal with questions of meaning. The critic is necessarily required to start looking at the work, but also situating it within the circumstances of its own production. So, looking at the work on its own without any contextual information only gets you so far. If you do some research of that artist and the work that they have produced in the time and place in which it was made, you get a really rich way of interpreting and understanding the meaning of what the work looks like. The role of the audience is certainly one that involves what Richard Wollheim, who's a theorist of esthetician, and he talks about the role of the spectator, which is the same as the role of the audience, and he talks about the role of the spectator needing some cognitive stock, which is a term I love, because it immediately points to the need to teach students something about the works as well as expect them to make inferences about what they mean and explain what they think they're about. And students are actually really good at this. The students that I had talking to me about artworks in my own PhD study, talked at length about the ways in which different sorts of portraits could be interpreted by themselves, but also, the ways that portraits could be understood differently by different audiences. So, it's not just about me as audience, it's about how do other audiences make sense of these artworks.

So, again, layering those sorts of discussions and pulling on evidence from other sorts of critics and audiences, helps students take on the role of the audience, but understand that people have different points of view at the same time. So, again, it's a complex and layered account, and the conceptual framework gives us a lovely way of positioning the audience relative to what does this artwork mean? What does it represent in terms of the world represented? What sort of subject matter does it involve? And why did the artists make it? So, it's coming at the idea, the question of art and meaning from a different position other than just making it. And it's an important way of balancing out the different practices in our subject.

Kathrine – Fantastic. And even just in your response there in talking about the audience, you've made it really clear that none of these areas of the conceptual framework can ever really be looked at in isolation because you've necessarily talked to us about the artist and about the art world and about the artwork. So that connection between all of them, you've made beautifully visible and unpacked its importance as well. So, thank you. You have discussed today the conceptual framework as enabling students to engage with fundamental questions about the big ideas in art, such as what are artworks and what are audiences, you know, what is their role? And I know you've just talked a little bit about your research and

about what you found from your work with students. Can you see learners who only have an emerging or developing understanding of the art world, easily accessing those kinds of big ideas?

Karen – They bring these big ideas to the classroom and they may not have a fully formed understanding of how all of these ideas fit together. But there is a developmental sequence in the way that the conceptual framework or a theory of art, which is really what it is in cognitive terms, emerges in people's thinking and beliefs about art. So, for example, the work that Norman Freeman and Neil Brown conducted in the 1990s was pivotal in identifying the conceptual sequencing that occurs in the way that students develop an understanding of art. So, by interviewing students from the early years of primary school through to students entering the beginning of high school, they were able to map this conceptual development and the sequencing of concepts in students’ ideas about art. So, we know that, and the work that I've done confirms a lot of this work as well. We know that students arrive in kindergarten through to about year 2, and the main framing of their understanding of art would be through the lens of the subject matter. So, they have a very literal understanding of an artwork. So, for example, in my study, one of the six year olds looked at a portrait by Angera and it was a portrait of a princess and his response was, she is so pretty, she is just lovely, because it's a really realistically painted portrait that's beautifully coloured. Now, one of the things that we're seeing in that statement is that the student is relying on the subject matter to access the meaning of the artwork. So that's a naive realist positioning of their theory of art. They have collapsed the subject matter into the concept of artwork, but slowly and surely, and with the help of teachers too, the student can be brought to an understanding that the subject matter is part of the artwork.

So, in other words, there's a picture there and it represents the princess. So, this is the beginnings of the theory of representation. And slowly but surely the students with age and over time generate explanations of art, where they start to implicate the artist in this equation. So, the conceptual framework’s like the equation for art, it's the logical equation for how things are situated. So, they can start to say, well, there's subject matter of the princess in the picture that is made by an artist. So, they're joining up the idea of the subject matter, the artist and the artwork. And they can talk about the properties of that artwork. And eventually by the end of about year six into year seven. Typically, students will get to the point where they can say, well, there's also an audience implicated in this equation. So, the artist makes the picture of the princess for an audience and they have very particular desires and purposes and motives for doing so. So, in other words, between Kindergarten and year six students are working on their own conceptual framework. So, a teacher coming into an art room and posing questions about what is this thing called an artwork. I would anticipate that younger students will just talk about it in terms of subject matter. But that's a wonderful teaching moment for them to be able to say, well hang on a second. This is actually a picture of a princess. How do we work this out? And who made this picture? And who was the picture made for? So those equations become part of the logic of thinking about art. And eventually by about year seven, we also see very firm indications that students begin to frame these explanations by drawing on ideas about creativity, expression, technical virtuosity, cultural ideas. So, for example, in my study, I had one student telling me all about the value of these different sorts of portraits, to people with different tastes and different amounts of money. Who could purchase these for display in different sorts of places, which is a really complex understanding of what the function of the picture is. So, teachers will find this as a scaffold on which to build not just students’ explanations but their own programs of learning. You can sequence, particularly in the primary school years very easily questions about art by using those relationships in the conceptual framework. So, you can move from what is a picture to how did the picture get made and by whom? Which is an artist artwork question. And those questions become much more complex when you say, how is the picture made? By whom and what is it representing? Which is a three-way relationship within that framework. And then of course, the audience can be implicated in that is the more complex end of the spectrum. So, this is something that provides access for teachers in planning, because we know that developmental leaps that students make are based on learning how to join up these concepts in a particular sequence and we can help them with that.

Kathrine – Look, I've got a final question for you, I know that you work with many pre service art teachers, often younger people who are getting to know the syllabus perhaps for the first time. And I know also that you regularly visit a range of classrooms with expert teachers and, you know, a whole range of teachers across the state, really. What are the benefits that you see for teachers for having this clear model of four concepts that make up the art world?

Karen – Well, if we go back to what I was just talking about in terms of the fundamentals of the theory of art, the conceptual framework emerges and becomes established in students thinking over the primary school years. So, it's absolutely logical that it becomes part of the fundamentals for talking about art in yera 7-10, it doesn't disappear. We just get more sophisticated in the ways that we can put it to work in our thinking and how we orientate ourselves in making artworks and constructing critical judgments about them. For example, what I meant by getting better at putting this to work, we actually become more adept at using it as a basis for our explanations and our thinking and by invoking other layers of thinking. So, the frames and our concepts and theories of practice become interrelated within it. And we talk about this as high inference thinking in the subject, we talk about this as engaging in more autonomous ways of thinking and the syllabus names that specifically in the rationale, I think in stage six, so what I do with my pre-service teachers in talking about this is to say this is a scaffold for your planning, but it's going to match how students themselves think about art. So, in other words, it becomes a common language and what the students, I'm referring to, our students who are entering the profession as primary teachers mostly, and their anxieties are about. Well, I don't have a deep knowledge of art, I don't have discipline specific expertise, I can't even draw that, what they can do is they can learn to think about art so in these instances I get them to use the conceptual framework to help scaffold research of artists and then we use it as a scaffold for then inventing and working with ideas about how to explain these things that they've researched, what sorts of belief systems are being enacted in some of the literature that they're reading, so how they're framed and then we look also at, how can we adapt some of these practices that these artists or these critics have started to use and turn those into learning activities in the classroom. But what we can help teachers with is a way of understanding how to think about art from a conceptual perspective, which then helps build some confidence about this is not a mystical, you know, unfathomable realm of teaching. It actually has a logical basis to it. And if we apply that, like we would apply it in science and maths and English, we can still work through really interesting questions of art and we can draw on exhibitions, articles in newspapers as content for the students that we're going to work within our classrooms. So, the pre-service teachers, they always are surprised at how easily they can work with this framework as the beginning to understanding how, how to think about art and then maybe how to start teaching it and feel confident about that.

Kathrine – That's good to hear. Thank you so much, Karen, it has been absolutely a pleasure to get to sit and listen to you talk about the conceptual framework and to have you so generously share your expertise in this area and we're very, very grateful. Thank you for sharing with us today and I'm looking forward to working with you further, we've got a project that we're going to release later in the year on critical and creative thinking in visual arts, and I've been lucky enough to have your help on that one. So that's something that's coming up for our listeners to look out for as well.

Karen – And it's been great fun and it's been lovely to talk this through. I love talking about this and I like talking about the research in the area and I'm very happy to say that I have a couple of PhD students working on further work on how the conceptual framework is applied. One of those students is working in the primary school context, and another is looking at how secondary school students activate these concepts in their learning in the visual arts. So that's exciting and heartening to see that some teachers out there really want to investigate their content more deeply through this research. So pleased for anyone to contact me about further opportunities in that area.

Kathrine – Thank you so much, Karen, we really appreciate it. Thank you.

Jackie – This podcast was brought to you by the Creative Arts Curriculum Team of Secondary Learners, Educational Standards Directorate of the New South Wales Department of Education.

Get involved in the conversation by joining our statewide staff room through the link in the show notes or email our Creative Arts Curriculum Advisor, Cathryn Horvat at The music for this podcast was composed by Alex Manton and audio production by Jason King.


Return to top of page Back to top