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The National Review of Visual Education

Special report

This article has been sourced from the Discussion Paper and Summary Guide of the National Review of Visual Education. The views expressed in this paper are those pertaining to the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the Department of Education, Science and Training. See the Review website for latest information.


In August 2004 the Australian Government announced that it would fund a Review of Education in Visual Arts, Craft, Design and Visual Communication. The Review is being undertaken by the Centre for Learning Change and Development (CLCD) based at Murdoch University in Western Australia.

The Review's working definition of 'visual education' embraces contemporary visual art, craft and design forms and purposes. Specific areas of focus include curriculum, teaching and teacher education.

Some of the issues raised in the Review's 2005 Discussion Paper and its Summary Guide are now described.

The arts in education

Interest in visual education reflects a renewed interest, on an international scale, in arts education more broadly, and its contribution to learning, society and individual wellbeing. In requesting the Review the Australian Government stated that:

Arts education offers rich and complex learning opportunities and powerful developmental experiences for young people by fostering cognitive, social and personal competencies for lifelong learning and fulfilment. Arts education develops innovative and creative minds equipped for the knowledge society and also provides meaningful connections and social experiences for disadvantaged or 'at-risk' students. (Australian Government 2005)

Around the world, government-generated reports on the arts tend to focus on their instrumental value, but a key report by the Rand Corporation, Gifts of the Muse, calls for recognition of public welfare benefits from the arts’ intrinsic values.

Visual literacy and visual education

The visual arts have been framed within the idea of literacy. Visual literacy is itself positioned within the current educational focus on multiple literacies. In this conception, each of the art forms (dance, drama, media, music and visual arts) is recognised as a unique arts language expressing and communicating meaning through shared symbol codes, conventions and shaping social and cultural contexts. However, the construction of visual arts education in literacy terms is contentious. In part, this is because earlier conceptualisations of visual literacy, which emphasised a reading of images in terms of signs and symbols, resulted in a misrepresentation of the complexity and significance of visual arts in the curriculum. In particular, the profound significance of 'making' – of learning and becoming by doing – was overlooked, and as English departments incorporated readings of images in their curriculum, a diminution of visual arts began.

In this Review, the visual arts are positioned within a new frame: the frame of visual education. This positioning creates the new challenge of describing the distinctiveness and nature of the visual arts, and their contribution to education within a visual education frame – allowing for the fact that 'visual education' is itself an evolving concept.

Cultural Studies and visual culture

The cognitive revolution in the arts of the 1970s transported aesthetic visualisation and art from the affective (feeling) to the cognitive (rational) domain. Cognitive approaches to the arts concentrate on what artworks mean and how their meaning is framed. Under cognitive terms 'artfulness' is a property that is attributed to artefacts through the language of critical ascription. This process has been formalised into the mainly language-based discipline of Cultural Studies.

Hilary Janks (2002, p.7) argues that this essentially rationalist approach leaves out 'desire and identification' and therefore does not address the nonrational investments that readers bring with them to texts and tasks. Janks argues that visual culture (a sub-category of cultural studies dealing with popular culture and visualisation) fails because it removes human agency from cultural understanding. She suggests that only art can restore or reconstruct this agency.

Design in education

Design education occurs within two school subject pathways: visual arts on the one hand and design and technology (technology and enterprise) on the other. In the arts context emphasis is placed on aesthetics, problem-solving, inventive solutions and craftsmanship in areas of arts production. Curriculum that privileges more 'technical' or empirical ways of knowing is found in the vocational, industrial and technology context aligned to a curriculum that is growing out of a 'manual skills for trade' history. It could be argued that this division represents a split of core attributes into two parts, diminishing each.

Visual communication

Visual communication fields are as diverse as digital animation, print media, video or television formats to graphical user-interface design or computer game design. In these contexts there is an increasing emphasis on the integration of text and image as we move to new text styles, new image technologies and new non-linear ways of communicating in new spatial realities.

The technological challenge

New visual technologies and related multimodal forms are transforming and enlarging our world. At the same time, opportunities and the demand for skills that enable people to function within the mediated, graphic and performative environments are increasing.

The demand for these skills has an egalitarian quality and a keen vocational edge. The capacity to work effectively in this environment is not simply a matter of technological facility. How we conceive, think and structure information, knowledge, experience and understandings in a visual world are matters of primary concern.

Aesthetics and ethical judgement for a changing world

The digitised production of high-quality multimodal images has made positions in music, cinema and the graphic arts accessible to young people who possess only vernacular levels of technical skill in these disciplines. Equally, young employees across many fields are required to capture images and design presentations in which the skill and the technology used is high but the ethical, aesthetic and communicative judgement is correspondingly banal (Stankievicz 2004, 88-91). Visual education needs to promote sophisticated levels of aesthetic and ethical judgement.

Visual education and vocational pathways: limitations and opportunities

The school structure organises curriculum into subjects, timetables and streams that obliges students to make choices which regularly preclude them from key forms of visual education.

If we view visual competency/capability as essential, like literacy and numeracy, we need to consider how students will have opportunities for continued education in this sphere. Similarly, if visual education is integral to an increasingly broad range of vocations, the necessary grounding will need to be provided within the structure of the school curriculum.

Equity, engagement and disposition to learning

The arts demonstrably play an important role in accommodating students who otherwise are marginalised by background, learning style and interests or socialisation to school. However, schools must also provide for a diversity of schooling needs, to accommodate a range of learning styles and, generally, to provide for learning equity. Schools and arts and design education programs also have a responsibility to address the needs of talented students or students who have a strong learning or vocational interest in arts and design-related activities.

Equality will be strongly determined by students' access to technological resources.

Equity also involves accommodating needs arising from students’ cultural backgrounds, and appreciating and validating the cultural diversity of students. Visual art is uniquely placed, through its aesthetic focus and traditional role as critical transgressor, to engage with Indigenous and ethnic particularities and to embrace cultural differences.

Culture, identity and citizenship

Youth are influenced by a globalised popular culture characterised by the dominance of the image, a rapid and constant mixing of signs and symbols, and the creation of new cultural identities shifting us away from bounded and unique cultural communities.

It is essential that society provides individuals with cultural literacy skills and reflective practices that enable them to critique media presentations and examine how the media shapes cultural identities. Learning environments should encourage children to develop the dispositions and capabilities to mediate the influence of society in order to encourage the ethical behaviour, individual autonomy and social responsibility that inform citizenship. In this field of visual education artists can make a unique contribution, through the way that they 'see' their world.

The school in the community: delivering and resourcing visual education

The capacity to access information immediately and specifically from Internet sites and CD productions of institutions, organisations, individuals and information repositories on an international scale has reconfigured the way students learn. It has also introduced the notion that partnerships and other forms of community involvement can play a role in education. This idea is now extending to face-to-face contexts with alternative facilitators, environments and formats being considered.

Curriculum and pedagogy

How well does the National Curriculum Framework with its identification of Learning Areas and the use of an outcomes-based approach support visual education? How well does it prepare students in visual education for future vocational and educational destinations?

A key report commissioned by UNESCO, the Australia Council for the Arts and the International Federation of Arts Councils and Cultural Agencies, The Wow Factor: Global research compendium on the impact of the Arts in education (Bamford, 2005) indicates that the benefits of arts-rich programs are only realised through high-quality programs.

This finding raises interesting questions for visual education. For example, what is quality in visual education broadly speaking? And who decides? In addition, in what ways do current pedagogical practices lead to the educational benefits we claim? What are exemplars of high-quality educational programs in visual education? How successful are we at disseminating information effectively and efficiently – translating research evidence into high-quality, broad-scale pedagogic practice?

Teacher education: a lifelong process

Most early childhood and primary school student-teachers bring little visual education background to their tertiary studies. Pre-service teacher education cannot effectively address this deficit within the time available. Matters concerning aesthetic sensibility, visual thinking and meaning-making require extended periods of engagement in arts and design practices.

Therefore, new models of teacher education/educational delivery in schools need to be embraced. Strong links between pre-service and ongoing professional development, specialist teachers for primary schools, partnership models that are effective, practical and sustainable are all areas for consideration.

Secondary teacher education needs to be reviewed to determine how best to prepare student-teachers to meet the emerging challenges. This applies to both specialist teachers working in visual education and secondary teachers more generally.

Teachers' ongoing education is an investment if it helps them to keep pace with change and maintain their passion and if it enables forms of advancement and generational renewal.

High-quality visual arts education provides significant educational returns for both individuals and society. However, poor-quality visual arts education returns little of value. In a changing educational world, we need to better understand what constitutes high-quality visual arts education, and visual education more generally, and how we can make this broadly available to Australian students.


References appearing in this article

The Discussion Paper includes more extensive reference listing.

Australian Government (2005), Request for Tender for the Provision of National Review of Education in Visual Arts, Craft, Design and Visual Communication, prepared by the Australia Council for the Arts and the Department of Education Science and Training, p 4.

Bamford, A. (2005), The Wow Factor: Global research compendium on the impact of the Arts in education, Waxmann Verlag GmbH, Munster.

Janks, H. (2002), Critical literacy: beyond reason. The Australian Educational Researcher, 29 (1), pp 7–27.

McCarthy, KF, Ondaatje, EH., Zakaris, L & Brooks, A (2004), Gifts of the Muse: Reframing the debate about the benefits of the arts ,commissioned by the Wallace Foundation, Rand Corporation, Santa Monica [http://www.rand.org/publications/MG/MG218/]

Stankiewicz, MA (2004), Notions of technology and visual literacy, Studies in Art Education 46 (1), pp 88–91.

Key Learning Areas

The Arts

Subject Headings

Visual literacy
Visual arts
Arts in education