By Dr Vicki Hargraves

In our webinar exploring teacher beliefs about their self-efficacy and competence in the visual arts, Dr Gai Lindsay of the University of Wollongong, Dr Sarah Probine of Manukau Institute of Technology, and Dr Rachel Denee of Victoria University of Wellington explain the impact of ECE teachers’ self-efficacy beliefs for their visual arts practices with children. With the common findings from their three research studies highlighting how early childhood teachers tend to report low visual arts confidence, Gai, Sarah, and Rachel describe positive strategies that can build teachers’ capacity to deliver rich arts-based learning experiences with children.

The key highlights from the webinar include:

The visual arts offer children rich contexts for learning, and are an important tool for implementing the early childhood curriculum. Visual arts enable the visual representation of thinking, and encompass a broad range of activities, such as drawing, painting, tapa, carving, knitting, weaving, making patterns, and photography. The visual arts promote children’s wonder and delight, and can support complex and critical thinking. Children learn about persevering with challenges, problem-solving, and managing frustration when things go wrong. They can also learn to share a vision, communicate ideas, and negotiate tasks in order to collaborate on an artwork. Finally, art offers children a space in which to express their culture and identity.

Children benefit when teachers are confident and have the knowledge and skills to take active roles in their learning in the visual arts. Research shows that when teachers feel empowered and successful in using the visual arts, and are equipped with skills, knowledge, teaching strategies, and language, they are more likely to engage in effective visual arts teaching with children. When teachers lack confidence and knowledge, they can be uncertain about how to facilitate positive learning experiences. They are more likely to assume a hands-off role in visual arts experiences, believing they should not interrupt children’s creativity or expression. However, it is important for teachers to get involved and support children to make the most of the rich potential that learning in the visual arts offers.

Teachers’ self-efficacy beliefs in relation to the visual arts are often impacted by life experiences and by particular assumptions about art. While some teachers may have had childhood experiences in which they observed role models who were passionate about the arts, others may not have engaged with the arts growing up, or may have received negative feedback about their art-making in school. It is often assumed that art-making is solely about talent, and teachers rarely describe themselves as artists, because they perceive art as a professional occupation. Others will not describe themselves as artistic because they cannot draw realistically. However, art, like all learning, is about skills and dispositions rather than just talent, and there are many genres of art besides realism.

Teachers can develop self-efficacy in the visual arts by engaging in professional and personal development activities. The most effective way to develop confidence is through personal engagement in artistic processes. This can be as simple as beginning to play with arts materials, either at home, or together as a team in team meetings. Through hands-on experiences with materials, teachers will come to discover the potentials and difficulties of the materials, and build confidence to support children in effective experiences with the material. Try starting with one material, such as clay, charcoal and paper, or simply a black marker, and explore it in depth over weeks and months, with and without the children, to build a relationship with the material. Teachers can also improve their self-efficacy in relation to the visual arts by building their pedagogical content knowledge.

It can be important to reduce judgements about one’s own art-work. Practical strategies to reduce high expectations include being prepared to make ‘bad art’, planning to be playful and have fun, and getting past the idea that art should be representational. It can be useful to explore ephemeral art (using natural materials to think about shapes, colours, and patterns), or to create small art, on little pieces of paper. Finally, it can help to make art in a group (together with children, or other teachers).

Art is not necessarily about creating realistic, recognisable images. Exposing teachers, and the children, to a vast range of art, including abstract, conceptual, and ephemeral art, can help open minds to the idea that art is not about creating realistic images. Try contour drawing (looking at an object and drawing its outline on paper without looking at the paper), and other fun variations on drawing. Teachers can be inspired by other artists’ work, focusing in on the colours or techniques they use as a starting point for their own experimentation.

Sensory play can provide a precursor to visual arts experiences. Sensory experiences offer children opportunities to build relationships with materials such as paint, clay, or charcoal. Infants and toddlers will often be encountering a material for the first time, so early encounters with art materials are about making exciting discoveries about the properties of materials. Teachers can support this by planning and preparing well, maintaining small groups, and using a respectful and caring approach. Once older children have gained some familiarity with the material, they should be extended beyond repetitive activity, which involves teachers working out how to elevate and scaffold children’s work with the material to an expressive level in which they are more intentional with materials.