Sean Nowicki: Art Education Teaches Critical Thinking

Sean Nowicki leads Outschool classes on art and art history. We interviewed him about his classes and his experience with Outschool.

Sean Nowicki has taught art and art history to middle schoolers since 2001, but after he and his wife had a baby in 2011, "we decided that I would take some time off," he said. This year, his daughter, Grace turns five. "I tried to go back and it didn't work out for various reasons," he added, mainly due to scheduling issues.

A few months ago, he replied to an ad seeking art instructors. "Outschool came along and presented this opportunity, and I've been really excited about that," said Nowicki, who recently taught his tenth art history class.

"I've been missing teaching, so it offered both the idea that I could make my own schedule, create the exact classes I wanted to teach, and work around the stay-at-home dad lifestyle that I've been cultivating," he said. "Plus, I'm a painter, so if I'm not teaching, I can stay home and paint."

Approaching Art

The field trips Nowicki has led so far have given his students "an entire course in art of the Western World," he said. Leading groups of 7-10 pupils (along with several parents) to area museums, he follows the tenets of philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto.

"He came up with this amazing way to critique an artwork, so whether you're looking at a Renaissance painting or a Andy Warhol Brillo box that looks like a regular Brillo box, you can use the same criteria to judge either work of art," he said.

"It's almost like the scientific method applied to art: look at it, observe, talk about what you see, and then draw some conclusions."

"Danto's viewpoint made art sort of click for me," said Nowicki. "When I look at a work of art, I first think of how it's constructed before asking, 'is this a good work of art?' if the way it's put together doesn't gel with the meaning, that's what makes it an unsuccessful work of art," he explained. "But, if the making and the meaning coincide, that's a work of art."

Teaching art using Danto's institutional definitions is "a nice guide," said Nowicki. "You're not just saying, 'I like this,' or, 'I don't like this,' because that's not what's really important," he said. "What's important is, 'is this successful or not, and how can we judge its success?'"

"It's always about looking," explained Nowicki. "Danto's philosophy lets me show kids that it's OK to hate a work of art and see that it's still successful."

Besides Danto's influence, Nowicki said he also favors Visual Thinking Strategies, an art-instruction method that facilitates discussion and engagement by asking students direct questions about each work of art.

"Examining the artwork from all angles is how I train the kids," said Nowicki. "When I look at art with students, first, we name everything we see. Then, we start thinking about how this might be some kind of commentary about something in the world."

As part of the process, Nowicki and students make careful observations about each work to learn more about the actions or emotions depicted by an artist. "We look, then talk about what we see in the work," he said. "Then, we talk about how the art work is made and start drawing conclusions from that."

Art education hones a child's analytical skills, which will pay off in other areas, said Nowicki. "I've had parents say to me that their kids have gone to museums and pointed out things that they learned in our class," he said. "A mother in the Greek/Roman art class told me that her daughter recognized the word 'archaic' and got really excited!"

Reaching New Students

Nowicki said he designs his classes for homeschooled students, but traditional learners can also benefit. "Schools don't have the time or the money to throw in an art history course, so most of this is brand-new information to kids," he said. "I try to make it as entertaining and straightforward as possible."

Outschool isn't just creating opportunities for teachers, said Nowicki; it's also strengthening community for students, parents and teachers.

"The homeschooling world is really disorganized, and that makes sense, since it's a group of people who've decided to break free," said Nowicki. "As a person who's trying to crack the market of homeschooling, I have no idea of who to contact, as there are a bunch of different homeschooling groups. It's a fractured system."

Without Outschool, Nowicki said he'd be putting almost as much energy into finding students and teachers as he does teaching. "My only option right now is Outschool, because I'd have no idea how to contact these different groups and parents to make this happen," he said, recommending the service to "artists and teachers who don't want to work full- time but still want to teach."

Who'd make the best kind of Outschool instructor? "Someone who wants to design their own curriculum and is excited about a subject that they really love," answered Nowicki. "And like me, doesn't already have an outlet."

If you'd like to learn more about leading classes on Outschool, read our FAQ here.

Nick Grandy

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