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V.4 #4 Social-Emotional Development - Aesthetic Education: Benefits for Children with Learning Disab

Brought to you by Learning Disabilities Worldwide (LDW®) through the generosity of Saint Joseph's University.

Research has suggested that humans have three basic needs—1) to feel competent, 2) to feel socially attached, and 3) to have autonomous control over their own life (Connell and Wellborn, 1991). As students spend the majority of their days in classroom settings, it would be optimal if these classrooms provided opportunities for all three of these basic needs to be met. As teachers, we can assist students with learning disabilities (LD) to feel competent, attached, and empowered through the experiences we provide in our classrooms.

Open-Ended Activities

One way is to provide students with tasks and experiences that inspire and empower them. This can be done through open-ended activities—these types of activities provide students with the opportunity to make different kinds of choices. The idea is to empower the student to engage in the classroom by allowing them as much control as possible through choices while also requiring them to negotiate typical classroom constraints. Teachers can begin to instill open-ended activities in their classrooms by asking themselves questions such as:

  • What is the instructional goal or purpose?

  • What are the time limitations?

  • What are the boundaries and options available?

  • What choices are available to the student to make?

  • What things could go wrong?

  • How will students negotiate the boundaries?

In addition to choosing open-ended activities, teachers can help students see that successes as well as mistakes are a natural part of the learning process. Learning is a dynamic constructive process—the individual uses what they already know in relation to the new information coming in and as a result, the end point of the learning process can not always be predicted.

Aesthetic Education

One curricular model that utilizes choices to foster engagement in a classroom setting is that of Aesthetic Education (AE). AE can be defined as:

“… the intentional undertaking designed to nurture appreciative, reflective, cultural, participatory engagements with the arts by enabling learners to notice what there is to be noticed, and to lend works of art their lives in such a way that they can achieve them as variously meaningful.” (Greene, Variations on a Blue Guitar, p. 6)

The practice of AE in a classroom is not linear; it is not teaching in the arts just for arts sake nor using the arts to teach other subjects. While the exploration of a work of art is part of AE, it is a process that is as individual as the work of art itself. The AE curriculum emerges through a brainstorming process centered on a piece of work. Questions, noticing, personal and curricular connections are woven together to create a line of inquiry. In the classroom the teacher then uses a series of questions to get students to notice the choices that they make in creating their own artistic expressions and to recall how prior experiences interact. The questions can help students to find solutions to problems in the process of creation.

There are several hallmarks of teaching and learning in AE; these include, but are not limited to:

  • Collaborative brainstorming

  • Creation of a generative question, also known as a line of inquiry

  • Exploratory art-making sessions

  • Dialogue of description, analysis and interpretation of the work of art

  • Student-centered active learning

  • Validation of multiple perspectives

  • Connections to classroom curriculum

  • Non-judgmental questioning and reflection

  • Generation of new possibilities and questions to be explored

Teachers often come to AE because they feel that exposure to the arts are good for their students and that they want to give their students the experience of participating in the arts. However, AE moves beyond that to allow students not only live encounters with different types of art in order to facilitate experiences, but also choices in their response. Thus the curriculum focus when practicing an AE approach is one of emergent possibilities.

“It is not, however, the function of the teacher to come into the classroom with reassuring answers or guarantees of any kind. More often than not, novels and great plays comfort me with ambiguities, with mysteries, with roads moving off into the darkness, even as they make me feel a consciousness of widened possibility.” (Greene, Variations on a Blue Guitar, p. 166)

How does AE connect to working with students with Learning Disabilities? AE allows students to be expressive in the classroom without the risk of failure. Students who previously withdrew from classroom participation are free to open up, to ask questions of others, and to participate fully in the arts experience being offered without fear of judgment or evaluation. Reports from teachers working in AE classrooms indicate that student participation is one of authentic engagement while the reflective practice of the teachers themselves increases (Dickson & Costigan, 2011).

Thus it is beneficial for teachers to allow learners to raise their own questions, generate their own possibilities. The inquiry method, which is at the heart of AE practice, emphasizes questioning that leads to the pursuit of further learning. Teachers can reflect on the following questions when they begin to construct an AE experience:

  • Will your questions increase the learner’s will as well as his capacity to learn?

  • Will they help to give him a sense of joy in learning?

  • Will they help to provide the learner with confidence in his ability to learn?

  • Does each question allow for alternate answers?

  • Will the process of answering the questions tend to stress the uniqueness of the learner?

  • Would the questions produce different answers if asked at different stages of the learner’s development?

Final Thoughts

Children with LD frequently have difficulties with academic achievement, social relationships and self-esteem. The three basic needs suggested at the beginning are the product of an AE experience—allowing the learner to feel competent, while in a socially mediated context with opportunities to learn from both adult and peer models, and enabling a sense of control in that the students are able to regulate their learning and participation. The non-judgmental, reflective questioning and line of inquiry in an AE experience provide the strategies that can lead to increased feelings of self-efficacy and achievement about the task that is frequently missing in the educational opportunities of students with LD. As educators we know that classroom conditions can either create or destroy student engagement. By observing these conditions, educators can begin to move toward a more curious and creative school environment for students.


Connell, J.P., & Wellborn, J.G. (1991). Competence, autonomy, and relatedness: A motivational analysis of self-system processes. In R. Gunnar & L.A. Sroufe (Eds.), Minnesota symposia on child psychology (vol. 23, pp. 43-77). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Dickson, R., & Costigan, A. (2011). Emerging Practice for new teachers: Creating possibilities for “aesthetic” readings. English Education, 43(2), 145 – 170.

Greene, M. (2001). Variations on a blue guitar: The Lincoln Center Institute Lectures on Aesthetic Education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Micheline Malow, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Special Education at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York. In addition to teaching courses in Exceptional Students and Instructional Strategies for Teaching Students with Learning and Behavioral Disorders, she has presented at numerous professional conferences, published articles on students with exceptional needs, friendship and teacher attitudes, and has co-authored a book for Greenwood Press, Adolescents and Risk (2008).

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