Thoughts on the Visual Arts and Global Issues in ELT

Last month I was honoured to be speaking at The Image Conference in Lisbon, and was really enthused and inspired by so much of what was being talked about.  There are some very exciting things happening at the moment.  The conference and many of the discussions at the event centered around what I consider to be vital issues in contemporary ELT, not only on themes such as such as visual literacy and critical thinking, but also wider social and global issues – inspired by Kieran Donaghy’s sessions – such as addressing values and fostering empathy in an increasingly hostile world.  These are dialogues that need to be had, and ideas that need to be shared, but that are rarely given the attention they deserve at other events. That the conference addressed two areas that I feel so passionate about really made me feel at home, and comforted to finally be surrounded by people with similar passions in the ELT world.  I’ve since become more involved with The Visual Arts Circle, a community of practice made up of language teaching professionals, teachers, teacher trainers, writers, editors, researchers, designers, illustrators, artists, photographers, and filmmakers, all with a shared belief in the value of visual arts in language education. The Visual Arts Circle believe that incorporating visual arts is an extremely effective way of improving the quality of teaching and learning, particularly in the field of language teaching. Through the process of sharing information and experiences with the group, members learn from each other, and have an opportunity to develop personally and professionally.

At next year’s IATEFL Conference, The Global Issues SIG and The Visual Arts Circle are delivering a joint pre-conference event on Social Justice and ELT through the Visual Arts, and I’m honoured to have been invited to speak. I’ll be delivering a workshop session which explores a combination of teacher-drawing and learner-drawing tasks to explore issues of social justice and human rights. 
All of this got me thinking about how it is that the Visual Arts and Global Issues marry together so well.  Here are my thoughts so far. 

Thoughts on the Visual Arts and Global Issues in ELT

The artist Maurizio Cattelan once said:

“Whatever comes after you’ve done your work, it doesn’t belong to you. You can’t control it.”

For me, this is the power of the visual arts, that the viewer’s response becomes as legitimate as the artist’s intention. And I think it’s this great equalising relationship between artist and viewer – and between one viewer and another, because there’s no right and wrong when it comes to interpretation, every perception is valid – I think it’s this equality that makes visual art such an invigorating launch pad for dialogues.

In terms of the English language classroom, a context in which we’re essentially ‘growing’ a shared language, I think these dialogues, this communication, is so important. At its simplest, a visual can be a prompt for simple vocabulary or lexical items, but this is almost denying their potential, because beyond this the visual arts also have immense power to trigger deeper discussion and engagement with themes such as social justice and human rights – themes which we need, as global citizens, to be talking about more. And if what we’re doing as teachers is helping to grow a shared language, a lingua franca, then these themes are all the more relevant as topics for discussion.

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