Arts Curriculum in Ontario: Epistemology and Pedagogy in Inclusive Education Practice

The Ontario Curriculum, Grades 1-8: The Arts, 2009 presents a rare opportunity in the education discourse to analyze the often polarized roles of epistemology and pedagogy in inclusive education practice.

In this paper, we will explore educators’ epistemological beliefs in the arts and how these beliefs inform their inclusive pedagogy and whether the language in The Ontario Curriculum, Grades 1-8: The Arts, 2009 reflects this pedagogical approach.

More specifically, through the writings of Brophy (2006) and Kirschner (2009) we come to understand the polarized debate around epistemology and pedagogy and how they often get mixed up and confused in constructivist pedagogy. Then, we explore the writings of Eisner (2001, 2002) who exemplifies a unique constructivist epistemology and pedagogy of arts teachers and how standards-based reforms threaten their unique pedagogical approaches. Lastly, we explore how educators’ epistemology and pedagogy inform their teaching practice in an inclusive classroom.

To begin, a broad overview of The Ontario Curriculum, Grades 1-8: The Arts, 2009 document, wherein referred to as the curriculum document, will be explored in order to understand the context in which it was developed and how it is meant to be used. Special attention will be given to the sections on Instructional Approaches and Teaching Strategies and Planning Arts Programs for Students with Special Education Needs and how these sections exemplify the discourse on inclusive education policy.


The current and historical context of the Ontario Arts Curriculum

The most recent version of the Ontario arts curriculum document is a revised edition from 2009 which replacesThe Ontario Curriculum, Grades 1-8: The Arts, 1998. In Ontario, Canada, the provincial Ministry of Education (MOE) administers a system of publicly funded education institutions, issues and oversees curricula, sets diploma requirements, and sets policy for student assessments, evaluation and reporting (Ontario Ministry of Education Website). The Ontario Curriculum, Grades 1-8: The Arts, 2009, is a curriculum policy document that outlines what the public can expect children in the grades 1-8 to learn in Ontario’s public elementary schools within the arts.

The current document is labeled as a revision. Beginning in 2003, the MOE established a schedule to revise curriculum documents on an ongoing basis, to ensure that the curriculum is kept current and relevant (Ontario Ministry of Education Website). According to the MOE website, the revision process involves multiple stakeholders from various levels of education. While the list of stakeholders is exhaustive, there is no specific information on how they are involved. Also on the MOE website, is mention of a Curriculum Council, a collection of, “knowledgeable and committed community leaders” (Ontario Ministry of Education Website) who provide advice on issues relating to elementary and secondary school curriculum. However, there is no specific information on how the Curriculum Council is involved in the process.

Beginning in 1995, the MOE of Ontario began implementing standards-based reforms which included a prescribed curriculum and standards-based testing. According to Jordan (2001), these policy reforms indicated a move towards market-driven controls that emphasized centralization and accountability of individual schools. These market-driven reforms resulted in more narrow definitions of student achievement throughout the school subjects which is reflected in the current arts curriculum document in the section on Assessment and Evaluation of Student Achievement and its associated criteria and expectations for student achievement.


Intended Audience

It is this author’s interpretation that the document is meant for the classroom teacher. While this author could not identify any specific mention of who the intended audience is, a large proportion of the document is dedicated to instructional approaches, teaching strategies, and assessment and evaluation of student achievement, which this paper focuses on.

In addition to the emphasis placed on teacher’s roles and responsibilities, the document outlines the roles and responsibilities of other stakeholders in a student’s academic achievement in the arts including the student themselves, parents, principals and community partners. The roles and responsibilities of the principal are more specific to institutional practices in Ontario education including ensuring that the arts curriculum is being properly implemented according to the document and that every student who has an Individual Education Plan (IEP) is receiving the modifications and/or accommodations described in his or her plan.


Special Education Needs in the arts curriculum

The document includes a section on planning arts programs for children with special education needs. The document refers readers to several supplementary education documents, namely, Education for All: The Report of the Expert Panel on Literacy and Numeracy Instruction for Students With Special Education Needs, Kindergarten to Grade 6, 2005 (EFA) and The Individual Education Plan (IEP): A Resource Guide, 2004.

According to the curriculum document, and confirmed by this author, the EFA outlines a set of beliefs that should guide program planning for students with special education needs. However, the EFA document places emphasis on literacy and numeracy with no mention of the arts curriculum.

The rest of the section on including children with special education needs outlines several instructional practices including universal design and differentiated instruction, accommodations and modifications, and IEP considerations. However, there is no mention of how these instructional practices relate to the arts. The document simply mirrors the language and text in the EFA document, including mentioning that teachers are the key to student’s literacy and numeracy development.


Constructivist epistemology and pedagogy in an inclusive classroom

In order to deepen our understanding of instructional practices within arts education we turn to a discussion and exploration about educators’ epistemological beliefs in the arts and how these beliefs inform their inclusive pedagogy and whether the language in the curriculum document reflects this pedagogical approach.

Epistemology is concerned with the nature of knowledge and how it is constructed and validated (Brophy, 2006; Kirschner, 2009). Pedagogy is concerned with how an educator approaches their teaching practice in order to optimize the student’s construction of knowledge that reflects the intended purposes of a unit of study in the classroom (Brophy, 2006; Kirschener, 2009).

Using an epistemological approach to education (where the teacher transmits whole units of knowledge) is not an appropriate pedagogy for children, who have a ‘qualitatively’ (Vygotsky & Luria, 1930/1992) different frame of mind when developing and creating units of knowledge (Brophy, 2006; Kirschner, 2009; Nuthall, 1999, 2002, 2004).

Kirschner (2009) uses the analogy of the expert and novice to illustrate the fundamental differences between adults and children. An expert’s approach to knowledge acquisition and retrieval, differ radically from a novice’s approach to acquisition and retrieval. An expert uses his/her, “theoretical sophistication and wealth of experience” (Kirschner, 2009, p. 149) to the acquisition and retrieval of new knowledge. Whereas a novice, still in their formative stages of their conceptual development, represents knowledge very differently from an expert.

Therefore, if a teacher or expert adopts their own epistemology and uses it in their pedagogy to transmit knowledge to a child or novice, that knowledge, which rests on an experienced and complex organization of accessible content knowledge (Kirschner, 2009), will not be easily acquired and retrievable by the child or novice.

Kirschner (2009) continues to elaborate this distinction between epistemology and pedagogy through more recent curriculum reforms in the sciences. The curriculum in the natural sciences have moved towards teaching science as a process and procedure rather than teaching science as a body of knowledge that can be transmitted to the learner.

Kirschner (2009) identifies one major problem in most curriculum approaches that seem to confuse the epistemological practice of expert scientists for the pedagogical practice of science teachers. In other words, the confusion arises when learning through discovery and inquiry (constructivism) is based upon teaching science as inquiry (emphasis on the process of science in curriculum) rather than teaching science by inquiry (using the process of science to learn science). The problem is that no distinction is made between an expert scientist, with a developed epistemology to knowledge acquisition and retrieval, and a novice student, who does not have the same developed epistemology (through discovery and inquiry) to acquire new knowledge.

Instead, according to Kirschner (2009), teachers should focus on teaching science by inquiry (using the process of science to learn science). This method of instruction fits well with the constructivist approach to teaching where the student is recognized as not having an deficient epistemological approach to knowledge acquisition and retrieval, but a radically different and unique epistemological approach which can be developed through a teacher’s constructivist pedagogical approach.

The Ontario arts curriculum document often identifies the student learner as having a developing epistemology in the arts. According to the curriculum document, a student’s epistemology is based on their own personal and cultural experiences, “…all of which have an impact on their prior knowledge about the arts and about the world in which they live” (p. 36) which needs to be guided and nurtured by the teacher.

Furthermore, considerable attention and detail are given to the development of a student’s epistemology in the arts in the sections on The Creative Process and The Critical Analysis Process. The document explains that creativity, “…involves the intervention and the assimilation of new thinking and its integration with existing knowledge” (p. 19). In defining the role of the teacher in the student’s creative process, the document emphasizes instructional practices such as guiding, prompting, and modeling, all of which suggest a highly constructivist pedagogy.


Considering Assessments and Evaluations

Eisner, who wrote much on the subject of curriculum development and arts education (2000, 2001, 2002, 2009), makes a distinction between learning the arts through a standards-based approach to curriculum where units are individually taught to students and teaching a pluralistic approach to arts education where there are various ways to construct meaning in the world (Eisner, 2001). Eisner (2001) advocates that teachers should co-construct knowledge with their students based on the student’s previous experience and knowledge of the arts.

Considering the distinction that Kirschner (2009) and Brophy (2006) make between epistemology and pedagogy, Eisner (2001) is erroneously creating a distinction between standards and pluralism. Eisner’s (2001) first distinction, the standards-based approach, is a pedagogical approach in arts education whereas the second distinction, the pluralistic approach, is an epistemological approach in arts education as understood by the expert teacher. Brophy (2006) and Kirschner (2009) argue that these are fundamentally different approaches and care should be given when linking the two concepts to teaching practice.

Eisner (2001) seems to be characterizing the arts educator as social constructivist educator who, according to Brophy (2006), has much more to say about learning than about teaching. In other words, social constructivist educators are more concerned with the epistemology of the arts rather than pedagogical issues in the arts.

Brophy (2006) cautions that, “…it is unrealistic to expect to be able to educate teachers to implement social constructivist principles without systematizing them into operational models of teaching” (p. 530). Drawing from the work of Graham Nuthall (1999, 2002, 2004) on social constructivist teaching, Brophy (2006) highlights the ways in which purely social constructivist teaching methods are inappropriate in the classroom because they lack a strong method of assessment and evaluation on student performance. Other critics, such as Sewall (2000), cautions educators against over-emphasizing inquiry-based instruction at the expense of, “…carefully prepared lesson(s)…focused and guided…; interspersed with small group work when appropriate; and with a clear sense of direction at the beginning and summary at the end, leaving all participants with a feeling of completion and satisfaction” (p. 6).

Indeed, the majority of the curriculum document is dedicated towards assessment and evaluation of the student achievement while often mentioning constructivist learning theory. While the document emphasizes the student’s own initiative and that, “students learn best by doing” (p. 36) there is also a strong emphasis on direct instruction and modeling of knowledge by the teacher in order to nurture a life-long appreciation of the arts as an expert might understand and appreciate the arts. Direct instruction and modeling of knowledge as understood by the expert teacher creates the opportunities to weave standards-based assessment and evaluation criteria into the arts curriculum.

While the arts document often mentions constructivist learning theory (directly and indirectly), it is mostly from the perspectives of the student and their educational needs. The sections on Roles and Responsibilities of the teacher and Instructional Approaches and Teaching Strategies make no mention of teacher’s own beliefs and knowledge in the arts and how these may contribute and influence their teaching practice. According to Kirschner (2009), it may be wise for curriculum documents to acknowledge the unique perspectives and beliefs of the teacher and how this may influence their practice. An over-emphasis on constructivist teaching practices in the arts document may lessen the importance for assessment and evaluation of student achievement.


Considering educator beliefs and inclusive classrooms

Jordan, Glenn, and McGhie-Richmond (2010) conducted a study to examine the relationship between elementary general education teachers’ beliefs about disability and ability, their roles in the inclusive classroom, and how these relate to teaching practices. They identified several different epistemological beliefs of teachers which influenced their teaching practices with children with disabilities (Jordan, Glenn, & McGhie-Richmond, 2010).

Using a survey called, Beliefs about Learning and Teaching Questionnaire (BLTQ)(Glenn, 2007; Glenn, Schwartz, & Jordan, 2007) Glenn (2007) discovered that teachers that hold an ‘Entity’ belief (Dweck, 2000; Stipek et al., 2001), where ability is seen as a fixed trait, often present at birth, believe that children with less ability have a limited responsiveness to learning. Teachers that hold an ‘Incremental’ belief view ability as malleable and responsive to learning under the right conditions. Based on this survey and another study on teacher beliefs (Stanovich & Jordan,1998) Jordan, Glenn, and McGhie-Richmond (2010) summarized that there is a relationship between teachers’ underlying beliefs about the nature of knowledge and learning, and their beliefs about ability and disability.

Furthermore, these underlying beliefs of teachers strongly influenced their teaching practices with children with disabilities in an inclusive classroom. Teachers that held an ‘Entity’ belief of disabilities preferred that students with disabilities should be taught by specialist teachers in separate settings (Jordan, 2001). Teachers that held an ‘Incremental’ belief included children with disabilities in the main work of the classroom and adapted their instructional practice according to the unique needs of every child (Jordan et al., 1997; Roach, 1998).

In the curriculum document, in the section on children with special education needs, there is almost no mention of disabilities and educators’ beliefs about disabilities other than stating, in point form, that, “all students can succeed” (p. 43). The text in this section focuses on specific instructional practices, including working collaboratively with the special education resource teacher, and developing instructions based on individual student’s IEP and whether the student needs accommodations or modifications.



In this paper, we explored educators’ epistemological beliefs in the arts and how these beliefs inform their inclusive pedagogy and whether the language in The Ontario Curriculum, Grades 1-8: The Arts, 2009 reflects this pedagogical approach. Through an analysis of the language in the curriculum document including the relative weight given to different issues and topics in arts education, we discovered a strong emphasis on constructivist pedagogy as Eisner (2001) would characterize many arts teachers. However, taking note of Brophy (2006) and Kirschner’s (2009) distinction between epistemology and pedagogy, we discover that the curriculum document attempts to reconcile a constructivist pedagogy in the arts with the importance of standards-based assessments and evaluations in Ontario’s public education system.


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