IDEAlaboratoires : an European art education project 

By Teresa Eça

This article describes a collaborative project developed and implemented during 2010-2012 by a group of art teachers from secondary schools in four European countries. The project was funded by the European Commission, under their Comenius sub-programme of the Lifelong Learning Programme. A total of seven schools from Estonia, Finland, Latvia and Portugal participated in the project. These include: Sally Stuudio (Co-ordinator of the project) and Tartu Childrens’ Art School from Estonia, Janis Rozentals Riga Art High School from Latvia, Vantaa Art School and Sara-Hildén Academy from Finland, Viriato High School and Alves Martin High School from Portugal. The insitutions in Estonia and Finland, are mainly schools that offer after-school art programs, the institution in Latvia is an artistic vocational school and the schools in Portugal are general senior secondary schools offering specialisations in visual arts at A Levels. The IDEAlaboratory project was designed for art students aged between 15 to 18 years. 

The co-ordinators from Sally Stuudio conceived the idea of this project in terms of bringing contemporary art to schools and proposed to the art teachers of these institutions who agreed the need to bring contemporary art closer to art education practices in their schools and decided to collaborate for this project. The project started with a workshop for all the involved teachers in Riga in September 2010, where a working plan for the project was discussed and developed. All the teachers wanted to share ideas and practices, and explore new strategies  to integrate contemporary art in their teaching. They felt that they could improve their routine teaching ideas by bringing social, environmental, economical and other challenging issues into the classrooms by discussing with students examples of contemporary art works. 

Teachers were aware that they seldom have time for pedagogical discussions about teaching contemporary art and , therefore, they felt a strong need  for exchanging  skills and experiences in this field. Some of them were particularly interested in experimenting an learning collaboratively new methods and different approaches to art education. The project thus provided a platform to learn collaboratively by sharing local practices and experimenting with new ones. For this purpose, the IDEAlaboratory website has served as a crucial platform for communication and sharing information ( Another important platform was Facebook that was used for this purpose. After one year of running the project, both students and teachers felt the need for a more interactive platform than the website, which can help in faster communication, hence a Facebook page was especially created for this purpose. Although it was mainly used by the teachers to share information, after a while, many students also started using the page for communicating amongst themselves.

Figure 1  : The "IDEAlaboratory” workshop in Vantaa

This success of this communication channel has led me to believe that the role of Internet channels such as Facebook in international exchange programmes is worth exploring and deliberating further. It seems that not all art teachers are taking full advantage of  communication technologies on the Internet, despite the fact that some of them may have great expertise in digital media. Not many traditional art teachers, as well as students are used to using these technologies for the purpose of critical reflection and collaborative learning. There is a general perception that Internet tools are more useful for the purpose of entertainment or multimedia production or displaying information. There is thus a need to widen this perception for using these tools as a platform for dialogue, which further needs a strong background in critical reflection and constructive dialogue for sharing ideas and knowledge.  

A part of European Union’s Lifelong Leanring Programme, the Comenius actions, focuses on all levels of school education. Comenius projects are based on students and teachers mobilities; this means that the Lifelong Learning Programme  provides fund for teachers and students mobility, to travel and visit schools for partnerships in various projects. European schools including pre-school, primary or secondary level schools can apply for funding for a project that is worthy in terms of its aims and outcomes in compliance with the Lifelong Leanring Programme. The Comenius actions aim to help young people and educational staff better understand the range of European cultures, languages and values. They also help young people acquire basic life skills and competences necessary for personal development, future employment and active citizenship. They  addresss issues strongly related to current interests and developments in school policy: motivation for learning and ‘learning-to-learn’ skills, key competences, digital educational content and inclusive education.

The IDEAlaboratory project focused on promoting  teachers’ motivation and skills to integrate contemporary art into their teaching practices. Sharing experiences with other European colleagues and discussing about different approaches to art education was a very good experience in terms of gaining confidence, reflecting on existing practices and experimenting with new approaches. Although it was not always an easy process because of language differences and difficulties, our common language for the project being English. However, participants had opportunities to lean about other European history and cultures, and contemporary artists in the cities that were visited during the project. They also had the opportunity to observe different school cultures, especially how similar and different these can be!

Figure 2  : Participants addressing issues in a "IDEAlaboratory” workshop

In the project, a total of six workshops were  conducted in the partner countries. With the exception of the first workshop with only teachers and the last one with fewer students, all other workshops were attended by an average of  15 -20 teachers and  40- 50 students from all the four countries. Discussions were held about teaching contemporary art to address political and ethical issues, and to balance between traditional and contemporary art in art education. These discussions brought about a huge amount of information sharing during the workshops. The first workshop with students was in April 2010 in Tallinn during the Eksperimenta11 Young artists Triennial on the topic of “Borders between young and professional art”, which was related to the theme of the Triennial. In that workshop, participants were able to attend workshops with artists and observe many art works made by young artists, as well as students like them, from around the world. 

The second workshop with students  was held in Tampere, in Finland  in June 2011. The topic was “From the woods into the city – aesthetics of the Finnish contemporary lifestyle”. During this workshop, both teachers and students had an immersive experience in the Finnish countryside and explored critical and analytical thinking and creative tools about these artworks and the issues addressed in them. The third workshop with students was held in Viseu in November 2011. The workshop was designed to  introduce concepts of dialogic and community  arts to the visiting group   and also to local students.

Figure 3  : The “IDEAlaboratory” workshop in Viseu

In October 2011, prior to this workshop, students and art teachers from the host schools in Viseu (ESAM and Viriato) took images and interviews of special members of their local communities, especially those, who usually don't appear on tourist postcards, like the elderly, disabled and other minorities. Later in November when the Viseu students received the group of students from other European schools, they showed them around the community so they could get the tourist gaze of the community. Students were then invited to participate in five workshops with the local artists of the community, to reflect upon their own feelings and the  stories collected in the community by Portuguese students in October. On the last day of their visit, students made a Public presentation of the outcomes of the workshops.

The fourth workshop was  held in Vantaa, in Finland in February 2012 on the topic of “Climate Change”. The KIASMA and  Vantaa Art Museum offered opportunities for the teachers and students to reflect upon contemporary art that addressed global issues such as climate change   and cultural  identity. In the final workshop, that was held in Tartu, Estonia in June 2012, the group evaluated the project outcomes and think about new projects. A special focus on local culture and the places of these local cultures and heritages was emphasised in the discussions. 

Overall, in the workshops held in Tallinn, Tampere, Vantaa, Viseu and Tartu, students   and teachers acquired a living experience of collaborative work that would be stand as a special experience and reference in their lives. Through these workshops, the participants felt that they acquired openness  towards diversity, plural visions about Europe and way of living in Europe. The issues addressed in each workshop covered a wide range of topics creating awareness about social and environmental issues through contemporary art. Contemporary art practices are a powerful means to address difficult issues and the project enabled the participants to reflect  upon them. Even though the approaches to art teaching were quite different for all the participants, all of them were able to express themselves freely and share and learn in a climate of respect and equality.


About the Author

Maria Teresa Torres de Eça (Teresa Eça) is President of the Portuguese Art Teachers Association APECV and Vice President of the International Society for Education Through Art ‐ InSEA. Currently she is teaching  at Alves Martins Secondary school in Portugal and collaborates with the Research Institute in Art, Design and Society, University of Porto, Portugal.