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How to Teach Art in the Dialectic and Rhetoric Stages- Podcast #27

Today we’re completing our series on the Classical Model of Education and how to use it to teach art with a special double episode about art in both the Dialectic and Rhetoric stages of learning.

Listen on iTunes   |   Listen on Google Play   |   Listen on Stitcher

Art and the Classical Model

Here’s all the links to this 5-part series on using the Classical Model of Education to teach art:

Show Notes for The Dialectic and Rhetoric Stages of Learning

Today we’re going to chat about both the Dialectic and Rhetoric stages. Here’s how we’ll structure our discussion (with some time stamps of the audio):

  • Art in the Dialectic stage (4:50)
    • Art Creation (17:42)
    • Art Appreciation (38:11)
  • Art in the Rhetoric stage (51:49)
    • Art Creation (56:49)
    • Art Appreciation (67:40)

The Ridge Light Ranch lesson plans focus on the Grammar stage (with modifications for different age levels), because that’s what is lacking in most of the art books we’ve seen. However, the lesson plans can also be used in the Dialectic and Rhetoric stages by including some more advanced discussions and exercises, as we’ll describe here. (Someday soon, we’d love to create some “expansion packs” with very specific ideas for how to layer on the Dialectic and Rhetoric stage learning to each lesson.)

Most of my knowledge about the Dialectic and Rhetoric stage comes from Leigh Bortins’ books: The Question, which is about the Dialectic stage and The Conversation, which is about the Rhetoric stage.

Art in the Dialectic Stage of Learning (4:50)

  • What is Dialectic learning? It is Questioning, Analyzing, Experimenting. It’s about learning to enjoy the wrestling, experimenting, and playing.
  • When is it time to start layering some Dialectic activities on top of the Grammar?
    • After you’ve gained some Grammar. (“Some,” but not 100% because that’s impossible. More Grammar will create a richer Dialectic learning experience.)
    • When you’re developmentally ready.
      • A 4 year old isn’t ready. A 10 year old is probably ready to begin Dialectic learning.
      • The younger the student, the more Grammar they need before they’re ready for a Dialectic activity.
    • When you have time and patience to enjoy the process.
  • Be sure to give Dialectic its due weight.
    • We want to allow for plenty of time to be in the Dialectic stage, but we don’t want to stay there forever. We often need a Rhetorical (application) goal to look towards, even if it’s small.

The 5 Common Topics for the Dialectic Stage (11:42)

The 5 Common Topics are a comprehensive structure for learning how to interact with a topic and stimulate good questions. They are:

  1. DEFINITION: Defining words and terms in a discussion (The purpose is to wrestle with the ideas, not to have a definition written in stone.)
  2. COMPARISON: Similarity, Difference, and Degree (Compare/Contrast)
  3. RELATIONSHIP: Cause/Effect, Antecedent/Consequence, Contraries (belong to the same category and cannot both be true, but can both be false), and Contradictions (one must be valid and the other invalid)
  4. CIRCUMSTANCE: Possible/Impossible, Past fact / Future fact
  5. TESTIMONY: Qualitative evidence from experts and testimonies, Quantitative evidence from statistics, Pertinent Laws, Maxims, and Precedents (examples)

If you have a good question that stimulates a good discussion, don’t get hung up trying to figure out which of the 5 common topics it falls under. There’s a little overlap and that’s ok. 🙂

Art Creation in the Dialectic Stage (17:42)

Here are some ways to include each of the 5 Common Topics in Art Creation:

1. Definition in Art Creation

  • What are the key components of your subject that make it recognizable as your subject?
    • e.g. What about a donkey makes it look like a donkey? (short, skinny legs, shorter face, white nose, big eyes, large ears…)

2. Comparison in Art Creation

  • How is this subject different from others?
    • e.g. How is a donkey different from a horse? Donkeys have larger eyes, a shorter face, little mane, a straight back, shorter tail, and (the key) the end of their face is white. How much longer are the legs of the donkey than the horse?
  • How is this medium different from others?
    • e.g. How are these homemade clays similar and different? One is stickier than the others, some are grainy, some take a longer time to dry…
    • e.g. The Faber Castel watercolor pencils have more pigment in them while the Prismacolor watercolor pencils are more waxy.
  • Articulating the answers to these questions helps you understand the subject better, even if you never articulate them to someone else!

3. Relationship in Art Creation

  • What would be the effect of using more water or a different brand of paint?
  • What happens when we dab wet paint with a paper towel?
  • What’s the effect of putting salt, sand, or chalk in the watercolor paint?

4. Circumstance in Art Creation

  • What will happen if we try this same technique in a new circumstance, like different paper, a different medium, or a different ambient temperature?
  • What’s possible with this media? What’s impossible?
    • e.g. Is it possible to rehydrate clay?

5. Testimony in Art Creation

  • What do experts say about this media, subject, skill? (Books, Videos, Classes)
  • Are there laws about the disposal of this media after you’re done?
  • Is there any data available about this?
    • e.g. Opacity ratings on the paint container
  • Ask the employees at your local art store – the one where the students in art school purchase their art supplies!

Above are some photos from Deanna’s experiments with Poured Acrylics. Not only is she in the Dialectic stage with this medium, but the whole Poured Acrylics community is in a Dialectic stage, experimenting with all sort of different additives and techniques!

Art Appreciation in the Dialectic Stage (38:11)

This is where you have discussions, explaining and defending your thoughts and ideas.

Here are some ways to include each of the 5 Common Topics in Art Appreciation:

1. Definition in Art Appreciation

  • What is art? What is not art? To what category does art belong? What else is in that group?
  • What is a shape? What is not a shape? To what group of things does shape belong? What else belongs to that group? How is shape different from those things? Can shape be broken into pieces? If so, what are those pieces? So what makes a shape, a shape?
  • What is abstract art?

2. Comparison in Art Appreciation

  • Compare and Contrast two works of art using the Grammar you know. How are they similar? How are they different? What’s the effect?
  • Ask why the artist might have done what he did.
  • Defend your analysis of a work of art.
  • Use the 7 Elements of Art and the Principles of Design to compare two works.

3. Relationship in Art Appreciation

  • How do different elements/principles/components relate to each other?
  • Discuss the effect of different Elements of Art and the Principles of Design in a piece of art (famous or personal).
  • What might have caused the artist to want to create his or her art this way?
  • What might be the consequences of this piece of art in the time period it was created?
  • What’s the relationship between art and other subjects like science, history, politics…

e.g. Deanna had a great Dialectic experience at The Met when a docent compared two works of art and showed Deanna and her family the effect of the many different elements in the two paintings (shown here):

4. Circumstance in Art Appreciation

  • Historical circumstance: What was going on in history when this piece was made?
  • Personal: What was going on in this person’s life when this piece was made?
  • Geographical: What geography was the artist surrounded by?
  • Do we know for sure that this artist created this work of art?

5. Testimony in Art Appreciation

  • What do the experts say about this work? What do you think about this work?
  • How much is it valued at?
  • Has it gained cultural connotations? (e.g. American Gothic was originally supposed to be art that held up the rural farmers as hard-working heroes, but now has taken on a life of its own, constantly being remade with different characters.)

Art in the Rhetoric Stage of Learning (51:49)

Rhetoric is the use of knowledge and understanding to perceive wisdom, pursue virtue, and proclaim truth.

Where Grammar is absorbing information and Dialectic is asking questions and analyzing, Rhetoric is presenting and defending conclusions.

Grammar is about gathering knowledge, Dialectic is about gaining understanding, and Rhetoric is about expressing Truth. Rhetoric is about using the knowledge and understanding for some new purpose (Creating, Teaching…).

Rhetoric should be Truth-serving, not self-serving.

When/What is Rhetoric in Art? Do we all get there or do some of us stay in dialectic forever?

  • Teaching others
  • Making a card (Father’s Day card)
  • Drawing a science specimen
  • Drawing some memory work visuals
  • Planning and executing a finished work

We use the 5 Cannons of Rhetoric

  1. Invention: What are we trying to say? Use the 5 Common Topics to help you figure out WHAT you want to communicate.
  2. Arrangement: In what order should I say it?
  3. Elocution: Style / How should I say it?
  4. Memory: How should memory inform my presentation?
  5. Delivery: How should I present this truth in speech and action?

Above are some photos of some quail sketches Julie did to create the pictured Father’s Day card. It’s a lot of fun when we get to do something with our art skills! That’s what the Rhetoric stage is all about.

Art Creation in the Rhetoric Stage (56:49)

Here are some ways to include each of the 5 Cannons of Rhetoric in Art Creation:

1. Invention in Art Creation

  • What is the purpose of this art? What does it need to accomplish? (Think of the Purposes of Art)

2. Arrangement in Art Creation

  • What elements should go where?
  • Where do I want my Emphasis to be? How will I accomplish that? (Think of the Principles of Design)
  • Who is my audience?

3. Elocution in Art Creation

  • What Medium would be best?
  • Should it be detailed or stylized? Realistic or abstract? (Think of the Principles of Design)
  • What color will best convey my message?

4. Memory in Art Creation

  • Will I need to draw from memory or will I have a model available?
  • What will make this work of art memorable to my audience?
  • Do I remember any other works of art that could inspire my creation?

5. Delivery in Art Creation

  • Does this art need to be framed?
  • Will this art need to be preserved in some way when finished?
  • How should it be displayed or delivered to my audience?
    • Professional Artist writing a blurb for the gallery or website.
    • Alisa Taylor always packages up her calendars so pretty!! (see photo below)

packaging makes the product

What about when we stumble upon creating a Work of Art? That’s ok! Many of the ideas and questions still apply. You can see this concept in science and accidental inventions like the invention of Post It Notes.

You can get to “Rhetoric” in multiple ways. Let the structure of the Trivium work for you and help you – don’t let it limit you!

It all counts.

Art Appreciation in the Rhetoric Stage (67:40)

In art appreciation, the Dialectic stage includes discussions, whereas the Rhetoric stage is an application of the ideas from the discussion. So, this could be a presentation about art, elevator pitch about your own art, a book about an artist…

Here are some ways to include each of the 5 Cannons of Rhetoric in Art Appreciation:

1. Invention in Art Appreciation 

  • What do I want to say about this artist? What point am I trying to make?

2. Arrangement in Art Appreciation

  • Does it make sense to talk about the artist’s upbringing first or his impact on his culture?
  • Who is my audience? (2nd graders? Adults?)
  • What arrangement will best suit my audience?

3. Elocution in Art Appreciation

  • What’s the best way to make this point? A presentation? A movie?
  • Do I need to have some visuals?
  • What is the easiest and most convenient way for my audience to hear this?

4. Memory in Art Appreciation

  • What will make this point/presentation memorable to my audience?
  • Will I memorize my presentation or use notes?

5. Delivery in Art Appreciation

  • Should this be done in a humorous style or is it a somber topic?
  • What attire and body language will be appropriate?


Art Matters! Be prepared to speak about it in everyday life. Art can make good conversation “Sparkers” (Captivate, by Vanessa Van Edwards).

Up Next: Cave Paintings and Prehistoric Art!

In our next episode we’re talking about Cave Paintings and Prehistoric art! In Classical Conversations and in my own homeschool, we’re studying Ancient History, so this is going to be a fun tie-in!

Next Step:

Now that you’ve learned about the Classical Model of Education and how to use it to teach art, check out the many art lesson plans we have available for purchase!

[button link=”https://ridgelightranch.com/product-category/art-curriculum/” type=”big” color=”teal” newwindow=”yes”] Art Curriculum from Ridge Light Ranch[/button]


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