Perspectives, Serious Art Ed

Why Choice-based Art Education is Nothing Like the Old Child Art Movement.

The debate about creativity in education has usually pivoted on whether or not children can even be described as creative. By the late 20th century, Mihaly Csikszentmihaly (1996) had said no, children are not capable of true creativity because it requires that they contribute something new and useful to a domain of knowledge. Mastery must come first. He may have reacted against Lowenfeld’s (1975) view that creativity is intrinsic, in its purest form in children, arising independently out of the individual. Lowenfeld might say that the less mastery the better, as creative adults strive to free themselves of cultural influences. Differences in approach to creativity in education tend to bifurcate, but a nuanced view of creativity in education acknowledges that some amount of creativity is necessary to make any learning stick, and the Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001) places it at the top of the pyramid of cognitive processes because in the cycle of learning at any age or level of mastery, creating builds upon and requires handy access to all cognitive activities.

Kerry Freedman (2010) indicates a neglect of the topic in the field of art education while also recognizing the need for “scholarly skepticism” about creativity. She argues that starting the 21st century with a marked neglect of the topic of creativity in art education is evidence of the pressure on the profession to get serious “in the face of a new emphasis on anticipated outcomes.” (p. 9) Only a shift in political pressure towards 21st-century skills has freed up art education scholars to address creativity once again, and this time they are learning from the classroom teachers who have forged ahead without their support to refine a practical and effective pedagogy meeting needs only recently identified by art education academics.

Katherine Douglas and Diane Jaquith (2009), two public school art teachers from Massachusetts, take time away from their busy teaching careers to describe their progressive pedagogy in their book Engaging Learners through artmaking: Choice-based art education in the classroom. Their publication answers and yet antedates Olivia Gude’s question, “How can a busy public school teacher respond to the individual needs for support in developing deeply personal creative behaviors with a collective, common curriculum?” (2010, p. 32)

Choice-based art education originated in crowded public schools and has been refined over a period of four decades. Components of the pedagogy address public school needs for classroom management, materials management, curriculum mapping, and assessment while also addressing both Freedman’s post-modern understanding of creativity and the unique learner needs that Gude enumerates.

As with any multi-tool, choice-based art education does a multitude of pedagogical jobs reasonably well, and in elementary school it occasionally gets packed away when specialty tools are needed. A choice-based classroom may be interrupted with an intensive art history lesson, with what Jaquith calls a “skill-builder,” or with a teacher-defined problem to solve, realization of a collective vision for a project, or with thematic restrictions or a focus on interdisciplinary subject-matter. But these interruptions must be brief or a teacher risks undoing the environmental factors conducive to students’ independent inquiry habits and creative characteristics. (Gude, 2010, p. 36)

Choice-based Art Education, also called Teaching for Artistic Behaviors, is a refined approach to teaching independent inquiry and I anticipate that it may in time be seen as the default tool for teaching art to early and middle-childhood learners. It has developed with the belief in children as practicing, growing, developing artists, not in the modern era’s laissez-faire Child Art sense, but in the post-modern contextualized, social learning theory sense and in the 21st-century paradigm of creativity being essential to inquiry and learning at every age.

Rather than assuming creativity will somehow happen while art class focuses on skills, knowledge, and extrinsic motivating factors, all of which are now known to undo creative growth, in choice-based environments learners are taught to practice and improve creativity. In this setting, having developed in school the creative skills other pedagogies have valued but long assumed would develop parallel to art class, young learners may become better at the spiral process of creating: finding problems, defining problems, solving problems, sharing, leading, reflecting, perceiving, and evaluating. (Freedman, 2010). As a result they may also benefit from increased opportunities for specialization that come with phasing in more Discipline-based Art Education as they mature.

Serious Art Ed

Constructing Authentic Alternatives in a Multidirectional Discipline

The creative art educator wrestles with the task of constructing authentic assessment items for artistic decision-making and artistic behaviors. Charles Dorn, Stanley Madeja & F. Robert Sabol describe the task and its implications in Assessing Expressive Learning (2004):

Alternative assessment calls for authentic performances, which include real-life decisions, such as the behavior of aestheticians, architects, art historians and critics, artists such as folk artists, people working in all forms who confront art in their daily lives, and people whose advocational activities relate to art. Authentic learning in art implies purposeful, meaningful application of relevant information, as opposed to the acquiring of factual knowledge for its own sake.  (p. 98)

But does the rest of their project evidence fully authentic assessment, in which student work most resembles the decision-making of those in the arts beyond school?  Seeing art as an “ill-defined field,” the project limits students’ decision-making within the confines of teacher-constructed assignments “in order to insure that what it is they want students to know and do is at the center of every instructional assessment.” (p.100) Performance tasks designed for the project offer little room for top-level decisions, such as how much time to spend on a work of art, or when to abandon it and take the work in a different direction.

Ill-defined or multifariously defined?

Is art an ill-defined field? Are other fields well defined or is this a distinctive characteristic of visual art? I think the authors describe the field as ill-defined in the context of setting learning standards for all ages and considering how the learning objectives early in school might set a foundation for later more complex learning objectives. Some of the most significant work art outside of school, however, has been meaningful in part because it regresses, backing away from existing knowledge. Artists must sometimes follow a path others see as backward, abandoning accepted know-how (and “know-that”) in order to move forward.

So how is this different from science, history, or music, for a few examples? Eminent scientists, historians, and musicians  also dismantle existing knowledge, and we follow them to a new paradigm, but I see three main differences:

  1. New knowledge in visual art coexists with old art knowledge in our society. Society doesn’t unify around an aesthetic proposition that might drive economics, education, and government policy.
  2. Many artistic paths are valid. No one line of artistic inquiry is considered current, and each path has its own concepts and procedures distinct from others.
  3. Economic prospects are greater for scientists, historians, and musicians who maintain generally accepted knowledge than for visual artists to do the same in their discipline.

Visual art is no less defined than other disciplines, but it is less unified. We like it that way, so why fight it? The implication of the discipline’s multi-directionality is that authentic approaches in art education must accommodate the multifarious aesthetics.

Serious art education, then, helps students to learn to make top-level decisions about what direction to take and when to change directions. What should follow is not a linear definition of art knowledge to be acquired in school, but many well defined branches with bridges between them. The risk of selecting one direction as the school-preferred standard is that school art learning will lose validity when compared to out-of-school art, and authenticity will suffer.

Multidirectional assessment

So what does assessment look like when we embrace art’s multidirectionality? Art teachers may say that if students had art class in school every day every year, just as they experience math or reading, the discipline might better follow a well-defined path. Even so there would be a need to design assessment for students who would make top-level aesthetic choices, authentically, that carry them away from the lesson plan.

Samuel Hope (2004), p. 93) calls the diverse trajectories of artistic inquiry “artistic and intellectual traditions of work in and about visual form, each of which with its own habits of mind, approaches to achievement, and history.” Given this complexity in the field of art education, authentic assessment must accommodate each tradition with measures appropriate to distinct habits of mind, approaches to achievement, and historical contrext.

Towards specific objectives amid choices

One solution is to reach for higher level learning objectives from among the overarching performance standards and anchor standards. Anchor standard #1 of the National Core Art Standards, “Generate and conceptualize artistic ideas and work,” is an example of standards that are general enough to apply to any artistic investigation. The studio habits of the Studio Thinking Framework (Hetland, 2013) are also used in art class as overarching learning objectives related to artistic dispositions. Yet more specific learning objectives are needed in order to provide more specific understanding of the learning that happens in art class, whatever direction it may go.

For specific, authentic, multidirectional assessment, art educators would have to prepare learning sequences that align with many directions of artistic inquiry, one for each direction a student may choose to pursue in the wide world of visual art.

In the Teaching for Artistic Behavior (TAB) art classroom,  students choose directions for learning. Learning centers become “silent lesson plans” (p. 15, Hathaway, 2013) including instruction, studio materials, and assessment. Although much of the assessment in TAB classrooms is dispositional, there are examples of assessments that focus on product as well.

Authentic, product-centered assessments for choice-based art programs are aligned with the work of artists outside of school and set a straightforward standard for mastery that varies by developmental level. One example of a product-centered assessment in a TAB classroom is the Attachment Test, invented by Diane Jaquith (2015) in the early 2000’s. In order for elementary students to learn to experiment and know the capabilities of materials as an artist experiments and knows them, Jaquith looks for competency demonstrated on the Attachment Test. Criteria for a product to show mastery include:

  1. Count materials and attachment methods:
    • The minimum number of materials are used in the product. Third-graders must use 6 different materials, fourth-graders must use 8, fifth-graders must use 10.
    • The minimum number of attachment methods are used in the product. Third-graders must use three, fourth-graders must use four, fifth-graders must use five.
  2. The object is stable (nothing falls off when shaken).
  3. The work shows artistic thinking.

As with the best authentic assessments, this test empowers students:

Everyone who tries the Attachment Test passes by summoning his or her curiosity, patience, and playfulness. Just as a deep-water test determines which swimmers may swim out to the raft, the Attachment Test acknowledges students who have practiced with materials and are now empowered with a toolbox of strategies for future endeavors. (p.13)

Serious Art Ed

Bartel on Art Assessment

Professor Emeritus of Goshen College, Goshen, Indiana (US), Marvin Bartel contributes to the movement I’m calling “Serious Art Education.” He posts insights and ideas online on his old website, last updated in 2009, as well as a new website, updated through 2013 at the time of this writing. The two interweave, preserving older and refining his newer ideas. Teachers look to Bartel for guidance in teaching ideation and creativity in art class. With relevant interests and experience dating back to his 1970 doctoral dissertation, he also recently contributed a chapter (p. 131-142) on self-directed learning to the The Learner-Directed Classroom: Developing Creative Thinking Skills Through Art (Jaquith & Hathaway, 2012).

His career emphasis has always been teaching to engender what Hetland (2007) calls dispositions, including abilities, behaviors, inclinations, attitudes, awareness, etc., in a class that is “directed toward generating creative ideas rather than getting preconceived end products.” He promotes what he calls upside down art curriculum and inside out grading. Given the 21st-century sea change in the writing of educational standards toward process skills in all disciplines, we may begin to see classrooms reorient themselves with new vectors matching Bartel’s sense of up and out.

What to assess in art

In a website section entitled, Turning Grading Criteria Inside Out, Bartel proposes basing grades on observable and testable criteria as listed below:

Observable Empathic & Creative Behavioral Criteria.

  • team participation
  • observed skepticism of existing experts
  • inquisitiveness
  • class contributions
  • affirmative art studio building contributions
  • ability to empathize with other student ideas
  • ability to promote creativity in others
  • awareness of surroundings

Testable and Measurable Criteria

  • knowledge of the creative processes
  • ability to learn new strategic thinking abilities
  • demonstrated creative thinking skills such as flexibility, fluency, skepticism, opposites, similarities catching, etc.
  • employing unique ideas that work
  • divergent thinking ability
  • ability to phrase insightful questions
  • ability to think critically with an open and inquisitive mind

Bartel’s page on Grading Art lists the kinds of things he wants learned in art classes, which he says should be reflected in the grade.

Mastery of creativity strategies — If I know that accomplished highly creative individuals have certain traits and strategies, I need to assess my students accordingly, and they need to realize that these traits and thinking strategies may help them become more creative. Are they learning to habitually use creative strategies?

Imaginative ability — Are my students becoming more imaginative or more dependent on preconceived ideas?

Visualization ability — Do they sketch things to see how well things will work? Imagination and visualization are very closely related.

Divergent thinking — In the typical classroom, a lot of problem solving is taught as convergent thinking. There is one answer, and students have to figure out the one right answer. In art and in life, most problems have many alternative solutions. Where and when do our brains get practice in divergent thinking? Studio art class is the ideal place to ask for multiple alternate ways to approach a problem.

Empathy & Relationship abilities — As we work as artists, we constantly imagine how others will experience out work. If we were wired to a brain scan, empathy neurons would be lighting up. During critique sessions, we learn to phrase our questions in ways that other art students will become more aware while being encouraged and affirmed. Studio art may be one of best places for students to learn empathy.

Helpfulness & Collaborative ability — Art studio classes offer many opportunities for students to work creatively in teams. In the art world, there is an assumption that creative artists generally are isolated in studios. In some cases this may be, but many artists work in teams and lots of creative tasks and projects in life are too big for one person. Teachers can foster a studio culture that encourages the sharing of ideas in ways where students learn how to ask each other questions in ways that multiply options and alternative solutions and experimental approaches. Some teachers include this in their grading by sharing a collaboration rubric in advance. Like anything that is graded, advance notice is only fair. The rubric might be very formative for students who have not yet learned the various ways in which they can make a contribution and how they might benefit from being in a team.

Passion — Ken Robinson calls it The Element. He has a whole book of stories about how creative people and how they found their passions.

Experimentation skills — Are students learning how to design and learn from experiments that respond to questions that come up?

Appreciation for Mistakes — Do my students fear mistakes or are they beginning to notice that mistakes often show them ideas that they would have never been able to think of on their own.

Discoveries — Are students making unexpected discoveries as they work and in the work of peers. Do they discover things in works that they have never seen before?

Skepticism and the need to question the status quo. Are students developing the ability to generate positive ideas because they just do not like what they are seeing.

Original ideas — How original are their ideas?

Technical skills/dexterity

Juggling ability — Highly creative people have many unfinished tasks. They know that the brain can work on unfinished ideas when they are unaware of it. As they return to tasks, they make new discoveries.

Transfer learning — Students need to earn credit for using what they learn in one project when they are working on another project. Unless we know how to use things in new contexts, most of what we learn in school is not ever needed in life. Teachers who give credit for transfer of learning are more apt to help students practice it.

Compositional skills — Whether a work communicates, depends on how things are arranged. Are students discovering and using principles that they learn?

Expressiveness/evocative aesthetic skills — To what degree to students experiment with unexpected things as they work?

Three distinct assessments

Other than a carefully crafted universal artwork grading rubric, Bartel points out three ways of assessing artistic dispositions. He suggests that observable characteristics and behaviors become visible in critique sessions, for which he provides guidelines that support authentic and empathic critiques. He also writes about using art awards as a pedagogical tool, with “Smart Awards” for exhibited artwork that indicate 50 different ways student artwork can succeed. He briefly outlines art test items, presenting them in order from those that require maximum divergent thinking to those that require a minimum. The stated goal of art tests is to be valid, relating as consistently to what the course teaches, and reliable, eliminating variation due to other factors than learning in the course.

Bartel’s top 6 art test items for assessing creative thinking:

  1. Flexibility test items Give more points for the least expected and most unusual correct answers to a question. Tell the class how you are scoring these items. Give correct answers credit in relation to their infrequency as well as a feasibility ranking.Example question: How does an artist get the viewer’s attention? Common responses would get less credit than uncommon responses that seem equally feasible.
  2. Fluency test Items. Ask questions that have more than one acceptable answer, and give credit based on the number of correct and tenable answers a student offers. Ask the student to rank the answers according to which answers are best, which are average, and which are less than average in quality. Example question: What are the reasons that an artist might be inspired to make a drawing of a landscape?
  3. Draw the opposite test. Ask students to create a one-inch drawing next to each test word or concept that illustrates the opposite of the meaning of the selected word. This provides creative thinking practice because it requires both knowledge and imagination.
  4. Write the opposites test. The students are asked to fill in the blank after each word by writing the opposite meaning of the word. In research, highly creative people have been found to intuitively come up with opposites faster and more frequently than average creative people.
  5. Draw it test. Ask students to create a one-inch drawing next to each word to illustrate the meaning of the selected word. This requires both knowledge of the meaning as well as imagination or memory to think of a visual example of the concept.
  6. Essay test. Essay tests can assess creative thinking or they can be directed at only memory and knowledge. Good questions can be posed to require imagination and problem solving that builds on knowledge acquired in the course and on thinking skills practiced in the course. For example, “List and describe the drawing and seeing skills you practiced during our ‘Negative Space’ assignment. Then write a different assignment that you could do at home to practice the same skills. Make it as different as you can, but still practice the same seeing and drawing skills.”

Grading for growth

When it comes to assigning grades or marks for an art class, Bartel promotes what he calls longitudinal assessment, in which “students who progress the most from their starting point are the ones who earn the best grades.” Ultimately, however, he maintains the belief that good critiques and rubrics are more important than grades.


Serious Art Ed

Taking Art Education Seriously

Back to the first edition of Studio Thinking, by Lois Hetland, (2007) in which the eight Studio Habits of Mind (SHoM) crystallized before we heard of Language Arts Anchor Standards, Math Practices, and Science and Engineering Process Skills from the national standards movement. This was my first exposure to what they then called a “dispositional” perspective to teaching.


Dispositions are qualities of mind and character. The Studio Thinking researchers observed teachers working to develop artistic dispositions of their students, grouping them in three overall categories:

  1. Ability includes skills, processes in thinking and doing.
  2. Inclination includes both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation to engage.
  3. Alertness is described as attention, awareness, recognition, and perception.

Taking art education seriously

Although SHoM is now so big it is recognized by the mantra-like monosyllabic pronunciation of its acronym, the roots of it are in just two schools chosen by the Studio Thinking authors for their institutional commitment to art education. While the last decade has seen art teachers across the country encounter and embrace the eight Studio Habits, we also soon realize how our situations contrast with fertile soil that sprouted the framework. Though we do, most of our schools don’t show the same commitment to taking art education seriously, characterized in the first edition of Studio Thinking (2007, p. 9) by . . .

  • defining themselves as dedicated to the arts,
  • hiring practicing artists as teachers,
  • admitting students selectively considering students’ portfolios, and
  • programming intensive arts instruction.

Adapting the framework

I noticed this information doesn’t appear in the second edition, Studio Thinking 2 (2013), but the new conclusion addresses how public school teachers use the framework in curriculum planning, teaching, and assessment.

Though I’m really interested in this topic, all I have right now are questions and hunches.

  • What works in teaching, curriculum design, and assessment, when I take arts education seriously in an environment that is less committed to art education?
  • What implications would there be if I acknowledge the dissonance between my own commitment to serious art education and that of my teaching context?
  • How do we generally transition to teaching, designing curriculum, and assessing student dispositions of ability, inclination, and alertness?

I have played out some hunches this year in my middle school gifted education seminar, where dispositional approaches also make sense, but contrast sharply with the status quo. I’ll write about the dispositional self-assessment tools and conference records I’ve developed in an upcoming post.