What your art teacher is thinking about – Understanding the complexity behind the curtain

Brian Reverman

Brian Reverman

Visiting artist - Educational consultant

Sometimes art seems to appear in schools by magic. Concerts fill the air with music, theater productions showcase aspiring performers, and artworks bring color to the hallways. Parents beam at displays of their talented offspring, and there is perhaps no better PR for all the remarkable things a school is doing to develop young minds. The arts bring life to a school, and even though many people may not understand the process of how the art, music or theater productions come together, they recognize that teachers and their assistants must be working hard behind the scenes to make it happen. While it’s satisfying as a teacher to receive kudos for your efforts, a kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy perpetuates the mystery of how these art productions materialize. As long as concerts, plays and art shows occur everyone’s happy. There doesn’t seem to be much incentive to find out how they came to be.

The problem with enabling this mystery is that it leads to an awareness deficit about the deep thinking that goes into the design and delivery of good art education. In the worst-case scenario, this lack of understanding leads to the cutting of art programs when budgets get tight, but even in a supportive school atmosphere, the arts are usually relegated to elective or ‘specials’ status. One problem with this marginalization is that schools are not taking full advantage of all the complex learning that is happening in the art classroom when evaluating the overall curriculum they deliver.

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What is the art teacher thinking about when they plan their courses? They know there’s a substantial difference between the art program where students produce school-friendly art products and the one where students are learning about what makes Art such a vital part of the human experience. Too often, schools assume that the nature of art as a subject alone means that when students are in art class, they are learning to be creative and expressive, developing some artistic techniques and that they are gaining knowledge about culture and an appreciation for art. These are indeed aspects of art education, and for many schools that is good enough – art is not a core class after all. Without too much examination about what is happening in the art classroom, there’s a relief that the bases are covered.

However, teaching about Art requires more thinking than that. When a school wants its students to learn about Art, it empowers its art teachers to create an authentic and immersive artistic experience which is relevant to each student’s life. To do this, Art teachers employ as appropriate many aspects of current best practice in education like individualization, project-based learning, integrated technology, and portfolio assessments. They know a multi-layered, sophisticated process is required whose efficacy may not be apparent to the casual observer focused solely on the artworks hanging in the halls. To fully understand the complexity of that process we need to investigate a bit more.


Like any other subject, art has a particular way of accessing and developing knowledge. Understanding how meaning is made requires that students learn to analyze a broad spectrum of symbolic representations. This analysis is done through discovering connections between the form of an artwork, the artist’s theme or intention, and the context in which it was made. Dr. Renee Sandell, the NAEA 2019 Lowenfeld Award recipient, has written, “Excellent visual arts teaching helps learners navigate through our visual world using two qualitative and interlinked experiential processes: creative expression and critical response.” (Sandell et al., 2012). While students explore how to represent their intentions through their studio work, they must simultaneously deconstruct the art of others to internalize this symbiotic relationship. An Art teacher provides the tools and experiences for this to happen by designing projects that integrate art history with studio problems, allowing students to experience artistic concepts through both their heads and hands.

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The findings from this analysis must then be critically assessed to see if the meaning extracted has significance or relevance to culture or the student’s life. In “Ten Lessons the Arts Teach,” Stanford professor, Elliot Eisner writes that “The arts teach children to make good judgments about qualitative relationships.” (Eisner, 2016). Again, an understanding of the art-making context is essential. Since meaning in a work of art is often ambiguous, this requires students to make a broad range of connections to arrive at and justify their position. Becoming comfortable with ambiguity is a crucial aspect of being creative and flexibly-minded. Qualitative relationships in life are not limited to the arts, and a student’s experience here will help them navigate the world. The Art teacher is purposefully blowing minds to expand them.


When working with schools, language education expert Dr. Jose´ Medina emphasizes that all teachers are language teachers. The language in the art room goes beyond the development of art vocabulary and terminology. Again, this doesn’t happen coincidentally. The use of language to organize the analytical and critical thinking mentioned above, in either a written or verbal form, also is developed in the art classroom. Examining and annotating an artwork according to formal, thematic and contextual attributes happens in critiques, discussions and written assignments. Synthesizing these annotations into critical arguments of how an artwork functions within a given context requires students to use high-level thinking strategies.

Activities and assessment vehicles need to have built-in tools which give language users of all levels the support they need to express their thinking clearly. Ready access to developmentally appropriate vocabulary banks, sentence starters, definitions of terminology, and student-friendly contextual resources are things the Art teacher designs to support language learners and users. The Art teacher is not just developing visual language in students but functional language as well.


A small percentage of students who take art will go on to study art at the post-secondary level. While it is essential to help those students to develop their skills and understanding of art to allow them to be competitive in the art school admissions process, there needs to be value for those students who will not pursue art beyond high school as well. Acquiring some knowledge of and appreciation for the arts fill that order somewhat, but Art class does much more for both sets of students.

The arts have no monopoly on creativity but experiencing how an artist thinks and acts provides insight into what it means to be a creative problem-solver. Making art is just one vehicle for the expression of creativity. For those students who will not pursue art further, and maybe even for those who do, the art they produce, while personally dear, is of secondary importance to an understanding of the creative process. Sir Ken Robinson defines creativity as, “the process of having original ideas that have value” (Robinson, Aronica, 2016). Indeed, a lot of art, student-made or otherwise, is neither original nor of value. Yet for creativity to be possible the Art teacher must establish an environment where outcomes are unpredictable, ‘mistakes’ are recognized as feedback, where risk-taking is rewarded in the assessment, and where students have considerable agency in decision-making about their artistic pursuits.

The establishment of this environment can sometimes come into conflict with school policies, programs, or initiatives that work well for other subjects but not for art. Reliance on easily controlled, predictable, and measurable exercises or standardized assessments of both students and teachers can make it difficult for Art teachers to facilitate, and students to truly express creative behavior. “In the school environment, creativity can be considered pathological behavior as opposed to the compliant traits of being reliable, sincere, good-natured, responsible, tolerant, and peaceable — the qualities associated with the lowest levels of creativity,” writes Cevin Soling, director of the documentary “The War on Kids” (Soling, 2014). The reason that the art room looks messy and informal is that creativity exists on the edge of chaos. Different classroom management strategies are required. UCLA professor of psychology, Dr. Robert Bilder has found in his research with school children that… “It was that freedom to explore that led them to be increasingly engaged and allowed them to forge connections that allowed them to be more creative.” (Schwartz, 2014). Schools need to become comfortable with and learn to appreciate the apparent disorderif they genuinely want teachers and students to be creative. Student engagement is the most important indicator that the Art teacher has found that sweet spot on the edge of chaos for their classroom.

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As the world finds itself increasingly faced with problems of sustainability and equity, the imperative for developing global awareness and caring and competent citizens is clear. The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development defines global competence as: “Global competence is a multidimensional capacity. Globally competent individuals can examine local, global and intercultural issues, understand and appreciate different perspectives and world views, interact successfully and respectfully with others, and take responsible action toward sustainability and collective well-being.”

Art class introduces students to varied aspects of visual language from different cultures, so it seems natural that schools would see art class as a solid contributor to their efforts at developing global competency in students. This approach alone would be another missed opportunity. Art can use its particular attributes to develop global competence in students beyond merely introducing them to the art of diverse cultures. Many artists address political and economic inequality, environmental issues, and social injustice in their work. By providing students projects structured to include assessment of their level of global competence, the researching of global concerns, defining and debating positive and negative outcomes, and creating artworks that interact with the local community in some way, Art teachers purposefully develop global citizens.

Effectively scaffolding these attributes into the art program is something the Art teacher is thinking about a lot. In an art classroom where students are learning about Art, they are not just working on skills and techniques to produce effective visual communication. Art class is not only a place where students get to think differently and be more hands-on, although both of those things do happen. The Art teacher has a plan to develop curious, creative, and competent global citizens. Through an immersive art experience, students learn that Art is about ideas and that these ideas come from, connect, and interact with a wide range of human endeavors. They see that they can have a relationship to the world that isn’t driven by commerce or utility. Students come to understand that there are multiple ways to solve problems and that it is possible to proceed even when you are not sure about an outcome. They become participants in culture rather than observers of it.

To get art students to that place much is going on in the Art classroom that may not fit the normal teacher evaluation process. To champion the deep learning happening in the art room professional conversations would be a more conducive and satisfying way to get a feel for how the Art teacher’s plan is unfolding. Rather than the teacher adapting what they do to fit a standardized evaluation model, the evaluation process should accommodate and embrace the specialized pedagogy the Art teacher practices.

Most schools support the importance of the arts in education. An understanding of what and how the Art teacher is thinking, planning, doing, evaluating, and refining, will prevent this support from getting inadvertently diluted by policies and procedures that hinder rather than enhance what the art program is capable of adding to the school’s mission.

Works Cited

Eisner, Elliot. “10 Lessons the Arts Teach.” National Art Education Association, 2016, Accessed 12 May 2019.

Robinson, Ken, and Lou Aronica. Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education. New York, New York, Penguin Books, 2016.

Sandell, Renee, et al. Section 3: What Excellent Visual Arts Teaching Looks Like What Excellent Visual Arts Teaching Looks Like: Balanced, Interdisciplinary, and Meaningful What Excellent Visual Arts Teaching Looks Like: Balanced, Interdisciplinary, and Meaningful Interweavings: What Excellent Visual Arts Teaching Looks Like. 9 July 2012.

Schwartz, Katrina. “KQED Public Media for Northern CA.” KQED, 6 May 2014, Accessed 12 May 2019.

Soling, Cevin. “KQED Public Media for Northern CA.” KQED, 18 Mar. 2014, Accessed 12 May 2019.