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Using Art to Promote Deeper Thinking and Understanding

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At the beginning of this now completed school year I shared my goals with students and their parents. I wanted my students to identify as artists, developing confidence and an individual style. I wanted their knowledge about art, media and visual communication to help them to become more informed creators and consumers of culture. I wanted them to grasp how art is involved and integrated with many other human pursuits throughout time. Finally, I also wanted them to develop tools to help them express their values and understandings.

Learning to draw and shade, apply paint, use a glue gun, carve and print from linoleum are all important artistic skills and good things to know, but what do they help learners to understand? And how can they show what’s going on in their heads to their teachers and their peers? This is where reflection and metacognition come in. Metacognition basically means thinking about and learning from how you think in order to share with others and take on challenges with tools you already have and can improve. It’s reflective, but also future-driven. A metacognitive thinker asks, now what? How can I apply this?

That’s where the art studio classroom provides opportunities for making thinking visible and opens pathways to real understanding:

Fostering thinking requires making thinking visible. Thinking happens mostly in our heads, invisible to others and even to ourselves. Effective thinkers make their thinking visible, meaning they externalize their thoughts through speaking, writing, drawing, or some other method. They can then direct and improve those thoughts. Visible Thinking also emphasizes documenting thinking for later reflection.” – Making Thinking Visible, Ron Ritchhart and David Perkins

The nuances of my goals may change and shift – responding to the talents, needs and curiosities and passions of my students. However, the dispositions I look to cultivate and strengthen remain. The true measure of my curriculum and their learning lies in the ability of ALL my students to articulate their learning, making it visible, and applying it to their lives.

Since we are artists working on and learning about art in a studio classroom it makes sense that we share our work periodically with our peers to get structured feedback.


Artists also share selections of their work as well as explain their process in a living ever-alterable body called a Portfolio. I explain with students WHAT a Portfolio is:  “a purposeful collection of work that demonstrates efforts, progress, and achievement in one or more areas over time”. And I let them know exactly WHY it’s important in our class: “You take ownership of your work and tell the story of your own learning rather than leaving that to others. It gives you a chance to reflect on who you are as an artist, where you came from and how you got here.”

Students in my class built their own portfolios in Google Slides and were instructed to choose works that show any of the following:

  • Growth (technically or conceptually over time; how does one stage compare to another)
  • Struggle/Challenges (you engaged and persisted in something that was out of your comfort zone)
  • Visual/Technical Excellence (It just looks awesome! How so? Refer to the Principles of Design or Menu of Compositional Qualities)
  • Breakthrough (achieved something that surprised you, even after many frustrations and “failures”)

For each selected work they wrote a short reflection or statement explaining Forms (what you made, how you made it), Methods (how did you make it – steps, techniques, procedures), Purposes (why you made this piece the way you did and why you chose it to represent the criteria above).

It’s important to realize that the learning and reflecting on learning is ONGOING throughout the year. We don’t just wait until May to reflect in our process – struggles, successes, etc. If we do, it’s impossible to capture what was happening in September or October. Instead students respond to prompts given during and immediately after working on projects that require both technical and conceptual skills. That way, they can refer to them (and my feedback and comments) later, with perspective, as they choose which projects to highlight in their portfolios for specific reasons.

It’s also necessary for art students to look at the work of and listen to the thoughts of a wide range of artists, past and present in order to connect their ideas, struggles and tendencies to others. KQED’s Art School E-Book on the Elements of Art helps students contextualize and expand their classroom learning. They can return to the interviews with artists as well as lessons to round out their portfolios.

What follows are excerpts of student reflections with links to their portfolios:

Mosaic Value Collage by Adam B
Mosaic Value Collage by Adam B

“I used to think in art you continuously had to follow guidelines and work at a constant pace to complete your work. Now I realize that a part of art is being your own self and while we had to follow guidelines, art was all about yourself, your passions, and your creativity. You can do what you want, when you want at your own pace and own methods. My thinking changed when we did our first semester final when we really were in charge of what we wanted to do.” – Adam B.

Silhouette by Jordon B
Silhouette by Jordon B

“This year I realized that some art isn’t just creative images, they’re statements. I found out that art is just another way to express how you feel about a certain topic. Sometimes topics are very controversial to talk about so making art about it is very powering without even saying a word and letting others interpret  the art however they want” – Jordon B.

Silhouette by Rija R
Silhouette by Rija R

“I feel like art can change the world through the message it portrays and as artists, we have the power to change and evolve the way others think through the works we produce Art can hold various meanings to other people whether it may be in the form of music, dance, poetry, drawing or other ways but in the end, good art should always leave the viewer with an emotional change and impression. I Used to Think that all good art just needed to be physically appealing ; Now I Think that all good art should be defined by whether it makes you feel a certain way; my thinking changed when I saw the impact of art pieces created by other people.” – Rija R

Ultimately to learn what someone knows and understands involves a conversation, or dialogue, as my colleague, Todd Elkin, has put it. I can think of few better ways to dialogue with my art students than to hear from them in their own voices what their year in art class has meant to them.

I owe so much to my fellow educators who have shared their ideas and learnings with me. We do not succeed alone – as many of my students also noted in their reflections – I did not invent all the ideas I implement. I am but one of the experts in the room…


And to all my students past and present: thanks for keeping me on my toes and excited everyday!

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