Doing More With Less: Choice-Based Art Education

At the drawing center: sketching, making a comic, drawing from observation. Grade two

The following is a guest post written by Kathy Douglas. She is a retired art teacher from East Bridgewater, MA public schools, Massachusetts College of Art and Stonehill College. You can also follow Kathy on Twitter.

Budget cuts are everywhere these days and schools have to tighten their belts. Many art teachers report that this has had a big impact on their teaching conditions, with shrinking supply budgets and expanding class sizes.  In some schools teachers now have classes that are doubled up, but with shortened class time.  Under these difficult conditions it is a challenge to offer a quality art program and we are expected to do more with less.
All art teachers offer their students a time structure, space to work, materials, and inspirational instruction.  As a young teacher in the early 1970s I was motivated to do this, but had class sizes up to 33, some half hour classes, a small art room and a smaller supply budget.

Eight-year-old painters set up their own materials using menus in the paint center.

Through trial and error I discovered that not everyone had to do the same thing at the same time.  I began the year with whole group demos of entry level “dry” media (drawing, collage, simple cardboard construction) one each class period, adding something new each week but keeping the previous options open.  I was pleased to note that children sorted themselves out among the choices and worked much harder when they had a choice.

When it was time to introduce paint, I found to my delight that I could limit painters to 8 at a time, while the other students continued independent work. Set up and clean up (which I taught the students to do instead of me!) was a breeze.  I was also able to offer a large variety of paintbrushes and high quality paper, as I needed only a few of each type.  This benefit extended throughout the year, as I could make a dozen weaving looms useful in several classes for instance.

Grade three: independent work with silk screen using finger paint.

As the years passed and I became more experienced, we were able to add elaborate and/or expensive materials and techniques to our course of study. For example, because I could work with a few interested students at a time, I could introduce the complicated silk screen process to eight students, who subsequently became printmaking coaches for other students. With only eight screens and a very small sink, I never would have attempted this technique with an entire large class!  We could afford small amounts of lovely 24″ by 36″ 90-lb paper and better quality brushes for students who were committed painters. In a typical grade three class you might see a group of six students using the silk screens, four or five children working on plaster gauze masks, several at the drawing table (one or two using pen and India ink in spill proof containers) and always, several children at the construction center building with found objects such as cardboard, plastic caps, small boxes, etc.

Grade one students sort “found objects” they have collected from home.

Why Choice-Based art curriculum’s work:
1. Students had more time to work as they set up and put away materials as needed.
2. I did not have to have enough of any one material for everyone.
3. Students helped stock the studio with their material finds and the search for these materials extended their interest in the art class.
4. I was able to work closely with small groups of interested students trying new techniques or materials.
5. Because students in large groups could spread out or work standing up, the space in my small room was used more efficiently.
6. The opportunity to move around in the room, or to find a quiet corner, helped the students cope with the large numbers.
Over time I realized that my adjustments for large groups had actually improved art learning for my students, as they took on more responsibility and became engaged in work that was important to them.  I taught this way for nearly 35 years and every day the children and I learned from each other.  Small class sizes and huge budgets are wonderful, but we don’t have to wait for that bounty to make it work for our students.

For more information on choice-based art education:
Teachers College Press has published Engaging Learners Through Artmaking: Choice-Based Art Education in the Classroom, co-written with Diane Jaquith.
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  • October 7, 2010

    Clyde Gaw

    Choice-based art education pedagogy is a broader, bolder approach to art education that emphasizes constructivist learning practices in specially designed learning environments tailored to meet the needs of individual learners within the heterogeneous student groups that make up our classrooms.

    Teachers create dynamic learning situations when they catalyze and harness their student’s passions and interests in choice-based art room settings.

    Instead of passive recipients of knowledge, students become their own agents of education and actively pursue knowledge.

    Nothing in education is more powerful than engaged, highly motivated self directed learners, supported and mentored by their art teacher, envisioning and expressing their own ideas from the bottom up.

    Choice based art education is democratic educational experience at it’s finest.

  • October 8, 2010

    Eric Jackson

    I’m a new teacher, and I learned all about these constructivist classroom structures in my art ed courses, however there always was a big asterisk in front of all these conversations because of the issue of how this sort of curriculum addresses state standards.

    How do you write a lesson plan or plan out objectives for a class of 26 students when you might have students pursuing 4 different projects or centers in the same room? I’d love to be able to structure my room like this, but I just can’t see how it would be possible to make sure I account for all students meeting the same goals.

  • October 8, 2010

    Clyde Gaw

    What are your goals? The goals can be the same, but everybody might arrive at them at different times.

    There are lesson plans for each center. In authoritarian versions of art education, there is one lesson plan for the lesson of the day or week or month and the students are expected to follow it.

    Typically, in authoritarian approaches to art education, the room environment is set up for a singular lesson. Within the choice approach there are lesson plans running concurrently for each center. The room can be set up as an artists studio where multiple learning activities are taking place. This is the beauty of learning from specially designed choice based art education activity centers. These learning centers are specially designed to inspire, catalyze and motivate.

    Standards are just as ably met in a choice art room as they can be for the lesson of the month in a teacher directed/centered learning situation.

    The difference between a teacher centered classroom and a child/student centered classroom and is that most children in learner centered learning situations are motivated from the inside out. They have ownership of the experience they have selected or designed to participate in.

    In teacher centered programs, if a child has not consented to the activity and does not buy into the learning experience, they are usually penalized and graded down. This does not bode well if you are trying to encourage them to become engaged in your program because what you have just done is cause them to disengage. There are a host of other problems with related to managing art programs with behaviorism but I can’t get into that right now.

    However, this is a critical point. If a teacher has to use behaviorist control strategies to compel students to engage in teacher directed learning activities, time sensitive student generated ideas are lost forever. Who’s art ideas are we expressing here? Teacher’s or student’s? Who has ownership of the ideas being expressed in the child’s art experience?

    When do students have opportunity to use their own minds, interests and creative talents if they are constantly compelled to follow adult conceived directions and activities of which they have no part in designing?

    At what point do students become automatons and passive recipients of knowledge, directed by the adult in the classroom to go through the motions in order to complete an assignment, and at what point do the students have opportunities to design their own problems and solve them?

    I have heard the concern before about standards, and it is a hollow argument. It just depends on how you want to address the standards. Do you want to address them in a meaningful, timely manner that meets the needs of the individuals in your heterogeneous classroom groups or do you want to address them in a way that is easiest and most efficient for the adult?

    Granted, choice art education pedagogy is different. Preparing pre service teachers about learner centered pedagogy and learning environments for learner centered experiences is gaining some ground but is not prevalent in most university art education teacher preparation programs. Many adults have difficulty relinquishing control of materials, time and space to their students.

    From my perspective, at no other time in my 27 years of teaching have my students been more engaged in their learning experiences since I transitioned to choice based art education.

    I worry less about maintaining behaviorist control of my students and do more teaching and interact more with the children than I ever did from the authoritarian/behaviorist models of art education.

    In essence, I have gained more control by providing time sensitive learning opportunities than I ever did by using external behaviorist techniques.

    My curriculum is the same, my lesson plans are the same and I still provide opportunities for a full range of art education experiences in drawing, painting, sculpture, textiles, ceramics, digital media and so on, accept now, we do them concurrently to allow for student’s time sensitive learning needs.

    To learn more about choice based art education, check out this link:

  • October 9, 2010

    Kathy Douglas

    Eric: your question is a good one, and one we discuss frequently. In my state (Massachusetts) we found the standards to be a good fit for our work. I have read about educators who “teach the standards”. This was not our interest; instead our whole group demonstrations (which took place nearly every class) were infused with the ideas articulated in the standards. And as you can see, the standards do not mandate direction-following and do not preclude student choice. For instance:

    from the National Standards:

    Content Standard #2: Using knowledge of structures and functions

    Achievement Standard:

    Students generalize about the effects of visual structures and functions and reflect upon these effects in their own work

    Students employ organizational structures and analyze what makes them effective or not effective in the communication of ideas

    Students select and use the qualities of structures and functions of art to improve communication of their ideas


    All of our demos were brief, but required for the whole group. The standards were continually addressed, along with relevant vocabulary, historic references, et cetera. The difference for us was that the materials, techniques and concepts introduced in the whole group (brief) demonstrations were available for the students to access all year long, and for their chosen art making needs.

    Lesson plans can be very complete, and in some ways could be compared to a unit outline. They are not created to produce a pre-planned product but to address broad topics in depth. These plans are utilized and added to for the entire teaching year. For instance, a choice-based teacher will be teaching or observing some students paint every single day. If the teacher is demonstrating an aspect of painting, that would be noted in the gridded teacher plan book; in addition, the painting lesson plan would be available on the teacher’s desk for reference and access by supervisors. A number of sample lesson plans are available for download on our Yahoo listserv and in our book Engaging Learners.

    As I observed my students over the years I came to realize the difference between teaching something and my students learning it. I could tell what my students knew and could do by watching them work independently. I could also tell what needed to be introduced, re-introduced, coached or scaffolded when I observed students struggle.

    I would be happy to speak with you more about this important issue.

    Kathy Douglas

  • […] some ways I see the Montessori philosophy relating to an art room.  To me, Montessori mirrors the Choice Based Art Room.  I find it interesting, though. I never have thought of myself as a choice-based art teacher.  I […]

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