Demo or Hands-On Learning?
replacing teacher demonstrations with do-it-themselves strategies

HOL (whole) is the acronym for HANDS ON LEARNING


mind changing  

Marvin Bartel, Ed. D. © 2009
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Introduction: As an art teacher, I really enjoy doing demonstrations. When I demonstrate a process or a skill that I have mastered, it feels like being an art teacher superhero.  Some of my best demos are lots of fun because they include some amazing transformations, funny mistakes, or even surprise endings.


What I am about to explain, makes me both sad and happy. I am sad to move off center stage. I am happy to see my students become actors and move on the stages of their own learning.

DRAWING HABITS: A note from an art teacher illustrates a typical situation (paraphrased). 

"Why do kids insist on pressing so hard with their pencils? I have done three or four demos to show them how to draw lightly so it is easy to make changes. I show them how to hold the pencil lightly, to drag it rather than push it, but when they start to draw, it is as though I never did the demo. They grip the pencil tightly and nearly push it through the paper. You'd think they were trying to do a drypoint etching. When they try to erase or do shading, the paper is still full of ghostly groves." 

My educational psychology instructor in 1958 at Washburn University told us that a change in behavior is only way we know if learning has occurred.

Hands-on learning tasks begin as behaviors. Hands-on tasks are concrete. They are less abstract than reading, hearing, or seeing something like a demo. Of course doing it once does not make it a new habit. But it will not become a new learned habit until it is frequently rehearsed in real life situations.

We all know how habits persist unless there are extremely compelling reasons to change them. Even then, habits do not change without hands-on remedies that are put into practice (made into behavior). Children come to us with many habits. Holding a pencil is only one of those stereotypical work habits. They are unaware of their habits. Their habits are not their fault and they see no need to change. To watch a demo may not be compelling enough for them to internalize kinesthetic habit or change in behavior.

Children also have stereotypical images (the way they draw a person, a house, a bird, etc.). They have stereotypical compositions (how they place the sky or the sun in our pictures).


They have stereotypical sequences in how they think and develop their work (what they do first, second, and last). These are all habits that are not likely to change with a demonstration. These are not bad habits, but at some point many children wonder why some of their peers have moved on to and they seem to be stuck.

As art teachers, we are constantly seeing stereotypes. Much of our task consists of coaching better habits of seeing, habits of thinking, and habits of work. We know that habits are not easy to change. We work under the illustion that by showing the class a demo we can overcome established habits.

Once a behavior is habitual, modeling and demonstrating may not be strong enough to overcome an established habit of seeing, thinking, or working. Perhaps a demonstration can form good habits of work when we first introduce a totally new procedure. However, for more entrenched habits, we are likely to be more successful if we employ hands-on learning.  I also believe it is better to use hands-on practice for the first introduction of a new procedures. Students have more personal and diverse ideas when I have them learn it hands-on rather than by watching me.

Tell me and I forget.    Show me and I remember.

             Have me do it and I understand.
    --- A Chinese Proverb

Drawing is never a totally new process. In my experience, changes in drawing, changes in seeing, changes in sequence, and in changes habits of thinking are very resistant to change. Once a practice is habitual, it is no longer part of our thought process.  

Anything that is already habitual, is a prior learned behavior. Instead using a demonstration how to hold the pencil, I take students through a step-by-step line-making routine. This is done just prior to a drawing session.

Of course there are still many 'back sliders' when they start to draw. If they have had a preliminary practice session, I do not have to remind them to do like I did it. I can simply ask them if they remember how did it when they practiced. 

My LINE CHARACTER HANDS-ON INTRODUCTION (a warm-up drawing ritual)
Students each use inexpensive copier paper and a B6 drawing pencil.

1.  Students are each asked to draw a continuous line across the top of the paper. I do not draw a line (no demo), but I turn the pencil with the unsharpened end to the paper and go through the motions in order to visually explain how to move the pencil in a continuous way (not stop and go in a sketchy way). When students put pencil to paper, it is essential that I watch to see if they understand. If some do it wrong, I don't blame or chastise them for misunderstanding me.

When my students misunderstand my instructions, I apologize for not being clear enough. I keep explaining and repeating the activity until everybody understands how to draw one continuous line across the paper. I cannot get engagement by pointing out their disengagement. Engagement is motivated by affirming improvements and successes and never comparing low performing students with high performers.


My college methods students observed and journaled their observations of art classes. I recall reading a journal about a fifth grade boy that was diligently engaged and working of on a drawing of an object the teacher had set up, but he was doing it differently than the teacher had shown. The teacher came by and said, "Haven't I taught you anything?" After being shown again how to do it according the teacher's designated style, the student became very lethargic. He had obviously lost all his motivation.

If I want low performing students to become engaged, I must not do things that discourage them. I must find ways to identify and affirm their efforts and their improvements.

2.  Secondly, they are asked to draw another continuous line, but this one is as dark as possible without breaking the point (I carry a couple of extra pencils in my hand to swap in case a few break).

3.  The third task is to draw the lightest continuous line that they can.

4.  The fourth continuous line is to have a tone about half way between the darkest and lightest.

5.  Before we draw the next line, I ask them questions about what they already did. I ask them to describe the differences between the lines that they have drawn so far. They write words that come from other than visual vocabulary. They make up non visual words and write them next to each line to help describe the differences. A non visual word for a dark line might be a word like bold, heavy, loud, or intense. I would be very pleased if I had a student that said: "I HAVE A LOUD LINE next to a quiet line." Non visual descriptive words come from our other senses. Artists frequently emply visual expressions to produce non visual ideas. Drawing is not merely the recording or showing of a thing. Drawing always does it in ways that use line character in uniquely expressive ways..

I ask them to try to imagine their lines as sounds. Select one of the lines that they think is a LOUD line. Write QUIET next to a line. There are no right or wrong answers, but we are learning to think in terms of line character. I ask them what is the opposite of SWEET. Have them label the lines with tastes. Move to smell terms. Finally, they use words to compare them in terms of closeness and distance. Decide which line is closest and which is farthermost away and label them.

6.  The fifth line is more challenging. I now ask them to make a continuous line that changes boldness (darkness) and become delicate (very light) several times as it moves across the page. They practice this several times to see if they can produce the changes without ever stopping their hand motion as the line is drawn across the page.   Success is not required, but it is offered as a challenge. As I give the instructions, my voice gets louder and softer, louder and softer. We draw lines that are "talking" to the viewer. We are now being line artists. We are now thinking about lines as an expressive element in our artwork. We will now remember to look at drawings to see how the lines are talking to us, shouting to us, or whispering to us. For me to act this out is almost as much fun as doing a demo.

Will Hands-On Learning Work by Itself?

Of course one hands-on introduction is seldom enough to change a habit. We have to continue and build on the learning. After they have begun to work on a drawing I often stop them and ask them to walk around and look at everybody's work and see who can find an example of some lines that have character (in another student's work). I ask them to find evidence that the preliminary practice has carried over into the drawing. Changing habits takes time, and for many it never happens unless we provide immediate and persistent questions and affirmations. Learning often fails to transfer because our schools fail to teach in ways that foster transfer of learning.

For more on how to get students to remember to use what they learn, see Transfer of Learning.


Sometimes we do a variation on the above line drawing by asking student to hold the pencil against the tips of all four fingers and pressing it with the thumb to hold it in place. All drawing is done with arm motion alone.  It also makes difference to draw while standing rather than being seated. While standing, students can experience the difference between drawing while being close to the paper and drawing while stepping back so the paper is at arms length. Blind drawing (not looking at the paper) teaches habits of seeing that are generally missed when student keep looking at their drawings as they draw. If they are standing, they can turn so that they are looking sideways to see the subject so the paper is not in their view. I often have them use blinder sheet on their pencils to encourage them not to be only looking at the paper (a habit that prevents learning to observe).

The Demo as Apprentice System Learning

We have come to believe in demonstrations as a teaching method because we see that students are good at imitating what we do. Most of our teachers did demonstrations in our classes. It seems to be a fairly direct way to transmit the methods of doing something. Before the the industrial revolution everything was produced by hand by persons who had mastered a craft, generally by the apprentice system. As the factory system replaced hand-craft, schools replaced the apprentice system. We assume that the apprentice system was a teaching system that depended primarily on the learning by watching the master and then attempting to imitate the process being demonstrated. Creativity was not important aspect of the process.

In Japan the apprentice system is still an important way to learn ceramics. Dick Lehman is one of my ceramics colleagues and a former student in ceramics at Goshen College. Dick as become friends with a number of master potters in Japan. Over a number of years, he has grown to know Shiho Kanzaki. Dick has discussed this with him. What follows is Kansaki's explanation of his own beliefs about the learning between the apprentice and the master in a time when creativity has become an essential part of the learning equation.

“If I show them how to make a chawan (teabowl), maybe my apprentices will always be only tracing my work. Maybe they will not be making works that come from their own heart and spirit. Sometimes my apprentices ask me, ‘How do you do that?’ Sometimes I say, ‘I don’t know.’ In this way I help them discover for themselves. Of course they make some failures when they try to make their works. But there is much learning by trying and failing.” [We can hear the echoes of Matsuyama’s (Kansaki's master and teacher) convictions about the ultimate value of learning from failures.] “And if I tell them how, from the beginning, they will not know, forever, the things they did not learn by trying. In this way, I teach them everything that I know. If I told them all the details of ‘how-to-do’, they might be successful one time. But by failing, they will have learned in a way that will cause them to be successful every time in the future. If I show them how, they know only that technique and cannot change easily. If I don’t show them how, my apprentices have to be thinking, thinking, thinking to learn many ways of working and making……then they can change their way of working easily, and make the works that come from their own heart and spirit.” (Lehman, 2003)

For more on the Apprentice system see #10 of the Ten Classroom Creativity Killers

Hands-On Learning replaces Teacher Demos 

Hand-on Learning can replace most demos in studio art classes. These are discovery activities during which every student does hands-on experiments without knowing the outcome. This is not skipping the demo.  HOL (hands-on learning) replaces the teacher demos with a qualitatively different mode of learning. HOL is doing their own demos, mistakes and all. Unlike a teacher demonstration HOL does not abort imagined ideas before they are born. When I do a class demo, I never see what a student might have imagined because they watched me do as the "right" way. Below is a hands-on experiment that I planned and had the children do before they did their paintings.   Not all hands-on experiments are teacher-directed, but if children are not accustomed to designing their own experiments, it may work best to begin with a few teachers directed experiments that help them with the project they are about to begin. Subsequently, when students ask how to do something, we can ask them what sort of experiment might help them find out how to do something new. If I tell them or show them how to do something, they will remain dependent on others. If they learn how to learn, they become liberated and engaged in lifelong learning.

HOL examples: In doing hands-on learning, students are experiencing the joy of solving a problem with an unknown (unknown to them) answer (discovery). If I ask children to help me figure out what happens when some blue is added to some yellow I am helping the child not only learn the answer, I am helping the child learn how to learn and how much fun it is to make the discovery (rather than being told or shown the answer). This is why, as a teacher, I seldom show or tell anything unless I am unable to think of an experiment that might help them discover it on their own.

My job is to make known facts into questions and then design experiments for kids that answer these questions. Nearly everything in art and many things in life can be safely learned this way. The coach sets up experiments and the students look at the results and write down what they think was learned. In many instances we find that students soon learn how to invent experiments in order to invent answers. They become artists and scientists. My ultimate job as a teacher is to teach them to become self-learners that no longer need me. My goal is for the student to form their own questions and experiments, mistakes and all.


Short and Simple
Often my HOL routine leads to a simple predetermined result, but it still feels like a discovery for the student.  For example: “What happens when you wet the paper, paint it yellow, and then use a clean brush to add a tiny bit of blue and watch it mix it on the paper?”

In other cases, the student activity is a comparative experiment such as: “Draw a rectangle about 2 inches wide and 3 inches high. Draw one bold straight vertical lines down from the top edge to about a half inch from the bottom. Next, Draw two similar lines down from he top, but make them each a different length. Be sure they are all the same boldness. Look at your vertical lines and imagine that they are the trunks of trees growing in snowy field. Which looks closer? Which looks farther away? Why?”

This painting and the two below were painted after these students had practiced doing the experiments above

No examples were shown and the teacher did not do any demos, drawings, or paintings for the students to see. Many awareness building open questions are asked while the children are working.




Flower paintings by Geogia O'Keefe were studied after these paintings by the children were finished. Art history is not ignored, but it is studied by student minds that have been engaged in some of the same questions and research. Art history is not about dates and data. It is about becoming engaged in the purposes, meanings, and feelings of the works. By looking at exemplars at the end of the lesson, another working habit was being modified. Another way of transferring learning was being practiced.   There are countless such comparative experiments that we can invent by which to analyze visual effects in compositions. When students disagree about the results, it offers some excellent chances to analyze different experiments and different ways of seeing. I find that when I establish the culture of investigation, students soon learn to invent ways to experiment and make comparisons. The final assessment of a studio art class has more to do with how well students have learned to form questions and experiments as it has to do with how well they can produce fine works of art.

No two children make the same choices when given a chance to do their own experimentation. The divergent results allow each student to have ownership as well as for all to learn from the others in the studio.

This first grader loved the way the colors blended on wet paper.

By asking students to paint the background first, another stereotype is becoming less retrenched. Another work habit is being challenged. As a result, new ways of seeing inform the expressive work.


 HOLs are easier to remember: I find that learning by doing is remembered better than learning by watching. If I happen to get distracted or zone out while watching a demo, I am apt to miss a crucial step in the process. If I get distracted while I am working, it is up to me to return to where I left off.  If students miss an instruction during a demo, they are often too embarrassed to ask about it or they simply remain ignorant.   In learning, it is harder to forget a step in the process if you already did it once yourself.  For the hands-on learner, it is harder to be distracted (compared to watching a demo) because your own hands, eyes, and head are busy staying on task and wondering what will happen. The learners are looking forward to discovering results. Their minds are imagining diverse outcomes. They are being propelled by the need to know which prediction is correct. Students learn to anticipate the fun of making a discovery and analyzing how it revealed itself.

This second grader habitually incorporates a rainbow in every painting she creates.

Her lily is framed by a rainbow over and around it.

Only primary colors were allowed in the painting, but experimentation with mixing the colors was done as preliminary hands-on experimentation. I often asked mixing questions during the final painting.

Students were strongly encouraged to use only mixed colors as they painted. Colors could be premixed or mixed by overpainting color over color. They had only primary colors in their pain sets.

No teacher demos were used before or during this painting lesson. Each student's work is based on their own vision of the same actual live lily plant before them..


HOLs motivates creative ideas: Of course some may get different outcomes (if they miss an instruction). These mistakes are actually important ways to learn. If students make mistakes, misunderstand my instructions, or for various reasons they get unintended results that none of us could have anticipated in advance, the unintended outcomes can be very useful for launching new learning and new kinds of projects.  In art and life we learn that mistakes sometimes produce the most important discoveries. When this happens, students are learning a valid method by which artists and other creative individuals routinely get new ideas. If you look at "serendipity" in Wikipedia, it shows many beneficial discoveries that came from unintended outcomes. It is not even essential to remember the outcome of an experiment so long as students learn how to do the experiment. If they can repeat it, they will eventually remember the outcome.   HOLs help me learn to communicate better: Sometimes mistakes are merely the result of my poorly articulated instructions. I have often had to ask the class to repeat an introductory warm up because I failed to explain something clearly enough.  As I walk around the class to encourage students efforts, I often notice mistakes happening, but I do not stop them.  If some students get it wrong, I often have them all practice it again, but first I correct myself.  I try to take full responsibility for my unclear explanation (even when I suspect that some students just failed to pay attention). If I admit to my mistakes, it is easier for students to feel okay about their mistakes. In art, mistakes are often the source of new ideas.

About drawing instruction: In teaching drawing, I do not show them a drawing. I do not draw in front of them because they are not supposed to learn to draw my drawing. The goal is not to get in the habit of copying the teacher's drawing. The goal is for them to develop artistic habits that do not need to be changed by other teachers. They are to learn to draw--not learn to copy.

I explain to them how I am looking at something and we discuss what I notice. They then draw while using this way of looking. I explain to them how my mind is working when I imagine something that does not actually exist. They then draw something while their mind is thinking these ways. I explain how my memory works when I draw from memory.   They then draw things while they are remembering in these ways. I may even discuss and have them practice alternative ways that an artist's body relates to the paper and various ways the hand holds the pencil or charcoal because these represent different attitudes toward the work and help produce nuances of expressiveness and gestural marks that produce certain feelings in the drawings.

Doing rather than watching produces different minds:
School age children are forming thinking habits and strengthening their brains. The biggest and most important difference between a hands-on activity and a demo are things that happen in the developing brain.  During a demo the student mind wonders and wanders. However, during the hands-on activity, the mind has to pre think (imagine) and wonder what might happen, but it does not wander. The mind is busy directing the hands toward an expressive end.  As the mind wonders what might happen while in the act of doing, the student's mind is speculating and actively imagining many possible artwork scenarios. This is creativity in action.  Spectators at a demo find it is easier to simply wait and see what happens while continuing to think of other concerns. While trying hands-on experiments the ideas are more apt turn into genuine inspirations that emerge out of the student's own culture and life.  It is much more likely that a more imaginative and active thinking and engaged mind is being formed.

On the other hand, if students are watching rather than thinking, the learner's mind tends to be in spectator mode. A spectator-learner becomes a person who believes what is shown. They passively wait for the teacher's outcome in order to see what the teacher wants. They are being conditioned to please the teacher rather than invent from their own experiences.

In hands-on experiments the student is learning a new way to do something. This often turns out to be an idea-generation process. To be a participant problem solver is very different from being a spectator who can replicate or imitate another person's skill and solution. If I learn by doing, I become a person that is less apt to be fooled and more apt to contribute new and useful ideas.  This is one of the most basic transformations in thinking modes that is needed to move students from being dependent to being independent creators by nature. Education changes from being the transmission of content and skill. Education becomes a process of learning how to learn.


As preschoolers and kindergarten children we are naturally open to experimentation. We want to try anything to see what works.  By second grade most of us have lost this wonderful openness and divergent ability. As teachers, we need to stop conditioning students to follow our models and stop learning out answers. We need to find more ways for students to retain willingness to take risks and to learn by doing.

In studio art class student-centered, experience-centered, project based experiential learning, can produce important and essential qualities of mind. While every school subject should use more hands-on experiential discoveries, questions, and comparisons as the their primary way of introducing new concepts and content; studio art classes offer unique chances for open ended discovery learning.  If all teachers converted facts and statements into open questions with solutions based on experience, experiments, and reflection; it might go a long way to improve the way minds learn to think for themselves and for the common good.


Selecting Concepts to Teach With Hands-On Learning

Hands-on experiments are based on concepts and practices that are commonly used by artists, but are often not known by students. Every kind of technique, skill, and visual principle can be discovered through experimentation. Watching a color wheel demonstration can get boring. However, a child who has never seen a color wheel can learn to reinvent the wheel. This is not only a revelation about color, it is a revelation about the process of inventing everything. As art  teachers who are creative artists ourselves, we understand how these approaches are invented. When we teach this way, we see that students can learn more than what appears to be art. They can learn what underlies the creation of art.   Students can learn (with coaching and encouragement) that they can set up experiments to learn whatever and whenever they need to learn. When they do the pre-practice instead of watching a demo we are preparing them to habitually do more pre-practice and experiments to see what works best. When they ask for help, we can avoid giving them suggestions. We can ask what they have already tried. We can ask them what else might be compared? A teacher's greatest success is for students to become independent of teachers.

Are there Exceptions?
I demonstrate when it may be unsafe for students to make mistakes. Cutting tools, such as those used in printmaking and mat cutting, can cut their hands. Of course a demonstration does not adequately assure safety. To avoid injury, students must be required to do hands-on safety-critical processes for the first time while being observed by the teacher or at least be an advanced peer who cares about their well being..

Some basic skills are very complex. They are very difficult to understand without seeing an expert execute and explain subtle actions and forming processes. I find that the best situation for teaching beginners to use a potter's wheel is to have each student at a wheel arranged in a circle so they can all see the instructor and the instructor can see each wheel. Students each move through each stage of the process immediately after the that stage is shown and explained. In this situation the demonstration is limited to skill issues.


The demonstration is broken into small stages and individuals who need additional help are tutored before the next step is demonstrated. What is learned is not art. It is merely craft. It needs to begin and end with art questions that emphasize the difference between mere virtuosity in craft and the purposes involved in our search for the artistic aspects of what we do. When teaching a totally new process, at least I am not needing to change bad habits.

Is it faster to do a demo?  Yes, In the short run, it is certainly faster to get a nice student art product when you teach with a demo. However, if my students do the hands-on pre-practice themselves without a demo, I am instilling the learning habits that our needed for the time when they can learn without a teacher.

Those who argue that this takes too much time need to acknowledge that many of yesterday’s facts and statements are no longer totally true. It is never a matter of how much content we cover or how many skills we teach. It can be a waste of time (or possibly tragic) to have learned and lived by yesterday's assumptions and abilities. Of course there are many who are sad to see their cherished assumptions fail. However, the alternative is too dangerous to consider in today's world. Those who spent time in school only to accumulating information without learning how to learn to evaluate evidence and make comparisons are destined to be deceived throughout their lives.

If we can teach students how to learn, we no longer have to spend as much time on the teaching of fundamentally trivial content. Today nearly all content, explanations, and demonstrations are instantly available on-demand online. Sites like the Khan Academy and Wikipedia have thousands of well presented explanations. Some of our classroom efforts can be redirected toward deeper thinking and more advanced concepts and questions. Our efforts can concentrate on qualitative learning.

We can give more time and effort to the development of better self-critique skills, peer-critique skills, inspirational activities, personal interactions with students, refinement questions, and so on. If your experience is like mine, you will notice that after you teach with open questions, students will begin to imitate the teacher who demonstrates thinking skills (not monkey-see---monkey-do methods). I notice that students form the habit of asking questions of themselves as they work. Their creativity and self-confidence develops. They join the ranks of the creative whose faith in their own ability joins their skepticism of factual assumptions.

- end of essay  ^^^ back to top of page

Source of quotation:
Lehman, D. (2003) "Carrying the Empty Cup: Reflections from 3 generations of Japanese potters within the Master/Apprentice tradition." (retrieved 9-13-2010 at

This article by Dick Lehman was also published in Ceramics Monthly, December, 2003.

You are my peer reviewers. If you have ideas, suggestions or questions based on your teaching experience  to help improve any of my pages, I welcome your contact. Please give me the page title you are writing about. Let me know if you are willing to allow your comment to be posted. I am happy to know where you teach, if you are willing to share this. I will not post your email address unless you ask me to.  If I post your communication, I will notify you for your approval.  -- mb

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Did you like discoveries you found on this page?
Try one of these.

Creativity Killers  This page shows the other nine common
classrooms creativity killers (in addition to demonstrations).

Learning to Learn  There is never enough class time,
but the whole world is open to the self-learner.

An Inside Out Art Curriculum   Do the homework in class and
send the class work home
This is an essay on teaching how ideas are generated.

Teaching Creativity  Yes, we can learn/teach creativity.

Transfer of Learning  Yes, what we learn for one thing
can also be used for another thing.

Warm-ups make good learning Rituals to start and end the studio art class period.
Assessable gains will be apparent.

Learning from Clay  This page shows a short clay experiment where
children learn to join clay with a hands on experiment.

Other Essays by the same author

All rights reserved. Contact the author for permission to reproduce or publish. Photos, layout, and text
Marvin Bartel 2010
Art teachers may print a copy for their own use so long as the web page source and authorship is retained with all copies.

 Updated: April 12, 2011 of page