How to Produce Better Minds

Marvin Bartel, Ed.D.

Could some of our teaching methods be weakening our students' minds?

Based on tallies done while visiting art classes, we find that it is common for art teachers to offer suggestions when students ask for assistance on their artwork. How bad could this be?
Suggestions represent art expertise. As an artist-teacher, I know that I am able to "teach" the "truths" and "skills" of art. However, I wonder how much independent creative thinking I abort when I make immediate suggestions. How many teachable moments are lost?


Art education that nurtures imagination, experimentation, and discovery; gives flying lessons to the mind.

This is a flying clay chicken made by a kindergarten child inspired by a chicken that flew out of its cage in the classroom while she was practicing blind contour drawings of the chicken.

When do our teaching methods REDUCE thinking and LEARNING?  BACK to Art Education HOME

What would happen to our students' ability to think if we were to delay our suggestions?  What would happen to our students' thinking power if we turned the questions back to the students? What would happen if we would come up with questions that the students could answer in several ways, but they had to then make a choice? What if we encouraged them to do an experiment to see which ideas would work better? Yes, we have solutions to many art and composition questions. Is it best for use to tell them what we know? What it they were inspired by us to reinvent solutions?

In our observations and tallies, we find that when students come to art teachers and ask for help, suggestions (answers) are the most common form of teacher response. Suggestions are far more common than thinking questions. In our observations, coaching for experimentation is extremely rare. As teachers, we are the experts in our content areas, and apparently we believe it our duty to give out answers freely.
However, I wonder if as we give suggestions we are reducing thinking. Are we reducing learning? How can we teach thinking and learning unless we teach in ways that learning and problem solving is practiced.

Therefore, when students ask me what to do to improve their work, I am trying to delay making a suggestion. I am trying to phrase open questions about what I see or do not see in the work. My teaching habits have not been easy to change. I am trying to move from being an art expert to being a learning art expert. I want to ask the questions in a way that is helpful. In many cases, the student's own ideas are very appropriate.

It is so easy to blurt out my art idea, but does my suggestion teach seeing and awareness that carries over to another part of the student's experience and life?  Would open questions that do not include the answers motivate more thinking?

I am also trying to think of ways to ask them how they could do an experiment to help them learn to make a choice about ways to proceed.
As an artist, I am always experimenting.

Teaching art is also an experiment. What if, when students come to me for advice, I start by asking the students to review their ideas, or perhaps I can ask them if they can think of a way to experiment in order to make a good choice?

I am sad to find that many college students are afraid to respond questions. Many have been conditioned to believe that the teacher is expecting a certain given answer for every question. They are hesitant to make a mistake.

Preschoolers and kindergarten children are more likely to be open and confident. They are less afraid to think.  They learn very quickly. When I ask them awareness questions about their artwork, I notice that they soon learn to ask themselves similar questions and they enjoy experimenting on their own. Young children who are not confident may have had too many experiences that told them to stop doing something. They may have had too many suggestions. They have not been asked enough thinking and awareness questions. These children are slower to respond, but they need the positive encouragement and practice even more than the average and advanced children.

Ordinarily, a three-year-old will work very quickly and be finished with a drawing as soon as the basic parts of the drawing are finished. However, what happens when a caregiver, teacher, or parent has been asking a series of open thinking questions such as: "What (or who) do you like to play with?" (or many other "I" and "my" topics and related questions). When I do this, the child's thinking begins to change. The child starts to work longer on the artwork. Soon, without my questions, the child stops and says, "Let's see. What did I forget?" I have noticed that thinking can be fostered. They begin to think in response to their own artwork. I believe that wise teachers who find the right difficulty level can foster better independent thinking habits for any age and any ability group.

When we find ways to motivate and teach self-learning we give the child or youth an immense potential. Good habits of self-learning develop thinking neurons and the mind gains strength. Suggestions do not do this. Suggestions foster dependency. When we give suggestions, we condition students to ask the teacher or another person who is assumed to be an authority figure or an expert. Why learn to think when others are more than happy to do it for you? These brains grow fewer neurons. Fewer thinking neurons are a big problem in today's world. Today's world requires constant reinvention--not only of artwork, but of ourselves and our pursuits in life.

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