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Learning to Learn - Creatively

by Marvin Bartel, © 2008  updated: Feb., 2011


Teaching for Art Products - OR -Teaching
the Process of Artistic Thinking & Feeling

A letter from an artist teacher, 25 February, 2008:

Hi Marvin,

I just happened upon your art ed. web site. I am a practicing artist and recently accepted a long-term artist in residence post at a local small elementary school. I have 10 one-hour sessions with each of 6 multi-graded classes k-6.

First, I want to say that I really appreciate your thoughtful comments on the process driven approach (to teaching). I have taken this approach with my classes even though previously the art at the school has been very product driven. In fact, I use the example with the kids that you wouldn't expect to perform a perfect concert every time you practice the violin, and shouldn't expect to have a finished art piece each time we have an art session.

However, part of my charge is to introduce them to a variety of media types during the ten weeks. I often feel that I am rushing them through the different media. I would prefer to do 10 weeks just on drawing or collage. If I added in warm up exercises it would be tough to have time to introduce the new media and give them work time, and do clean up and discussion in one hour. I am also a traveling art teacher without my own classroom, so there is a lot of schlepping involved.

Do you have any links on your site or ideas you can direct me to that deal with the challenge of working with short time sessions? I feel fortunate because I know some teachers are only given 20 minutes for art, but to me it seems that a 2 hours should be minimum for some grades. I also still feel the pressure from the principal to "create products", so I spend a lot of time "matting" the kids work so it can be hung up in the halls for parents to see how much art is being done. How can teachers deal with this pressure from admin and parents to create "frameable" artwork?

Loved the creative work on your personal site too.


Art Teacher in California


Dear Art Teacher,

You are not alone. I have been there too. Time is short and art is long. I think every teacher struggles with making the kind of choices you are considering. As an artist I have invested heavily in the effectiveness of my product. I have learned to work hard to get my artwork to communicate and to reach the public. I do this by exhibiting products--not words or stories. I have learned to depend on the ability of my products to speak for me and to market themselves. As an artist, my service to the world comes from my ability to materialize a product. If I am a successful practicing artist and I suddenly find myself teaching art, it is only natural that I will continue the same strategies in teaching that have been working for me as a producing artist.

When I am surrounded by a group of children, I must ask myself what these children need to learn. Is it about what I make as an artist, or is it about my artistic working and thinking habits. I certainly do not want others to tell me what to make, nor can they tell me what to think. However, I might be open to how an artist approaches the things that go into being an artist. That is what process means.

I cannot tell you how best to teach because I do not know your teaching abilities, so I will respond in terms of what I would do and what I have found to be important. You have obviously demonstrated some admirable abilities that educators and parents respect, or you would not have been offered a teaching position. Now it is your class and your students. Any change in approach will feel risky. We know that risk can be minimized by starting slowly to see if we can do a new thing. The same goes for teaching in new ways.

Risk is part of creativity and it is part of creative teaching. I always believed that I needed to experiment with what I honestly believed was best for my students with the best abilities I had. Some things worked and other things failed. On my web site, I try to describe what has worked for me and for my students in my teaching.

What does an artist need to know and how does and artist need to think? I struggle with the development of my ideas, I do a lot of experimentation, I make a lot of mistakes (but I get ideas from them), I have learned to accept failures, I can imagine a lot things that have never existed before, I love the materials that I work with, and I love the processes and I have spent many hours developing my skills and expertise. Sometimes when I am lost in my work, time stands still and I forget to stop for lunch. These are the kinds of things that I want to bring from my life as an artist to my life as a teacher. These are the ways that I have learned how to learn. As a creative artist, these are the ways I have learned to construct my art knowledge. This is the kind of mind I have knitted together, neuron on neuron, from my brain to the tips of my fingers. These are the same kinds of things that I see in happening to the children as they become immersed in the art process.

Even as a new art teacher stepping into the classroom studio from art world studio, it is imperative to find ways for our students to learn how their minds could be working. I have learned that it helps to stop showing products and start with a process. I have found that I have to stop showing products and start asking idea questions. I have found that I have to stop showing products and start sharing my secrets of how I have learned to see, practice, sketch ideas, experiment, discover, fail and try another approach, and so on.

For the most part, I have stopped demonstrating these things in front of children. Demonstrations made me feel superior, but too often the children did not get the right messages. They thought they were supposed to make what I made. I found that I could simply give them materials and explain a simple experiment for them to do (without saying how it should come out). They are allowed to make hands-on discoveries. They all get slightly different results, but since they are not comparing to my result, they are okay with this diversity. Often I notice that some are way off. It happens when I fail to communicate, I have to tell them that I must have forgot to explain something and we do it again and again until everybody knows how to do the thing we are practicing.

When they are stuck, I avoid making a suggestion. I ask open thinking questions. Soon I notice that they have learned to ask themselves and their peers these thinking questions. Soon they ask for fewer suggestions from me and their work gets better based on their own ability to learn better.

When they are stuck, I avoid making a suggestions. I ask them what they have been considering and whether they can think of an experiment to try some ideas in order to see what works best.

Yes, all this is a bit slower than showing them what to make and exactly how to make it. Yes, simply learning to make prescribed products that a teachers shows may result in faster exhibition work, but when I encourage them to do experiments to make some discoveries, they learn the value and joy of experimentation and becoming self-learners. They experience the flow of creativity. New imagination neurons and divergent thinking neurons are growing from their brains to their fingertips.

For me, if I insist that they make a certain product or my idea, they do learn to follow my special ways of making something. However, they learn less and less about how to learn to learn to make something. They become dependent on experts.

There was a time when I did not understand this. I thought I could quickly make my students into artists by having them produce things that looked like art. Now I see that learning to think requires more patience and more encouragement. Developing self-learning and creative minds requires different kinds of practice. Art is not learning to follow instructions to make a thing that an expert far removed from childhood has thought of.

We can be trained fairly fast--especially when we are asked to imitate and copy. Now I understand that learning to be an artist is different than I once imagined it was. Learning by responding to open questions and with practice takes much longer than learning an expert's formula.  Learning to see takes longer than learning to copy. If a child wants to learn to copy, I as a teacher am not needed. Copying is so easy and unnecessary that school time does not need to be used to teach it.

Learning the basis for rules is harder than learning rules or principles. Learning how to define and articulate my own principles has taken me years, even though lots of teachers, preachers, parents, politicians, principals, product people, and every kind of expert has been very willing to give me their principles. Very few people knew enough or cared enough to teach me how to decipher principles that stood the tests of evidence that I looked for. Most of my teachers wanted me to learn their principles, but some were wise to challenge me to experiment and test ideas for myself.

I learned from this not to show a color wheel and not to ask students to learn the visual elements and principles of composition. I learned to coach students to experiment to discover their own principles so they can own them. They may not be exactly the same as we find in textbooks, but they learn much more--they learn how to decide what works.

Learning to invent and discover through experimentation, by getting unexpected results, and by analyzing outcomes took me a long time. Higher-level thinking is slower to learn. It takes practice to construct our own knowledge and skills. It is so much harder and slower to teach by discovery. We have to relearn how to think in ways that we already knew before we started school. Many people die before they regain this innocence and divergent thinking ability base their beliefs on actual observed evidence. This is probably why corrupt self-serving leaders often are able to take over whole countries. They play on our respect for experts and our inability to think for ourselves. When our minds are left behind—if we have lost or failed to develop the neurons to do independent thinking and to imagine the consequences of our beliefs and actions, we will lack empathy, we will be prejudiced and superstitious.

As studio art teachers we are in the forefront. Very few other classrooms provide as many opportunities to do what we can do in a studio art class. With art classes we have one of the low-risk places left where kids can still learn the benefits of learning from failures and mistakes, of playing around with ideas, experimenting and making discoveries, making choices, and believing in their own experiences and results. In art classes we are still immune from bubble tests. We can risk to learn how to self-learn. In art class, we can learn that mistakes are gifts because they provide us with original ideas that we would never have thought of in any other way.

Ironically, we can teach experimentation easier than science teachers can. In science classes they often teach that unexpected results are evidence of mistakes in procedure. In art class I can teach true science because in art we can look for the unexpected and value it—this is what real scientists do, but most science teachers have few such assignments.

I avoid teaching too many different media because I find that things quickly get too superficial when I worry about how many things to cover. The longer I teach art, the fewer traditional things I require, and the more original thinking I require. The fewer media we require--the more quality we can foster in those that we do teach. Some things only get good with regular and repeated practice. Other things only get good when an accident or a mistake suggests a better direction, or even a rule-breaking outcome. Chance does favor the well-prepared hand and mind, but rigidly prepared minds also miss chances. The best preparation results in a well disciplined, but very imaginative mind.

Should our students be required to finish one project before they are allowed to start the next one?  What if we taught our students that they had to start at least three projects for every one that they finish?  Of course our assessment would need to include what is learned from both the finished and the unfinished projects. Of course, this would be assessing the learning process more than simply assessing finished artwork.

In the real world, as an artist, I have many unfinished projects started. This can either be seen as a problem or as a much smarter way to work. Our minds are naturally multitasking behind the scenes. All our questions and creative projects are being processed by our subconscious minds while we sleep, while we work on other things, while we watch TV, while we read the paper, while we eat lunch, while we visit with friends, and so on. If we have no pending projects to finish, we are probably wasting the brain's ability to be productive. 

In fact I often get an idea for something while I am not working on it.  This is because when I was working on it, I got stuck and told myself that I would think of a solution soon. Had I not started the project earlier, I would never have gotten the insight on how to finish it.

Buchner (2010) does brain imaging studies. Brain scans are now showing that our brains work spontaneously and become active when we are sleeping or relaxing. The hippocampus becomes active during imaginative thinking. The hippocampus becomes active looking at possible future scenarios when our minds are not occupied. This happens when sleeping, on a break between tasks, etc. In the past, psychologists called this “subconscious” thinking. Based on brain scans, Buckner believes that he sees the brain instinctively looking at future scenarios and alternatives during times when we are not even aware that we are thinking. This explains why we sometimes wake up with an idea that no amount of intentional thinking could have generated.

Therefore, since learning does not happen unless the seeds of curiosity are planted, our students may need to be given incentives to start more projects on more topics, skills, and techniques than they can finished in class on schedule. They need to learn that some ideas take time to develop. They need learn to expect solutions to come while they are sleeping. They need to be inspired to come back to previous work as these new ideas hit them. They need to be assessed on what they learn about becoming more creative--not only on what they complete in the form of a product. They need to asked to take some time to reflect and do self-assessment of what they are learning that they did not already know. They need to think about their own learning.

What if those students who want to finish more projects would be encouraged to finish and refine their projects as homework? Could we convince students that we need class time to start things, but they need to plan to use homework time to finish things? Could this be optional with extra credit if they bring the work back for assessment and possibly for exhibition in the school exhibit? Could this open up more class time to be used for more new learning and less routine work?

Starting each session with a warm-up for something new provides a few minutes time to for students to practice many kinds of new ideas, art subjects, ways of getting ideas, practice techniques, questions, materials, tools, and so on.  A few minutes at the end of the session can be an ideal time to discuss some art history exemplar that relates to some things students have been doing that day.

With practice, students see that it is possible to build knowledge and ability. I give them idea generation activities (never telling them my ideas). I show them how anybody can learn to observe and draw better without drawing one line for them, but they draw the lines, shadows, etc. I show them how to look, how to observe, and they practice showing me what they are seeing.

While in one sense we have to quit teaching in order for learning to occur, in another sense, we have to be much better teachers, more alert teachers, and more prepared teachers to facilitate self-learning. Because of their stage of development, because of poor parenting, poor teaching, and so forth, most of our students (by the time they are second and third grade) are expecting more poor teaching that spoon-feeds them answers. They have become lazy thinkers, depending on experts. They want to be told exactly what is required for a particular grade. They are turning into robots that respond like trained pigeons of laboratory rats. Few are still able to manage self-learning because they have lost the joy of creative self-constructed knowledge. As teachers we fail unless we learn to reestablish the habits of open-minded curious good thinking that well nurtured kindergartners bring to school in the first place. 

If we emphasize the evidence of self-learning in our school exhibits, we get the credit and affirmation for teaching mind centered studio art . Evidence includes showing the stages of the creative process as part of the exhibit. Evidence includes artists’ statements where children write how and why they decided to do what they did. They explain how long it took for the idea to come, and how some of the ideas emerged while they were doing something entirely different. Evidence includes the learning goals of the assignments posted with the work. Evidence includes the story of the experiments that were done to make the discoveries. Evidence includes the mistakes that failed as well as the mistakes that brought new ideas. Evidence of creativity includes a rich diversity of student work where every child's work reflects personal choices that respond to individual experiences, concerns, passions, imaginations, observations, and challenges.

The children themselves can document and give evidence of their own journeys by using a digital camera and inexpensive laser printed images of the steps they walked during the creative process. They will also benefit by being taught to mount and present artwork so that it looks professional and by learning better ways to design and install exhibits.

When I first taught ceramics I was afraid to allow students to load and fire kilns, but eventually I realized that artists have to learn all phases of being an artist. People have to learn to do many things. Some are safer than others, but unless we teach the safe use of tools, they will not be prepared for life. A mind centered curriculum is much harder and much more complicated to teach than a product centered curriculum. I see very few teachers who manage to understand it and become competent at it. Teaching, like art, is never a finished learning process, but the occasional success can be well worth the journey.

When the period is too short to finish something, we have to do what all artists do. We learn to take up where we left off at the end of our last session. Students need to learn to continue working on the same project from one session to the next. We do not waste time on busywork in order to complete a given number of completed projects. The number of projects or the number of media covered is not important. What is actually learned by way of becoming a self-learner is of real importance.

Short warm-ups may be the most efficient way to become focused at the beginning of a period. Even when a period is only 30 minutes, it may save time to get students into a short beginning routine that eliminates wasted time getting started. Cleanup routines need to be efficient with each person knowing what is expected, and all students helping until the job is done.

Short review times at the end of period can be added whenever students are waiting for a bell to ring. Very few learning activities are as efficient as review time. Everything in art is connected to everything else. Questions can ask for new connections between what has been learned and other parts of the curriculum and other parts of the student's day. When we synthesize what we learn with other parts of our lives we become more functional and more effective problem solvers.

When we review in one context something that has been learned in another context, we are providing magic creative thinking practice. Transfer of learning empowers our minds to use everything that we learn in every other context or our lives.

Best wishes for a long, challenging, and rewarding career of experimentation, mistakes,discovery, learning, and change..


Buckner, Randy L. (2010) "The role of the hippocampus in prediction and imagination."
Annual Review of Psychology. 2010;61:27-48, C1-8. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19958178?itool=EntrezSystem2.
[retrieved Feb. 26, 2011]

All rights reserved.  Images, text, and design
© Marvin Bartel 2008.  An artist-teacher since 1960 - Parents, pre-school teachers, and art teachers may make one copy for personal study.  

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Permission is required to make copies, publish, or to post on another web site.

Please mention the URL or the title of this page in your correspondence with the author.   You do not need permission to make a link to this page from your page without permission.  

Your correspondence, experiences, ideas, and questions are welcome.
More links with similar help for art teachers. CONTACT

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Mixed media 1st grade artwork with a self-generated statement composed and printed on the classroom computer. The student mounted her own statement and artwork for the school display. Photographed by the author in in Clyde Gaw's choice based TAB (Teaching for Artistic Behavior) art class.

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Goshen College

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This fifth grader at New Palestine Elementary School, east of Indianapolis, Indiana, USA, is working on his electronic art portfolio in Clyde Gaw's choice based TAB (Teaching for Artistic Behavior) art class. On the left is a digital photo of him working on his artwork. On the right of the slide he has placed his artist's statement about how he got his idea, and how he developed his work.

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lost horse

"The farmer and his family looking for their lost horse in the woods." drawing, crayon, and cut paper.

Emma, age 6, 2003

Artwork done as free choice work by the artist.





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