Teaching Creative Thinking
and Discovery Questions
(Inquiry Learning)

by Marvin Bartel © 2004
updated August, 2013
biography of author
also see: Questions to ask a Second Grade Painter or Museum Visitor



What kind of questions prod creative responses?

How will my students' thinking habits differ if I designed my questions to have more than one correct answer?

What if I would try to stop asking yes/no questions and try to stop asking questions that simply review factual information?

How will my students' thinking habits differ if I routinely ask for viable alternatives to standard ways of solving problems?

How would this effect world peace and living conditions in the future? How would it effect a their ability to lead a productive life? How might my teaching habits effect the way they get along with members of their future families? How and why would it impact there creative abilities?

teach creative thinking
Example Questions
Apprentice Teachers do SECRET SURVEY


In a global information environment, the old pattern of education in answer-finding is one of no avail: one is surrounded by answers, millions of them, moving and mutating at electric speed.  Survival and control will depend on the ability to probe and to question in the proper way and place. -- M. McLuhan (probably written 30 or 40 years ago)

This quotation is found in Marshall McLuhan: Cosmic Media By Janine Marchessault. page 224

Understanding . . . grows from questioning oneself or from being questioned by others, such as teachers. -- Sizer, T. Horace's Compromise: The Dilemma of the American High School. 1984. Boston. Houghton Mifflin. page 117.

What happens to the mind of  the learner when a teacher or a parent begins by asking instead of telling?

What happens to motivation?

How do students learn to formulate good questions?

How do students learn critical thinking? How can creative thinking be taught or learned? How can students be engaged in their own learning? How do some students become better at forming their own questions?

We all see that some students are more creative. Many educators assume that creative thinking is an enigma and a gift (or a curse). They believe that by luck or by chance some people are naturally creative. Some colleagues tell me that creative thinking cannot be taught. While I am thankful for all good gifts, I do not depend on gifts alone. I find that new thinking habits can be nurtured and developed in myself and in others. I find that a change in student thinking habits and thinking modes is most apt to happen if appropriate teaching habits are cultivated and learned.

One approach is to change my questioning style. To encourage divergent thinking, I avoid questions that have only one acceptable answer. Imagination neurons are diminished by "Drill and kill" questions. They do not prod divergent thinking. Most questions with only one answer are too easy or too hard. The student is either bored or frustrated. The imagination and the desire to learn both die. Scafolding so that the questions are just hard enough is feasible when you have only one student, but as soon as you have a class of diverse abilities, some students are likely to be discouraged while others are likely to be bored when single-answer questions are used.

Effective questions are asked when we sense the edge of student thinking ability. I have to achieve empathy to sense what a student needs. Open and relevant questions stretch and add flexibility to the mind. My teaching disposition has to be ready and able to affirm and recognize original and innovative responses.

One of my most amazing discoveries was when I noticed that my students were actually imitating my questioning methods. This was a mind blowing event for me. I see both creative and critical thinking emerge as the students themselves imitate my questioning model. If they imitate my good open questions, what else are they imitating. It challenges me to prethink how I teach.

If I use questions merely to confirm that students have been accepting my thinking, I am not motivating autonomous thinking. Simple testing questions do not help students become thinkers, discoverers, innovators, and leaders. When I use these kinds of questions, I am merely preparing them to join worker-ant colonies, but they will have lost much of their potential to make better lives and/or a better world. They become part of the masses of dulled down parrots who know the "material," who believe unsubstantiated propaganda, and give up their rights to think because drill and rote learning has conditioned them to believe in self-proclaimed experts.

As learners, we have instinctive "monkey see monkey do" mirror neurons in our brains. However, we also have an opposite, but essential survival instinct. Learners who have lost their instinct to be skeptical and to imagine multiple scenarios are a threat to themselves and to our basic precepts of democracy and freedom. We have to question, to wonder, to experiment, be curious, love discovery, enjoy new experience, and tolerate ambiguities to remain free and creative.

Teaching for a test that merely verifies a set of predetermined knowledge and standards is bound to be a very stilted self-defeating education because it deceives the learner into believing that they are successful if they learn to conform to others' wishes and answers. To become a creative contributor to society, I have to learn to wonder if their is a better answer to a better question. Our teaching and learning has to include skills in asking open questions.

How can my testing be changed so that it asks students to add their own best questions, even if these questions call into question my assumptions of truth? Life-long learning does not happen unless I have learned how much want to learn that I do not yet know. The major problems in the world may not be solved by using only old solutions.

Beginning with open questions

How does a class respond differently when I begin with some open questions about a topic to learn? Can I activate a different part of students' brains with questions than with announcements of intention? Will students be more or less apt to pay attention when they expect to be called on or when they are told to pay attention? Why do they seem to be unwilling to share an opinion? Is their something about how they I respond? Is there something about their socialization with their peers that keeps them from thinking and responding creatively in class setting? When should I allow written responses and respect their privacy? How do I promote a culture of affirmative, emphatic, and active questioning and thinking out loud in my classroom?

How would students' minds be affected if I invited and gave extra credit to alternative problem solving methods during my opening pop quiz that I use to check to see if assigned reading has been competed? How would their homework study habits change if I gave double credit when they proposed alternatives to what the authors in assigned reading had suggested? For example, the reading assignment may have been the historical account of the Boston Tea Party. What if students were given double credit for describing a viable alternative response to solve the problem of taxation without representation?

What would happen if I began every class with a few provocative questions about the topic being studied? Might my students minds be influenced to imitate my inquiry methods?

Posting thinking questions

We can spend a lot of time with one or a few students while the remainder of the class is not involved.  Noticing ceases when curiosity dies. Teachers who consciously try to teach creative thinking will soon realize the value of asking the right kind of open-ended questions. By posting good questions at strategic locations in the classroom, a virtual cafeteria of thoughts can motivate thinking and awareness. Posted questions that open up new approaches can be changed as needs, topics, abilities, and interests change. I have often found that when one student is stuck or experiencing a block, others may also be having similar problems. Awareness is one of essential components of creative inspiration and problem solving. If the motivational and inspirational questions are posted, I may be more efficient by reminding students to check the posted questions for inspiration.

Question difficulty

Teachers all know that difficulty level is a key factor in good motivation. When we see frustration, it is too hard. When we see boredom, it is too easy or resignation because of difficulty. When we ask a stupid question with a self-evident answer, students feel we are wasting time. Sometimes we need to ask redundant questions to remind kids of discipline issues or to reinforce some idea, but we need to realize that redundancy risks being dismissed as irrelevant.

When posting questions we can vary the difficulty. When making lists, we can begin with some easier questions and end with some questions that would challenge the teacher. Verbal spontaneous questions can be tailored to the student. We inspire learning when we manage to make the hard stuff easier and the easy stuff challenging. I need to remember that art of teaching creative thinking is not to profess the known, but to inspire curiosity and thinking by teasing out new thinking with unexpected questions.


Student questions often present teachable moments that catch us off guard.  We tend to develop habits of response.  It is amazing to me how variable different art teachers are in this regard. I was observing a student teacher who was teaching a painting lesson to a first grade class. I child asked, "How do I make pink?" Without a moment of reflection the student teacher said, "Put a little red in some white." This was a correct answer, but the wrong way to respond. I admit to doing it often, but regretting that I did it. This child was not taught how to imagine, hypothesize, and experiment. This first grader was encouraged on the unfortunate path to "learned helplessness." At least we can ask the child to make a guess, and then do a quick experiment. If the child finds that the guess is wrong, could we affirm the child for learning how to experiment, but then ask for another idea to try?

When a child experiments and gets an unexpected result, it is especially important to give affirmation and explain that we are affirming the courage to take a chance of learning from a mistake. I recently heard Sara Blakely, a very successful young women explain how she had learned to think creatively. Her invention had made her wealthy. In explaining her own creativity and success, she explained that "Her father used to ask a weekly question of his children: What did you fail at this week? He was almost disappointed if they didn't have an answer. She was not afraid to fail."
(from: "Who is Sara Blakely and Spanx" Squidwho - accessed on March 11, 2011 -
http://www.squidoo.com/sara_blakely "Blakely was encouraged while growing up to work hard and take chances.  She says, 'My attitude to failure is not attached to outcome, but in not trying.'  She is also glad she trusted her instincts. “Our gut is a real guide,” she says, and should be heeded." 
(from: Suzanne Ridgway. "Profiles of Success: Sarah Blakely and Spanz" Working World - accessed on March 11, 2012 -

Do I satisfy my EGO or my student's brain?
As a teacher, I know how good it feels to be a content expert and be admired by our students for how smart we are. But knowing the answer to a student's question does not make one a teacher for today's world. Giving the answer does not produce a learning mind; it disables the mind, making it dependent and uncritical. Such education is more appropriate for a slave culture.
When I give an answer, I miss an opportunity to teach thinking and problem solving.

The derivative of the word "Educate" means to draw out
What if my student teacher had first encouraged the student by saying, What a good question you ask? Next she might have turned it into to a teachable moment by asking the child to think about pink? "How dark or how light is the pink you want?" "When you look at your paints, which ones seem sort of like pink?" As the child makes guesses, the teacher encourages the child to test out the ideas on a piece of paper to watch what happens. The child has been drawn out and is now learning to be a self-learner; she is learning the science of experimentation, and the art of choice making. An important thing is happening to the child. Without saying it, the teacher is giving the child permission to be the creator, to be the scientist, and to be the artist. The child is given permission to use art making as a time to learn how to learn instead simply a time to produce an art object. When we draw out the student, a slave of ignorance is liberated to learn.

A part of the brain that was alive and well two years earlier, before the child started formal education, is once again being vitalized with new neurons. If we refrain from giving answers, and teach children how to question, they soon learn to exercise their imaginations and ask these kinds of questions of their own minds. In time and with practice they become skilled in creative thinking, setting up their own experiments, and enjoying independent learning again.

Even the creative habits of imagining, experimenting, questioning, and considering various options are learned by imitation. Good teaching provides good models to imitate. When teachers and parents model good questioning they nurture students that become habitually good questioners. It becomes part of their personalities. When teachers and parents give quick answers and dogmatic solutions they model minds that jump to unconsidered and unverified conclusions. Frequently this leads to bad choices, not only in mixing pink, but in many off color behavioral scenarios as well.

Does our "quick easy answer" habits of teaching have something to do with why so many people in today's world believe the quick and easy catch phases of talk radio personalities and political campaign ads? Might this be encouraging thinking habits that buy into all kinds of conspiracy theories about what causes bad things to happen in the world?

Changing habits of teaching
When visiting art classes, I witnessed many missed opportunities. Art students are always coming to the teacher for approval and with questions. They are being conditioned to check everything with the teacher in order to get a good grade. They soon loose their courage to trust their own ideas. They stop trying to figure things out themselves. As a way of building awareness of this issue, I decided to have my apprentice teachers study this problem.

The Hawthorne Effect may produce bad research, but the change it produces is real and can be very beneficial. My students, by being involved in the study, became more aware of thier own habits.

On a recent trip to London (March of 2006), I saw security cameras everywhere.  What if I put a camera in my classroom? If an educational spy would observe in my art class, what would she observe about my responses to student art questions and requests for help? What would the camera reveal to me about my responses to questions?

A few years ago I tried a new assignment in my class in how to teach art (for art majors). When teaching their practice lessons, I could see that they had not internalized much of what they studied in our course. When they started teaching, they used the same methods their teachers had used on them rather than the methods we had studied in my class. It is hard to learn new material and put it into practice without seeing others do it first and without experiencing it yourself.

I needed a better way to make apprentice teachers more aware of learning and teaching styles that we discuss in theory class. I decided that they first needed to learn to notice and become aware of other methods. I had them do Secret Tally observation research.

Now whenever they observe in an art class they are assigned to unobtrusively do research by keeping a secret TALLY of how the art teacher responds to student questions and requests for assistance. Many teachers tend to be art experts and answer nearly every question in a fairly knowing way. However, some teachers ask the student an open question that reassures the questioning student that the artwork is based on the student's choices.  Still other teachers are especially good at getting students to experiment to find their own solutions. Some teachers use all of these approaches, depending on the situation and on how busy they were.

It is neither my intention nor my goal to change the teachers that are being observed. I have made a few attempts at this, but who am I to ask experienced teachers to change what is working fine for them?

I have my students do this tally, not because I expect to change what the teachers are doing, but because I find that this SPY MISSION ASSIGNMENT is an effective way to get prospective teachers to rethink their own roles as educators--not just people who pass on expert facts and art skills. Maybe education really is to draw out rather then to pour in. This assignment is a way to get them to think about why these teachers do what they do. We all tend to teach in the same ways we were taught. This is a way to try to change this. It challenges them to rethink what they experienced as students.

These students become student teachers the following fall. In some cases student teachers still revert to the habit of being an expert who wants to answer every student question. After a visit to one such student teacher, I asked her what she remembered about the previous year when she had kept a tally of the teacher she was observing. Two weeks later, at my second visit, she had completely retrained herself and was doing a beautiful job of fostering creative thinking.

Even though this college student had studied uncreative and creative coaching of students who asked for advise, when she started teaching, she automatically reverted to the way her teachers had taught her. Fortunately when asked if she remembered our study of teacher response to student questions, she was became aware of her own automatic habits and found ways to modify her own teaching habits. Transfer of learning is not automatic, but requires considerable nurture, coaching, and encouragement before it become habitual.

Studies show that highly creative people (in various fields of expertise) have minds that have evolved and developed to be more fluent and flexible. Fluency allows them to think of many ideas very quickly. Flexibility allows them to think of unusual, unique, original, and even opposite ideas that never occur to the average person. Our typical tests do little to reward these abilities.

Many teachers and testing companies assume that tests, in order to be scored reliably, have to ask questions with only one correct answer. Not so. Of course essay tests can ask open questions, but they require more time to read and evaluate. Computer scoring is difficult. What if our tests would be written to expect multiple correct answers? What if we gave more credit for those who answered with the most innovative and unique correct answers? What if our tests would ask for the opposites of the correct answers? How would education change if we tested in ways that draw out many and original answers rather then certain single expected answers?

Also see: Writing tests for art class and tests to foster learning how to think better.

The examples below are open questions intended to encourage creative thinking for an art room. Other classroom teachers can post similar appropriate questions in their classrooms. Age appropriate open questions written by the teacher should be posted and frequently updated. Questions help students and teachers overcome the boredom of routine inertia of activities and habits of work that disappoint the teacher and no longer challenge the students. Including the same questions on a test will emphasize the importance of the questions.

These examples are only a start. No yes/no questions are used. There are no questions in these examples that have only one correct answer.

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Thinking Questions

These are art room examples (others will think of appropriate questions in other areas)
Materialization of thought and feeling

1. What are some materials to use for this work? 
2. What aspects of this material produce what effects?
3. What is very common, but has seldom been done with this material? Why?
4. What would I change in my ideas if I used a different material?
5. What materials could I compare in order to see which I think is best?
6. How am I changing the look because of the . . . . I am using?
7. How do I select materials to say what is important to me?
8. Which other materials could I try using for this work and what might happen?  

Considering innovation
If students make too many cliché subjects, post and ask this kind of questions

1. What am I doing in this artwork that I never tried before in another artwork?
2. What is the opposite of the effect that I am trying to get?
3. How is my work different than anything I have ever seen done by others?
4. What would my work sound like as music?  What instruments would play it?
5. If it had an odor, how would it smell? What would it taste like?
6. What things do I try before I am satisfied with my discoveries?
7. How could I work with fewer distractions so my ideas would flow better?
8. What am I doing to include surprises in my work?
9. What if I used my mistakes to look for new ideas?
10. What happens when I get stuck and set a project aside for a while? Do I keep expecting to get a good idea to try next time I get a chance to work on it? Will I dream of an idea?

Considering my growth and abilities
Use these to encourage new learning. Also see Empathic Critique

1. What should I sketch or practice to figure out how I want something to look?
2. What are the parts that are more challenging than what I usually do?
3. What skills am I practicing and learning as I create this artwork?
4. What could I compare in order to answer my questions about what is better?

Considering the qualities in the work
Use these to encourage more imaginative thinking about the possibilities
NOTE: These are not judgment questions. They assist in mastery by guiding discovery, but they do not impose our opinions on the student. Inspiration and motivation are fostered by Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose.
(Pink 2009)

1. What things can I repeat but also change to give interest in my work?
2. What things can I change but also repeat to give motion in my work?
3. How could I have less motion in the work?
4. What things could be made bigger and which parts could be made smaller?
5. What parts show up the most to somebody seeing it for the first time?
6. What parts seem the heaviest and the lightest?
7. How could I make my lines and edges lively? How could I make them calm?
8. How can I show fastness and slowness in my work?
9. How do I show that I care about my work, or that I do not care?
10. If I am tight, how can I become lose and flamboyant?
11. How fast should I be working? How does my working speed influence what I do?
12. How could I make my colors really stand out? How could I really blend them?
13. How could I make everything look flat and without any depth?
14. Do I want it to be realistic, fantastic, expressive, formal, or a mixture of styles?
15. Do I want my work to make a statement or to ask a question?
16. What could I hide in my work to give it secret magic and mystery?
17. How could I provide more hints and clues in my work?

Reflection and anticipation
Use these questions to inculcate thinking ahead to the next learning opportunity

1. What questions did I ask myself as I worked that were not on this list?
2. What ideas would I not have thought of without doing this work?
3. What did I learn today by doing this artwork?
4. What are some other questions every artist should ask?
5. What were important ideas purposely omitted from this work?
6. What do I need to experiment with next?

How to pass it on
When I was teaching I asked my students to teach their new learning and insights to their friends and family

Who are your colleagues that might find this page encouraging?
If you are a parent, who are your child's teachers who ask good questions?
Who are parents you know that do a good job of asking questions?
What if you sent them an affirmative email and include the link to this webpage?

Daniel H. Pink laments that schools are reducing the arts in favor of answer-giving for the test. He is definitely raising some good questions about questions. Recently, I saw a video (http://www.design-ed.org/video) where Pink talks about this. Pink says, ". . routines and right answers don't cut it anymore in the economy. . Jobs today are about novelty and nuances . . but our schools are still obsessed with routines and right answers . . So our schools in many ways are fighting the last war. ." He says the current emphasis on teaching for tests while cutting programs in the arts is making things worse.

How do we teach kids to wonder about things?

I once sat with a 47 month-old girl while she created a series of animal drawings for me. She had been to the Houston Zoo with her cousin. She wanted to "tell" me what she had seen there. She asked me which animal she should draw. I asked which animal she likes best and if she could draw it to show me more about it. She chose to draw a zebra. She asked me to show her how to draw it. I told her that I was not sure how to draw it. I did not wish to tell her or show her anything. I wondered if she could show me how she would draw draw it. I kept asking her open questions. My questions continued to be about the animals, such as what they like to eat, what they listen to, what they smell, who their friends are, and so on. I avoided direct suggestions. At one point she asked me to tell her something else to add. I ask her what she would like to add. She always had an idea. When she finished a drawing, I asked which animal she wanted to draw next.

When she finished each drawing she went to stash the drawing in her backpack. She sometimes came running back because she had just remembered something very important that she needed to add to the picture. On the first drawing she had forgotten to put stripes on the zebra. While she had been drawing the zebra, I had asked her several times if zebras had anything special so you could tell that they were different than horses, but I was careful not to give her an answer by suggesting that she add stripes. After she finished working on the drawing and she was no longer thinking about it, her subcouscious mind remembered the stripes. Had my earlier questions produced this spontaneous latent insight?

She drew five pictures and it took nearly an hour. Her final drawing was a little girl who was a girl who had learned to walk, but was not yet toilet trained.


I learned how to teach thinking. I learned how to teach kids to use their own questions. My discovery was that AFTER ABOUT 20 MINUTES SHE WAS ASKING HERSELF SIMILAR QUESTIONS ON HER OWN AND ANSWERING THEM ON HER OWN IN HER DRAWING!
She had imitated nothing that I had drawn for her because I had not drawn anything for her. However, she had imitated my open questions. Hence, she had changed a habit of thinking and changed her habits of drawing. She was starting to think like an artist. She was not only making her own choices. She was learning how to give herself choices. At this point I asked fewer questions because she was already doing this. I continued to affirm her ideas and how she drew them. When her mother came to pick her up, the daughter proudly showed the pictures to her mother. Her mother also affirmed her great work and commented that she had never drawn anything thing like this before.

Could any teaching goal be better than having students who ask more and better questions at the end of the year than they had at the beginning of the year?

How questions change planning of courses, units, and lessons
Questions help when planning a course, a unit, or a lessons. Backwards planning can help us think of projects and learning activities. In backwards planning the final exam is written first. If no there is no written final, we can use a list of what students are expected to learn. In studio art, this is different. While writing such a list, the artist-teacher is bound to be imagining projects, methods, and strategies that would help students construct the kinds of knowledge and abilities being listed. Learning includes things unlike what is learned in standard content courses. Students learn to master materials and processes, to persist, to envision, to express, to observe, to reflect, to explore, to understand and become engaged in art, and so on. (Hetland et.al. 2007) In studio art students also learn to imagine, to empathize with the viewers of their work, to discover from their work, and to question many things. The studio critique is based on questions.

As students learn studio art, they are learning the questions and searching for the alternative and comparative answers. While a course in art is bound to provide some knowledge and tentative answers, the real way to assess the success of a studio art class may be the extent to which students are able to phrase their own better questions at the end of the course than they could at the outset of the course. If there was a written final exam in a studio art class, part of it could ask the students to write a list the most important questions that inspire them to continue learning art. These would be questions they would not have written had the test been given earlier as a pretest. Those with the fewest or least important new questions might get the lowest grades (if grades were assigned) because they are least apt to have learned to think like artists. They are least apt to continue their learning after the course is over. The students who continue to search and practice after the course is over represent the greatest success to an art teacher. Those who have learned that art is a search to answer ever more difficult and evocative questions have come to terms with the meaning of art and its purposes. If the ability to form good questions was part of the final exam, how would this assessment inform the planning of the course, the units, the projects, and the lessons? In what ways could questions become more central to the rituals and strategies used in teaching and learning?

photo   2001, Marvin Bartel

At first, I was stumped.  Not until I was open to asking questions of my immediate familiar surroundings, did I become inspired. I noticed something. The shadows falling on my work from overhead hickory leaves became astoundingly compelling and beautiful. This work may not have a huge effect on the history of art and the world, but it is original and it represents a creative and inspired moment because I questioned my immediate surroundings, asking it to reveal itself visually to me. -mb

Paul Kuharic, discusses a composition assignment created by a high school student.  In this project students are restricted to using their own cut paper shapes to develop an original abstract composition.  Compositions are to illustrate assigned design concepts discussed prior to the media work.

In this photo Mr. Kuharic, Goshen College student, is student teaching art at Washington High School, South Bend, Indiana, USA

The following portion about the use of questions is taken from "Teaching Creativity"

Answering questions with questions
Many students come the art teacher and ask for suggestions related to their work. How can art teachers avoid becoming the “know it all” that takes ownership of the student's artwork?  What are some thinking questions we can ask?  How can we reassure them that there are several ways to do it?   Art is a search.  Art with integrity grows from an honest search.  Students will become more creative if they can feel they are the true owners of their work. 

Art and science have many commonalities, but the one I often fail to use is probably the most basic and important of all - the scientific method.  The scientific method says that questions must be answered experimentally and the results are repeatable.

Art students have often asked me to give them a suggestion to improve a work in progress.  Many times my ego and my pompous personality have simply prompted me to blurt out an answer.  I have given my recommendation without even thinking that this might have been a teachable moment.  Had I been thinking scientifically, I might have coached the student to set up a small experiment, to make a comparison, and select an effective alternative.

I may tell myself that my answer to the student question has taught the student something about art, about composition or about a media technique. Yes, there are many admirable goals and standards that students need to learn.  Therefore, my questions and the student experiments need be designed to foster discovery and understanding about art content.  I may tell myself that it is much faster to just make the suggestions than it is for the student to "reinvent the wheel" when learning all these standard concepts about art.  On the other hand, I need to wonder how strongly a student will believe in something, or how long a student will remember something that comes from the teacher compared to something that is discovered by the student.  How often does a teachers have to repeat a suggestion or a rule?  Compare this to how often a student needs to make a discovery before it becomes believed and practiced by the student. 

If art teachers are there to give answers, who in the school is there to teach the ability to ask good questions?  One of my most gratifying teaching events was a time when I was working with a preschool girl.  While she was drawing, I continued to ask her questions about her drawing and she continued to answer my questions by drawing more content.  She soon began to ask questions of herself as she was drawing.  Her drawings became amazingly complex with all kinds of content that had never previously been included.  Older students do not speak the questions aloud, but I am convinced that they also learn to do self-questioning when good questioning is modeled for them by teachers and parents.

Teaching habits are powerful and subtle. Answering questions in the studio class gives me such a feeling of power and is such a hard habit to break.  As an artist, I am generally more clever than the student - what an ego trip!  During the Dark Ages science was a set of teacher answers.  Progress began when the scientific method began using questions and experiments to check on old answers and discover new answers.  In science, nothing is assumed to be true because a teacher says so.  Too often my art class was taught using Dark Ages dogmatism.

A fifth grade student in Mrs. Rebekah Short's class uses a viewfinder to assist in learning to frame and see proportions.  Copy work is not needed in Mrs. Short's classes.  Mrs. Short teaches art at Westview Elementary, Topeka, Indiana, USA

Some teachers feel that the visual elements and the principles of design are the basic structure of art.  It is thought that if we teach the basic structure, art will happen.  That was a modern art idea developed during the 1930's.  Hmm?  I'm sorry, but art has turned out to be a bit messier.  The elements and principles are often useful.  However, they can be too limiting and if they are understood too simplistically.  The visual elements and the principles fail to acknowledge content, symbol, meaning, and untraditional ways of being artistic.  As long there are imaginative and creative artists, we will keep seeing new scenarios in art that are based on new situations and experiences.

Every artwork is different and there is no simple system that covers everything not yet imagined.  If there are any final equations, computer programs, verbal pronouncements, or whatever, that give a final definition of art; we will have witnessed the final implosion of truth, beauty, and the human imagination.  In the meantime, there is little harm in working at definitions and tentative rules so long as we also agree to live with uncertainty and change.  As in life, if there are rules, they are more likely to be things like: pay attention, make comparisons, look before you leap, and so on.  They can guide, but not determine the process, and they certainly do not determine art products and the outcomes.

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As an artist I spend lots of time contemplating next projects - sometimes months or years before doing the project. For me, some sketching is a good way to focus the issues and get this process started. Additionally, much of this brainwork seems to be subliminal. My mind can be working on things behind the scenes. Every part of daily experience has potential for an art project. When I actually start working I have a gathered lots of new insights - some recorded and some without knowing it.

In organizing the sequence of lessons, are there ways to ritualize advance preparation, discussions, questions, practice sessions, and sketching sessions that promote thinking, looking, more sketching, dreaming, and idea development for lessons that are coming in the future. Are there ways to encourage and reward the keeping track of art ideas that come to mind at When I leave my studio my hands-on work is interrupted, but my mind keeps working - this is when my homework starts. When students leave class, are there ways to engage the mind so this habitual homework of the subconscious mind has been assigned?

The creative process includes preparation, incubation, insight, elaboration, and evaluation. Classrooms that include preparation, incubation, and insight might need to juggle several projects at once. What are the class rituals and concept questions that get the wheels turning so that dreams and imaginations are ignited? I have often been tempted to use shortcuts such as showing examples of other art to get quick inspiration and information as a substitute for relevant self-referential thinking. But what are the ways to define artistic challenges in ways that to give the students the courage to develop and express their own ideas?

This takes time. It means practice sessions, question sessions, and list making rituals. This means setting aside time days or weeks in advance of the actual production to get students It means programming their minds to do the subconscious incubation homework that helps bring insight to the table when the production starts. We know that homework works best when we develop rituals of accountability and when we make a point of rewarding successes. What are our classroom rituals that give credit and honor to the students when they show evidence of subliminal ideas that have been recorded and brought to class and infused in their creative work?

My own creativity in art, in teaching, and in life is constantly being fostered by my curiousity and new questions that present themselves each time I make a new discovery. As I gain a new insight, serveral new questions also reveal themselves.

For additional ideas on this topic, visit: "Teaching Creativity", from which the above essay was taken.

Here two of Eric Kaufmann's high school ceramics students are clay prospecting while on a field trip to a nearby stream on a friend's farm. These students not only made pottery from the clay.  They built a kiln and wood fired the pots in the kiln. Mr. Kaufmann, teaches art at Bethany Christian High School, Goshen, Indiana, USA.  

Experiential learning requires creative processing of what is learned.  Reflective journals are required by many experiential learning venues. 

The author invites your comments and questions.  Contact the author
If you are an art teacher interested in doing some research on creativity, on learning to draw, or on the relationship of art and learning to think, or some other issue, send me a note.  Click here for a list of issues of particular interest to the author.



Hetland, L., Winner, E., Veenema, S., & Sheridan, K. M. (2007) Studio Thinking: The real benefits of visual arts education. New York: Teachers College Press, Columbia U.

Pink, D. H. (2009) Drive: the surprising truth about what motivates us. Penquin Group, New York

Pink, D. H. Design-Ed for Students website http://www.design-ed.org/video (retrieved January 11, 2013)

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Drawing to Learn DRAWING
  (My online book of eight drawing lessons--including questions)

Questions to ask a Second Grade Painter on Museum Visitor
Creativity Killers
in the art room

Conversation Game to generate creative ideas for artwork
Teaching Creativity

Creativity Links
How can we teach Idea Generation?
How can I learn to ask "good" questions? This is a U. of Oregon Teacher Effectiveness page.
Teaching for Transfer of Learning
Transfer of Learning helps develop a Synthesizing Mind. When we bring learning from one lesson to the problems of another lesson we are practicing the same process used when bringing together disparate learning from many areas of our lives together to solve a problem.

offsite links

This is a discussion of how every new discovery (every new answer) brings new questions. Hence, a good way to assess a student's learning on a final exam would be to ask students to formulate the best unanswered questions they now have about things they have learned in your classes.
Root-Bernstein, R. "Problem Generation and Innovation" a chapter in International Handbook on Innovation, Sahvinina, L. V. ed. 2003.

This is an offsite link from the Scribd.com website. It is a list of writing prompts about art. Many of these are questions. The ideas could also be changed into open-ended questions to use in a class discussion or as project motivation during studio classes.


Art Education Home Page
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by Marvin Bartel, Ed.D. Emeritus Professor of Art, Goshen College

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For permission to make copies or handouts, contact the author. Teachers may print a copy for their own use so long as the copyright information is with the copy.  
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