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Instructional strategies in art education: a closer look.

Even a quick look at recent literature in art education will reveal the considerable attention to the task of selecting and organizing curriculum content to cover each of the visual arts disciplines: Creation, History, Aesthetics and Criticism. Less attention seems to be given to instructional strategies that might be used to present this content to students.

When deciding upon a specific strategy teachers tend to base their choice upon whether or not they feel comfortable using it, and if they consider it suitable for the task at hand. Will it help them present content in a manner that will interest and stimulate their students? Answering this question is often as important to teaching success as decisions made about instructional content. A lesson's success--or lack of success--may depend upon the chosen instructional strategy, and the skill with which that strategy is applied. This certainly justifies a closer look at the kinds of instructional strategies a teacher might consider for use in the art classroom.


The advantage of the lecture method is its efficiency. It offers teachers the opportunity to communicate a great deal of information to a large audience in a short period of time. Teachers can present the major points of a lesson, use their own enthusiasm to inspire students, and tailor their presentations to reflect the level of student interest and involvement. The lecture also enables teachers to control the subject matter as well as the sequence and pacing of its presentation.

Yes, the lecture method is effective in most classroom situations, but its reputation becomes slightly tarnished when you're focusing on the art classroom. Here it often fails to gain or sustain the desired level of student attention or participation. Students become passive participants in the learning process as attention to the lecturer wavers. Assimilation of information is typically greatest at the beginning and end of a lecture, but sags significantly during the middle. Student retention of material received by way of a lecture is disappointing--from about 60% to less than 20%, depending upon age and length of time between lecture and test.

The disadvantages associated with the lecture approach clearly outweigh its advantages, suggesting that teachers would be wise to use its sparingly. This is especially true in the case of art studio lessons where visual communication is so much more effective.


Stimulating students to discuss their artwork or the artwork of others actively is an effective way of sparking and sustaining student enthusiasm. The teacher usually acts as the moderator, and guides the conversation to conform to the objectives of a lesson. Discussion enables learners to express themselves and to interact with each other. As a consequence, students learn from each other. The satisfaction generated by classroom discussions enhances learning outcomes, prepares students for subsequent learning experiences and contributes to class morale.

Teachers should be aware of the limitations of the discussion method and work to overcome them. While discussions should promote student thinking and participation, they can easily evolve into lecture-type situations. Teachers must be on guard not to dominate discussion, or rely on fact questions that invite responses of a single word or brief phrase. When responding to fact questions, students talk to the teacher rather than to each other, and their responses are often influenced by a desire to give the teacher what he or she wants to hear.

Another limitation of the discussion method is that not all students are self-confident enough to participate. Some discussions may involve only a handful of the more assertive students, while the remainder of the class looks on passively. The teacher's responsibility is to entice as many students as possible to participate in discussions--not always as easy as it sounds. One route to success involves building student self-confidence. For example, the teacher might break the class into small discussion groups rather than immediately involving the entire class. This lets students share and discuss their ideas in a more relaxed and less threatening setting. This way, students are more likely to gain the confidence needed to engage in subsequent discussions with the entire class.

Another aid to effective discussion is to instruct students to listen to what others have to say, take runs speaking, and plan ahead what they themselves intend to say. It may be helpful to rearrange seating assignments so that students can make eye contact and can hear each other's remarks clearly.

Game Playing

In this strategy, students become participants in the learning process rather than spectators. They are provided with an imaginary scenario, and asked how they would act if they found themselves in it. For example, students are asked to imagine themselves in medieval times in the service of a powerful king. The king has just heard about a new gastronomic delight, known as a sandwich, from a passing troubadour. His curiosity aroused, the king decides that he must sample one for himself. He summons the members of his court and commands each to design a sandwich for him. Knowing little about sandwiches or their appearance, the king's only instructions are based upon the few clues provided by the troubadour. He commands that the sandwiches include slices of bread at the top and bottom, with no less than six ingredients layered between. Students are thus instructed to design a sandwich fit for a king, utilizing media and techniques specified by the teacher. Students should pretend to be as ignorant of a sandwich's appearance as the king. This gives them the freedom to be as creative and whimsical in their designs as their imagination allows.

Another example of the game-playing strategy might have students imagining themselves in ancient Egypt, where they are asked to design sarcophagus covers for a recently deceased Pharaoh. These designs must include an image of the Pharaoh in the same artistic style practiced by Egyptian artists of that time. The sarcophagi should also offer clues to the Pharaoh's personality and provide evidence of his major accomplishments.


Art teachers have long recognized the value of demonstration in introducing various studio activities. An art teacher rarely presents a lesson involving a new medium or technique without first demonstrating how it can and should be used. As with any instructional strategy, teachers should not begin until students are quiet and attentive. They should not assume students will understand what is taking place simply by observing. They should explain in detail what they are doing and why they are doing it as they are doing it. This way, students receive information through the eyes and the ears, increasing the likelihood that information will be understood and retained.

New teachers are advised never to start a demonstration without practicing beforehand with the same materials students are expected to use. Embarrassment can be avoided and credibility preserved if teachers are able to tell and show students exactly what to expect. The time to discover that the ink in the unmarked jar is not actually India ink is not when trying to wash it off during a tempera batik demonstration. Practicing in advance also enables the teacher to anticipate the questions that are certain to arise.

Individual Decision Making and Problem Solving

Teachers are employing another instructional strategy when they pose problems and ask students to engage in personal decision making while searching for solutions. This instructional strategy requires a climate that encourages students to become actively involved in seeking, discovering and selecting from a range of possible solutions rather than asking them to arrive at predetermined solutions. A climate that generates decision making and problem solving requires a teacher who is more concerned with opening the learner's mind rather than merely filling it.

Decision making and problem solving in art require the learner to progress through a number of important steps. The teacher must be aware of these steps and be prepared to lend support and encouragement during each. These steps consist of:

* Recognizing the problem.

* Clarifying the problem.

* Formulating various solutions to the problem.

* Evaluating the various solutions.

* Selecting the most promising solution, testing and refining it, and putting it into practice.

* Determining the success of the solution.

It is the teacher's responsibility to present and clarify the problem for students--making them aware of its parameters. In a studio lesson, this might consist of specifying subject matter, design elements and principles, media and techniques. In an aesthetics/art criticism lesson, students might be asked to limit their examination of a particular work of art to the confines of a specific theory, such as Formalism or Emotionalism.

The teacher sets the stage by fostering a nurturing climate. This means they formulate and present objectives that clearly specify the parameters within which the students are expected to work. They must also be prepared to encourage, value and respect the personal solutions arrived at by students adhering to those parameters.

During the evaluative step of problem solving, teachers should provide students with opportunities to critically assess and discuss their solutions. At this point, the parameters of the problem are reviewed and students are encouraged to determine level of success for themselves.

The problem-solving behavior described there reflects the problem-solving behavior of artists. Students can be expected to exhibit behavior of this kind only when they have the freedom to make personal choices when confronting artistic problems. Only then can they experience fully the frustrations, the disappointments, the joys and the satisfaction that are a part of the creative process.

Group Decision Making and Problem Solving

This instructional strategy involves dividing the class into small groups and instructing them to work together to solve art-related problems. The dvantage of this approach is that if facilitates a good deal of give-and-take between group members.

Group problem-solving activities can be beneficial for students who show difficulty arriving at solutions when working alone. Group activities let them learn from others while building their own self-confidence. For this reason in particular, it is important that teachers do not randomly assign students to groups. Inadvertently assigning students with similar leadership qualities to the same group can result in tension and conflict as each demands that his or her ideas be implemented. On the other hand, a group composed of students accustomed to following the lead of others is likely to exhibit little if any progress as each waits for someone else to offer an idea.

Outcome vs. Content

It is important that students be provided with a variety of carefully conceived art experiences based on all four visual arts diciplines. A comprehensive art curriculum is more likely to meet the needs and interests of more students than a curriculum favoring a single discipline. Content alone, however, cannot be expected to result in worthwhile outcomes, no matter how comprehensive or well organized that content might be in terms of integration and sequence. Teachers must be prepared to direct as much attention to the instructional strategies they select to present as they do in designing it.
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Author:Mittler, Gene A.
Publication:School Arts
Date:Nov 1, 1993
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