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Art Education

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What is Choice-Based Art Education?

Have you been wanting to add more choice based in instruction in your middle or high school classrooms but are not quite sure where to start or what it all means? Is your middle or high school art curriculum feeling tired and a little cookie-cutter?  Let’s break the history of art education down to help explain why a modified choice environment might work for your middle or high art room.

A Brief History:

Let’s take a brief walk through the history of teaching art. There was a time when the art teacher was basically a classroom teacher doing their best to offer creative outlets in their contained classrooms and it was thought to be a place and time for decoration. Throughout the early 70’s the time for art wasn’t necessarily about creating artists but more about decorating the classroom windows and hallways to create a bright cheerful appearance created by students. The planning was different and largely taught by teachers who didn’t have an enormous background in art or what teaching art could be.

For those teachers who did have a background in art, a stage was set for the sage on the stage approach to art education. When I worked through my student teaching experiences back in the 90s, there were still many teachers who broke down a painting or drawing like Bob Ross himself. These teachers shared their own expertise and shared a love for a more elevated approach to teaching art but still relied heavily on the student’s innate talent and ability. An element of some can and some can’t be created, however, leaving many students to feel like if they didn’t have the talent or innate ability then their art teacher didn’t have the time. 

We’ve come a long way in the creation of dynamic visual art curriculums in the past 30 years. I can make a case for there being room for every one of these types of art educators but understanding where each philosophy fits starts with an understanding of each, so let’s break it down further and jump into to some of the major trends that have developed in the last 30 years.

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What is Disciplined Based Art Education?

The philosophy was established by J. Paul Getty in the late 1980s and became widely accepted as an academic approach to art education which dominated art instruction throughout most of the 1990s and early 2000s. DBAE was a response to earlier approaches, which suggested the use of holiday decorations as art lessons and a “sage on the stage” approach to teaching shifted to a more student-centered classroom.

This Disciplined Based Approach really started to shift the perception of art as a major necessary component of child development. It still has value in today’s art classrooms, however, the strict confines of the earlier approaches have morphed in several ways as teachers establish ways to reach students’ needs.

The DBAE classroom usually yields artwork that has very similar components when finished. The goals and objectives often reflect the master artist being studied. This approach can be very useful for art history instruction.

DBAE was relatively new to art education when I was completing my undergrad in art education. I had heard the terms and read the books but I didn’t have the opportunity to observe much of it during my student teaching experiences. It wasn’t until I landed my first position with a large middle school in the early 2000s that I was really able to test its merits and apply the concepts more thoroughly. I still consider myself incredibly lucky to have been influenced by two amazing art educators in my department that really helped me sort through the style of teaching art and develop lessons and instructions that fell into this method of instruction. Using a DBEA approach really gave us the courage to demand the same treatment and respect that core subject teachers were expecting. This approach was rooted in academic approaches to instruction and less about innate talent and ability. In my opinion, it really thrusted art education to the quality and standard it is today.

photo with a breakdown of the TAB approach

What is Teaching Artistic Behaviors?

Teaching Artistic Behaviors (TAB) is a philosophy of teaching art that encourages the student to explore behaviors and challenges that working artists face. The philosophy is based on the Studio Habits of Mind developed by Harvard’s Project Zero.

This TAB approach to art education has gained wide popularity in the last ten years or more. The approach strongly encourages the art room as a place of experimentation, growth, and reflection on the art making processes.

This Teaching Artistic Behaviors philosophy really celebrates student-directed and student-centered learning. This approach lets go of the “teacher sample” and really pushes students to find their own creative voice and passion for art. TAB really focuses on the process of art making through important reflections about the work being created. In many ways, the reflection and growth process in almost more important than the product created.

The TAB classroom looks like a studio with centers for students to move freely between media. Students are often provided with prompts for problems that they are free to explore and solve at their own pace.

Though I always prided myself on my research and wealth of art history knowledge and valued the Disciplined Based approach to Art Education (DBAE) I often felt stifled by the rigidity of checking each of those four boxes to satisfy DBAE. In many ways, it almost seemed to be the opposite of what was needed to foster creativity in my students.

I discovered the Teaching Artistic Behaviors approach in 2013 and absolutely felt ignited by the freedom it promised. Fortunately, it was around the same time that I moved into a full-time art role in the private high school I teach in now. I was afforded the freedom to revamp the entire program and curriculum being taught.

What is a Modified Choice Art Room?

There is a place in between these two seemingly opposing approaches. The Modified Choice Approach to Art Education allows the student to experiment and explore in search of their own creative voice, while still offering guided direction from the art teacher. This classroom often has an open concept allowing students to choose the media that best represents their needs, however, the teacher can offer themes and prompts based on master artists or real-life problems.

So after a few years of teaching with a completely open art room concept and allowing student exploration over demos and rigid instruction, I started to see gaps in my approach. Students weren’t learning about the masters and some were really craving instruction. I started to worry that I was headed back to the “you have it or you don’t” approach to art education. 

Influenced by art teachers like Ian Sands, and Melissa Purtee, just to name a few, I found a path that was able to marry the two approaches in a modified choice environment.  Check out the many TAB Facebook groups to help establish a better understanding of how implement TAB and Modified Choice in your classroom.

Graphic for FREE lesson with choice based learning

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Artist Solve Problems Lesson Plan Resource

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Whether you’ve just started your journey in art education or you’ve been around longer than me, I hope you can agree that we’ve come a long way in art education. If you’d like to try this Modified Choice approach, I have a free lesson available on my Teachers Pay Teachers store. This unit was extremely beneficial for me when I first moved from DBAE to TAB. I hope you find the resources contained there to jump start your journey into a more choice based approach and join me on Facebook or Instagram so we can keep the conversation going! 

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I help middle school & high school teachers, like you, create art rooms built for student growth & creative expression even if they don’t have a background in art!

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