Art Projects in School – A Serious Question

I have some concerns about something I’ve learned from a few of the emails and comments I receive on this blog. The issue has to do with teachers, at all grade levels, assigning art projects to be done at home without teaching the students any of the skills they’ll need to successfully complete the assignments. This bothers me for several reasons, which I’ll go into below, but I’d really like to hear your opinion on the subject. What am I missing?

Here’s just two examples of what I’m hearing from readers (and I admit I have no way of knowing how common this is):

1. A high school student is studying medieval European culture in social studies class. Her assignment is to create a full-sized paper mache sculpture of a charging light draft horse, to be completed on her own time. Another student will create the armored knight to go on top of the horse. The student has never made anything with paper mache before, so she contacts me for some help.

2. A first-grader comes home and tells his mom that he needs to take a paper mache owl to school next Wednesday, and mom starts searching the web to find out how to do it.

I think you can guess from the general subject matter of this blog that I am very much in favor of art being taught in schools. In fact, I wish every student could learn art, music and dance at every grade, not only so they can have a well-rounded education, but because various art forms excite different parts of the brain than mathematics and language arts and history. Arts are important – no question about it.

However, there are two things the assignments I listed above have in common:

1. The student is assigned a project without being taught how to do the work; and,

2. When the assignment is completed, the teacher won’t be able to tell from looking at the finished work what the student really learned about the subject that’s being taught in class.

I’m thinking about this issue a lot right now because I’m in the middle of reading Doug Lemov’s book Teach Like a Champion. The author stresses the importance of being able to tell how well a child is learning the material. For example, if a question on a test is too ambiguous or too easy to guess right, the teacher won’t know if the student is really “getting it.” He also stresses the importance of using every minute of learning time, in a very well-structured way, to help move students towards mastery, and he stresses the need to prepare for success, not failure.

When the high school student brings her horse sculpture to class, she will have demonstrated that she can learn complex procedures on her own. She will have demonstrated that she can think through a very complicated engineering problem, and use her knowledge of balance and fulcrums and weight, etc., to complete a sculpture that stands up on it’s own. She’ll have demonstrated that she can look at a horse or a photo of a horse, and reproduce it’s shape with paper and cardboard. And she’ll have demonstrated that she knows someone who owns a pickup truck to transport the horse to school.

But has she learned anything at all about medieval European culture? Maybe. Or maybe not.

When I was a kid I would have jumped at the chance to do a project like this for a school assignment, simply because it seems so impossible. The challenge would have been extremely exciting, and I would have put all my waking hours into planning how to build my horse, how to make it stand up, how to transport it to school, etc. But here’s the rub — I wouldn’t have been able to think about anything else. Now, I realize I tend to be a bit more focused on things like that than most people are, but it seems to me that assigning an art project like this for a social studies class automatically diverts the student’s attention away from social studies.

I suspect that if the student spent the same amount of time reading good historic novels, she would have learned far more about medieval culture.

In the second example, let’s imagine the teacher looking out over a room with 25 paper mache owls sitting on the students’ desks. What information will the teacher gain from looking at those owls? Remember, she didn’t teach the kids how to make them.

She’ll know which parents know how to make an owl out of paper mache. She’ll know which parents have time to learn how to make sculptures out of paper mache, if they don’t already know. And she’ll know which parents “help” their kids by doing the homework assignments for them, and which student has a mom who works two jobs to pay the mortgage so she doesn’t have time to help her child with his art projects.

But what did the students learn about owls? The students will know that owls have two big eyes and a beak in the front of their face. But couldn’t the students learn that faster by drawing an owl during class?

As an artist and a sculptor, I have another objection to the idea of assigning art projects without teaching the skills needed to complete those projects. It says to me that the teacher believes that no skill is needed to make a paper mache sculpture. You don’t need any skill to look at an animal and see which characteristics are most important from an artistic point of view, and you don’t need any instruction in forming materials like crumpled paper and masking tape and paper strips and paste into a recognizable form.

Since I’m not a teacher, (and I know it’s a very hard job that I would never be able to do myself), I realize that there may be something that I’m totally missing. Perhaps there really is something very important that the teacher can see when she looks at all those owls, and I just can’t figure out what it is. If you’re a teacher yourself, I hope you’ll explain it to me.

Here’s how I can imagine that high school horse project actually “working” within the context of a social studies unit. In my fantasy, four teachers get together at the beginning of the term: the social studies teacher, the art teacher, the math teacher, and the shop teacher (do they still teach woodworking or metalworking in high school?)

The teachers decide that the best art project to compliment the social studies unit on medieval European culture will be two full-sized charging horses, complete with riders and lances. The art students will break into four teams, and will work on the projects together. They’ll also work very closely with the math and shop students to come up with workable armature designs for the horses. (Research questions – when a horse gallops, how many feet will be on the ground at one time? When was this question finally answered, and by whom? What piece of equipment needed to be invented before this question could be answered? Who invented it? If only two feet are on the ground, what kind of support will be needed to hold the sculpture upright, and what materials should be used to build it? )

At each stage of the project, there would be measurable results — except in the case of the social studies students. You still wouldn’t be able to look at the completed sculptures and know how much the students learned about medieval culture, because the sculptures could be based on just one drawing or painting of jousting knights. Finding that drawing would take one student about 3 minutes on Google.

So, after this long-winded rant, here are a few specific questions that I would very much like you to answer for me. You won’t be graded on your answers. 🙂

1. When is it appropriate to assign an art project without teaching the skills that are needed to complete the project? Is it ever appropriate if the teacher would be unable to do the project himself? (Would you be able to successfully create a sculpture of a full-sized charging draft horse? I’m not sure I could.)

2. If a teacher in a non-art subject assigns an after-school art project, how can the teacher judge the success or failure of the project, as it relates to the subject they’re learning in class? In other words, how will the assignment help the student master the non-art related subject matter? How will the teacher look at the finished artwork and determine how much the student learned about history or culture or…?

3. When parents complete assignments for their kids, or do all the research needed to learn how to do the assignment because it wasn’t taught in class, how does that benefit the kids or help them become competent scholars?

If every second of learning time is precious, as Doug Lemov believes, this is actually an important question.

So, tell me what I’m missing? What do you know about the benefit of this type of assignment that I haven’t figured out? How would you do it differently? Does it matter? Let’s talk about it.

12 thoughts on “Art Projects in School – A Serious Question

  1. Thanks for sharing this blog with us. As arts presents in all the schools i must say that it is really important part of the education. It enhance the skills and the abilities of the students. It defines the creativity of the students……………………..
    I like it …………Keep sharing this type of blogs !

  2. I’m going to add to this at a later time – BUT I THINK ART EDUCATION IS VITAL IN OUR SCHOOLS. Not just to lead some students to art careers, but any field of endeavor in life. And instructions from a competent teacher ARE A MUST! If I had these kinds of teachers when I was young I would be a happier person today, more competent to handle all walks of life.

  3. Wow. An intriguing question and some really thoughtful answers! I agree with all of the wishes for a more rounded curriculum, thought out to guide and inspire creative thinking and work on all levels…but I don’t know that such a thing is at all possible any more in public schools.

    I don’t have children, but have friends who do, some are in private ($$$) school and some are in public school. The public schools seem short on time, creative thought and money. None of which is the teacher’s fault of course, but it’s left to them to dish out these kinds of assignments that they don’t actually teach, but can easily be marked off as something the kid learned.

    The kids in private school get something more along the lines of what you’re talking about here. Much more guidance and interaction with the subject. And parents are only involved so much as they know the assignment and can facilitate, but they know the kid must do it on their own.

    Funny (sad) how a little, or a whole lot, of money will buy!

  4. I took an art class in high school, and I felt very limited in expressing my own creativity. It was a very “Do exactly what I do” process- which prompted many students to take the class solely for an easy A. There was little history taught behind any of the crafts, even when it came to learning how to make paper mache (and it by far not as amazing as the clay), and many students, when done with their work, simply fooled around unimpressed.

    To be honest, one of the best ways I learned in high school was when my 12th grade English teacher forced everyone to do 15 mins of “journal time,” before class began. We were was obligated to write anything we wanted (except Fridays we were given a prompt) and then in order to receive credit we were each to recite our own entry. It was the scariest moments of our lives, but day by day, students gradually built and expressed their own character anywhere from creative talents, to love interests, future goals to boredom, their disdain for calculus, english or even lunch food, and we connected ourselves to each other, despite “stereotypical” differences.

    I think one of the greatest aspects of being in a classroom is having a teacher guide and stir the minds of students with incredible ideas, allowing them to interact with each other and most of all think for themselves.

  5. D) all of the above …
    I used the “coping techniques” that I learned from dealing with teachers (and watching my fellow students’ reactions) in my business career.
    So, maybe I learned more about life than just the facts … not many “Honor Students” make the most money or have the best job … but maybe they can make the “best” life with what they find or are given. Most of the time, getting a good grade meant that I had to finish other people’s portion of a group project (Life is not fair … deal with it). Sometimes the system creates honor students without honor … parents who do the work are CHEATING … unless the point is to test the family resources rather than the child … so why not just buy an owl or horse ? ( People cheat …. deal with it.)
    Dealing with difficulty is best learning experience.
    People learn … they are NEVER taught … like the proverbial horse led to water.

  6. I have had art teachers which were very much like the bad teacher example you have given, Jonni.

    In those classes, the only students who excelled most often were the ones who copied the teacher’s art (they didn’t learn much, lacking their own creativity), was actually the art of the parents/older sibling, or kids who already had a solid artistic background before starting the class.

    All the other students ended up getting frustrated and slacked off because they could get average marks anyways just by handing in a lump of ‘art’ project before the deadline. Not like they could compete with other kid’s parents, anyways.

    This inevitably fuels a new generation of people who say, “Your art is so good, I wish I was born with your talent.” Aka, “You didn’t work to learn that, you cheated with your genetics.” Frustrating!

    And while I respect what teachers do…if they can’t even make the projects which they dish out to kids then imo they shouldn’t be in that position in the first place.

    • But I wonder if it’s actually a common practice to hand out assignments without actually teaching the kids how to do the work, or if I just receive requests for help from the few parents who get stuck with this sort of project? I can’t imagine a more fun and worthwhile activity than making something from paper mache :), however, it’s an awful lot more fun when someone actually shows you how to do it.

  7. I love the idea of integrating various areas of study (art, history, science, English, research, teamwork), and can imagine something along the lines you describe, Jonni, where the students not only research and create some 3-D representation of some aspect of a historic culture, but also write a report on how they researched it, citing sources properly, who did what aspect of the project (accountability and maybe excluding parents from doing the work), and then do a presentation to the class about the finished project and what they learned. This size project might take a whole semester, with, say, one day a week given over to it, so that school resources are available, including the teachers.
    I know. Pie in the sky, huh?
    I was lucky enough to take a “Humanities” class in high school that was a semi-combined history and English class. We did do team projects like this, and they still stand out as the highlights of my high school memories. And I did learn a lot from them, which may have had as much to do with how good my teachers were, and my own style as a student, as the bare bones projects themselves. Hm. What if one aspect of this is that the team members grade each other, and the final grade is a combination of the scores given by the team members and the teacher? That might help keep the lazy students from surfing the team wave quite so much.

    I’m glad you brought this up. I have been reading your blog’s comments and been concerned about the parents asking how to do their children’s assignments. What does that teach the kid?? Granted, it might be fun to join your kid in working these things out, but maybe that’s a different project, one you do as a family fun thing, not for a school assignment.

    • It just occurred to me that there is one kind of artwork that would be extremely relevant to a high school class about medieval culture – if the students were told to research an art or craft from the period, and then create an item using the tools and techniques available at the time. The artwork the student turns in would show how much the student understood about the tools and customs of the time.

      It’s interesting that the one class from high school that I can actually remember was very similar to the one you described. Our English teacher asked us to go out into the village in teams and interview some of the oldest residents to help write a history of our area. I still remember some of the things I learned — for instance, that white settlers in eastern Washington made a living during the Boer war selling “wild” horses (perhaps stolen from local Indians…) to the English, and that some of the first farmers to own large tracts of land in that area survived the Depression selling moonshine. We even learned that one lady who lived near the school read the bible, front to back, every single year. If the teacher hadn’t taken a risk and pushed us to combine oral history, research and writing in one assignment, I might not remember anything at all from my high school years.

      • I teach art at the middle school level and I’m sorry, but nothing anyone says could make a life sized jousting scene seem like an appropriate project! However, I can understand why at projects are occasionally handed out without explanation. The reason is likely two-fold. First off it may involve a teacher who is, for whatever reason, so comfortable with arts and crafts that she forgot that she was once taught how to do them and at what age. Perhaps the teacher was new to teaching first grade in the owl incident? In older grades teachers mistakenly assume that children have had an opportunity to use art materials in their primary classes. However, at least in our area, there is no visual arts instruction until middle school, many of my kids are 13 and don’t know how to mix secondary colors. I agree entirely with the absurdity of using model building as means to assess learning of the social studies curriculum but have seen these type of projects as extensions of the curriculum and a way to generate interest in a topic as you are learning about it. I still believe that in the case of social studies projects the researching of material, methods and ideology of an art making culture offers a richer learning experience than trying to replicate a photo in three dimensions ad hoc

  8. I haven’t taught in years, but this issue is very close to my heart, as my master’s thesis was on Integrating Art into the curriculum, and I practiced it in my classroom.

    Here’s what I say, it is never appropriate for parents to do the work for the kids.

    It is unfair to give students elaborate projects without teaching them how to DO the projects… now if they had been told to do an artistic representation of medieval life, and been given a choice of papier mache (not life sized, that’s ridiculous), poster, diorama, children’s book, etc… that would have made more sense, because the kid could choose a medium they feel more comfortable with.

    The teacher also needs to give them guiding questions and/or a rubric so that they can know when they are showing that they have learned something about the subject matter, not just messing around with an art project.

    I was lucky enough to teach an integrated Humanities and Art class, so I was able to teach some art techniques and principles along with my History and English. But I would never have given my students such grand projects without giving them some sort of background and guidance. That’s bad teaching.

    • Rowena, it sounds like you taught a class like the one Xan enjoyed so much, back in the day. You two don’t happen to know each other, do you?

      The children’s book sounds like a good idea. I’ve been amazed at how much I’ve learned from the process of creating my book on paper mache clay. I’m basically a disorganized person, so I tend to mess around with my art projects in a disorganized way — but when I was building the book I had to work hard to look at the steps more carefully and create a system that’s replicable. I learned more about animal sculpture in the last six months than I have in the last 20 years. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to improve their craft. The same would be true for any student, at any level —

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