Classroom Management

Letting Students Choose Materials: Do You Dare?

I saw a tweet that read, “The job of the artist is to have an idea and find the best material to express it.”

As art teachers, we are programmed to distribute materials. For the little ones, we hand out cut paper. At the middle school level, we pour tempera paint. In high school we pass out 12″ x18″ sheets of drawing paper.

If our job as art teachers is to create artists, how do we facilitate this idea if we are dictating the materials? At what point do we surrender control of the medium and let the students decide?

student choice

An ideal lesson that allows students to decide which materials to use starts with a question or theme-based project. The student is presented with a question or theme and then is required to find a solution that answers that question. Since the answers can vary widely, the media needed to complete the project will vary as well. Before letting students choose their own materials, consider the following three concerns.

1. If every student chooses a different material, won’t that cause chaos?

In a word, yes. You need to consider your own tolerance for disorder. Some teachers thrive when much is going on, while others need to maintain a sense of order. Allowing students to choose materials doesn’t necessarily mean they can choose any media. You can reduce chaos while still allowing choice by limiting the scope of the materials.

2. Will students use supplies reasonably and responsibly or will there be waste?

When the art teacher distributes the materials, she can control the amounts being used. However, in this situation, the students are not learning to take responsibility. Students that distribute their own materials will periodically make poor choices. Guidance and correction from the art teacher will be needed to help students learn as they become artists.

3. How will students learn how to use a particular material if the art teacher is not making sure the student selects it?

There are times when we wouldn’t allow choice of materials because the objective of the lesson is to learn skills and techniques specifically related to a particular medium. However, once students have had exposure, their choices will provide an opportunity to further explore those skills and produce more advanced results.


How does it work in your classroom? Do you dole out supplies or let students take control? 

If you let students choose materials, how do you keep it manageable? Let us know in the comment section!


Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.


Ian Sands

Ian Sands, a high school art educator, is a former AOEU Writer. He is a co-author of The Open Art Room and believes art teachers shouldn’t make art—they should make artists.

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