Develop Theme-Based Lessons for a More Authentic Experience

When writing lesson plans, most teachers start with the objective: What will the student be able to do? The objective might include concepts ranging from the elements and principles of design to art techniques or even art materials. Usually, it is only after the objective is in place that a theme is presented. For example, a common objective at the high school level is gaining an understanding of perspective. In order to demonstrate that the objective was learned, the students might be asked to draw within the theme of a cityscape.

Theme teaching, on the other hand, presents the same information but reverses the order, simulating the way many artists work.

Artists rarely begin by asking themselves, “I’ll work in 1 point perspective today. What should I create?” Instead, they may be inspired to create a cityscape after a trip to New York City. Then, they may select 1 point perspective as a means of accomplishing that goal.

Theme teaching begins by presenting the student with a question or topic to inspire thought. The student considers the theme and then generates a series of possible solutions. From these possibilities, the student selects a final idea for his or her project.

It is only after the final idea has been determined that the student considers what materials to use and the techniques he or she may need to learn.

Theme teaching puts a student in charge of his or her own learning.

It transforms his or her thinking from that of a student to that of an artist. Below are three different ways you could present themes in your art room, from simple to more complicated.


Descriptive Themes

Descriptive Themes are basic, making them a nice starting point. Descriptive themes pose more concrete questions to students.

Examples include:

1. What’s behind the door?
2. It happened one night…
3. The bus ride home…

Abstract Themes

Abstract themes are less concrete and even more open-ended. The website has many great examples of abstract themes and how artists have approached them.

Examples include:

1. Play
2. Systems
3. Autobiographical

Postmodern Principles

Postmodern Principals are themes that require higher level thinking, making them a good choice to try once you’re feeling more comfortable with presenting projects this way.

Examples include:

1. Juxtaposition
2. Layering
3. Interactivity

So tell us, have you tried theme teaching before? 

Can you see theme teaching working at younger grade levels? 

What themes do you think would be most inspiring for students? 

Ian Sands


This article was written by former AOE writer and choice-based art education expert, Ian Sands.


  • erica

    Thank you! This is how it works but academics don’t understand unfortunately.

  • Stephanie Needham

    I love this. I have tried it but it takes work to get students to trust you and the process. i think i am inspired to try again. thanks for the start.

  • guest

    This makes a lot of sense and made me wonder if this may be a problem with electronic lesson plans. This year our school is requiring them and It seems so impracticable to me. I work in a small school and teach K through high school students.

  • Lindsey Miller

    This is exactly how my high school classes work this year. The students are producing a higher quality of work when they are able to take ownership in the entire creative process. Great article! Thanks for reaffirming what I am trying to do!

  • E Gibbons

    “The Art Student’s Workbook” is theme-based but also connects themes to core course material. So no only to students problem solve and pull answers from within, but they also learn about how math, science, history, literature, and more are connected to their work. (The book contains nearly 3 years of 2-D and 3-D lesson ideas and more.)

    For example, I have one lesson in the book where students explore major Biomes: Tundra, Desert, Jungle, swamp… Students design and create a small cabin that would be their secret get-a-way that also “fits” visually in their chosen biome.

    Architecture+Biology+Art= Deep learning.

    When we grid, measure, and use perspective—we learn about geometry. When we make sculptures—we learn engineering. When we mix colors—we reveal information about physics. When we write about our work—we reinforce these skills. When we create illustrations for stories—we learn about literature. When we review the styles of art from da Vinci to Warhol—we understand more about history. Art is the meeting place for all subjects.

    ISBN-10: 1463753896

    • Stuart Janssen

      I may need to invest in this.

  • d. peters

    Why not give a link or a shout out to the ‘Teaching for Artistic Behaviors’ (TAB) group on Yahoo Groups? Very active group and some of them have been doing this for years and have it down to a science.

    • bonogirl1015

      I was following that group until a few teachers started putting down non-tab art teachers- way down. One even made fun of an art teacher on the Facebook art teacher group because she taught 2nd graders how to make a grid with a ruler. I’m done with that group!!

      • Claire McWilliams

        You should come back to the FB group. I’ve found none of that since joining it this Fall. They’ve been nothing but helpful and supportive.

  • C. Ibarra

    I love the concept and would like to implement it with my middle schoolers. How do you address the variety of techniques the students would like to learn about to complete the project?

  • kathleenMK

    I’m old enough to remember when unit themes were the rage in Elementary Ed. I still try to piggy back on their social studies or science themes for ideas for our project. So we paint and print owls after they have dissected owl pellets, do Mondrian designs to reinforce math skills and they are excited to use art skills to show what they are learning.

  • lori

    I would like to hear more examples of descriptive themes

  • Pingback: Yes, You Can Write a TAB Lesson Plan | The Art of Ed()

  • Pingback: It’s Okay NOT to Have a TAB Classroom | The Art of Ed()

  • Pingback: 5 Tips to create Street Art that stays | artystreets()

  • Nina Isabella

    Thanks for encouraging this practice and giving examples of “themes”, themes not meaning necessarily “INSECTS..we will draw insects! or HOLIDAY!” but more so themes-for-thought perhaps.

    Abstract themes I like to do are “memory” which I can apply with a lot of grades (fabric+painted collage with 1-2nd grade looking at Faith Ringgold’s “Tar Beach” memories)

    Identity is a great theme for middle/highschool, lends it self to various forms of self-portraiture, reflection, etc..

  • Pingback: Are You Using the Elements and Principles as a Crutch? | The Art of Ed()

  • Pingback: The Difference Between TAB and Choice and Why It Matters | The Art of Ed()

  • Pingback: 4 Tips for Fostering Authentic Art Experiences in the Classroom | The Art of Ed()

  • Pingback: 4 Ways to Foster Authentic Collaboration in the Art Room | The Art of Ed()