Ensure Success for All Students With Open-Ended Lesson Planning

To ensure success for all the artists in your classroom, why not try open-ended lesson planning? Planning open-ended lessons allows your students to explore and express their interests while still meeting important objectives and building skills. Allowing a lesson to be tied to personal experiences makes students more engaged and willing to push themselves further. It also inspires students to share and express their ideas freely. The key ingredient of personal connection will help all your students thrive and grow within their artistic abilities and identities. Today I’d like to share 5 essentials to consider when planning and implementing truly open-ended lessons. In addition, I’ll share a fun lesson example you can use for inspiration.


The 5 Essentials of Open-Ended Lesson Planning

1. Provide and facilitate a SOLID introduction.
This includes providing clear objectives and learning targets, making sure you introduce, scaffold, model and reteach concepts and techniques when appropriate and providing time to brainstorm, practice, and share.

2. Make sure you have appropriate tools, supplies, and adaptations for all your learners to create with

3. Emphasize personal connection, introspection, expression, and exploring interest
This is where really knowing your students and having a fantastic teacher-student relationship can really help facilitate meaningful and achievable results.

4. Make sure your lesson is truly open-ended
In a truly open-ended lesson, results will be unique to each student and related to their interests, skills, and ability levels. Projects can include the same materials, rendering different results, or be a flexible and adaptable demonstration of each individual’s skills. Make sure you are developing lessons that you are truly okay with being open-ended. It may help to have a specific material or technique in mind. It’s impossible to consider every scenario or detail that may be essential to the effectiveness and achievability of the lesson for each of your learners, but the willingness to be flexible, consider adaptations, and a little patience with yourself will be extremely beneficial!

5. Provide Clear Objectives
The objectives may be process and technique driven, and can include self-reflection, art history connections, and presentation of final product. They should be unrelated to the student’s chosen interest or topic

open ended lesson
Note: Although these Seeing Outside the Box Cards are no longer available for purchase, you could easily make a set of your own by drawing abstract shapes on card stock then laminating. Or, you could have an art club or lunch bunch create some for you!



A Sample Open-Ended Lesson: “Not a CD!”

NotACD Collage-1

One lesson that has been effective and successful for many of my learners with special needs (especially ESL and Special Education students), is turning a CD into something it is not, “Not a CD”!  I got the idea a few years ago from There’s A Dragon in my Art Room.  To get our creative brains flowing, we look at abstract shapes and colors imagining them as real life objects with the Seeing Outside the Box cards (it’s like cloud-gazing!).  We try to see how many different solutions we can come up with for the same image. We read Not a Box by Antoinette Portis to see how a bunny imagines a cardboard box in different scenarios. Then we begin to imagine the CD as a basic circle or sphere to brainstorm our ideas for what our “Not a CD” will become!  We use oil pastels to transform and include our CDs in our final images, concentrating on building layers and overlapping colors to emphasize interest and contrast.  On the second day of creation, we do some more Seeing Outside the Box cards and read Not a Stick by Antoinette Portis to get us back in the mindset and continue creating.

Our learning targets include:

“I can use my imagination to look at objects in new ways.”

“I can layer and blend oil pastels.”

“I can use pastels to transform a CD into something it is not.”

Some of the best ‘Not A CD’s’ have from my English Language Learners and those with special needs including Angry Birds and Iron Man (their latest interests/obsessions).  The most outlandish and extremely creative “Not a CD” was a ‘pregnant lady’.  I love starting the year off with this lesson because it emphasizes creativity, critical thinking, and ‘seeing’ and ‘thinking outside the box’.  There are definitely different results every year!  I currently facilitate this project with my second grade – here a few posts from my blog(s) with some more information:

Not A CD Collage-1

Is it a natural fit for you to teach this way, or do you have to work to let your expectations of the finished product go?

What are some of your most successful open-ended lessons?


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.


Alecia Eggers Kaczmarek

Alecia Eggers Kaczmarek, an elementary school art educator, is a former AOEU Writer. She is passionate about teaching and reaching students through an innovative and meaningful arts education.

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