How to Teach Culture with Integrity in the Art Room

It’s so easy as art teachers to get excited about the beautiful art forms of different cultures. From the expressive brush paintings of Japan to the intricate Aboriginal paintings of Australia, we may have the best intentions when teaching our students about other cultures, but ultimately end up falling short. Why? Because often, our students’ products are no more than copies of the originals. We may have students create bamboo sumi-e paintings or paint Australian animals in an Aboriginal style, but is that what teaching culture is really about?

culture watermark

To teach culture authentically in the art room, I believe you have to start with the “Why?”

Why do Japanese students learn to paint bamboo first? Why is bamboo a common motif in sumi-e painting? Why do so many Australian Aboriginal paintings feature animals? Why do the designs include so many dots? When we can get students thinking about these bigger themes, it takes our lessons to the next level. Students not only walk away with beautiful art projects, they walk away with a deeper understanding of another culture and a deeper understanding of themselves.

An example of this idea can be seen with a project I do with my third graders about Australian Aboriginal art.

Instead of having students arbitrarily choose an animal and then paint that animal with dots, we start at the beginning. We look at many different examples of Aboriginal art. We watch Aboriginal artists at work through YouTube. We read Aboriginal tales from the Dreamtime. We discuss the meaning behind the dots.

Then, and only then, I ask each student to tell an important story from his or her life. Like the Aboriginal artists, students come up with their own symbols to tell their stories, and, like the aboriginal artists, students use dots to hide, or make secret, parts of their stories. When the project is over, the students understand Australian Aboriginal art on a deep, meaningful level. They understand why Aboriginal artists work the way they do.


So I’d love to know, how do you present cultural projects in the art room?

Do you think it’s important to delve deep, or is it sometimes OK to just scratch the surface in the name of a beautiful product?

Amanda Heyn

Learning Team

Amanda is the Senior Editor at AOE. She has a background in teaching elementary art and enjoys working to bring the best ideas from the world of art ed to the magazine each day. 


  • Elizabeth

    I agree that there has to be the why. When the buzzword “multiculturalism” was big – a million years ago when I was in college :), that was a big issue. Were we doing justice? Were we giving respect? It hit home when I wanted to do a Native American mask lesson. I had a representative from the Iroquois Nation come in and work with me. It was offensive to her that I would teach about masks that were religious, or held unique meaning, without teaching the why…Often times I have seen lessons that have students make things that are not even culturally correct. It takes a little more time, but I think it is the correct way to go.

  • Chris

    The teacher should have a good understanding of the culture and how the art relates to the culture. Context. Presentations/research need to be at the students’ level, but it should not just involve media directions. Actually, this is a good way to go with all units, not just those about other cultures. Relating it to similar things in the students’ own culture helps make the lesson more relevant.

    If there are community members who can come in and share their cultural art, backgrounds, and traditions that is almost always a plus.

    • Great point about relating things back to the students’ own culture.

  • Lisa

    I agree with how you teach culture Amanda. Teaching the “why” is the most relevant and respectful way to teach culture in art. It also helps student to look deeper at their own world while learning about another culture.

  • lovely hiba

    i think this is the tough job in these days we are forgetting our culture and adopting others there for forcing student to our culture is very tough

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  • Rachel

    I really appreciate this article and throwing out this question! I agree that having information about the culture, place, or people is vital as well as making it relatable for students. I have found two things that really make a difference in terms of teaching multiculturally with more integrity- leaving lots of room for the students to ask “Why?!” They come up with so many more and better questions than I could come up with my own. And not feeling like I have to have the answers. I love having students follow up to do the research for their questions and share interesting info and connections they find. Or I report back the next day or next class. I write their questions down on a post it or email myself with them.

    Personally, I also take a “cross-cultural” approach. I always reference at least 2 completely different cultures/places that have something in common whether it be the type of art, style, climate, functionality. For example rather than teaching only about Tibetan sand mandalas the class broke into four groups and each had to present information on Tibetan mandalas, Aztec sundials, Navajo sand paintings, or European Rose Windows. We made connections and comparisons and took our project from there. The fact that cultures from different places in the world came up with similar artistic styles, use of materials, or invention of shapes and forms independent from each other is fascinating.

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