How to Develop a Unit Using the New Visual Arts Standards

If you are like most art teachers, your curriculum is driven by the word LESSON.

“I found a great new Lesson to teach on Pinterest.” 

“This is one of my tried and true lessons I do every year.”

“I need a good assessment for the end of this lesson.” 

You get the idea!

One of the biggest changes you will notice when implementing the New Visual Art Standards (read 10 things you might not know about the standards right here) is the shift from teaching individual lessons to infusing big ideas across your curriculum. Today we’re going to show you how to do just that.


To start, it’s helpful to wrap your brain around the term “Big Idea.”

Grant Wiggins, President of Authentic Education, sums up big ideas like this, “An idea is big if it helps us make sense of otherwise meaningless, isolated, inert, or confusing facts. A big idea is a way of usefully seeing connections, not just another piece of knowledge.”

So what do Big Ideas mean for curriculum planning?

Infusing big ideas into your curriculum means pushing outside of your comfort zone. Sure, lessons will still be the building blocks for many of us, and they absolutely work within the framework of the New Standards, but the New Standards are challenging us to think beyond each isolated lesson. At AOE, we like the idea of designing your curriculum in terms of Units of Study instead of “lessons.”

To help you visualize how you might create a Unit of Study, we’ve created an example for you to look at.

The sample Unit below includes a variety of art lessons, activities, and exercises that focus on the common theme or “Big Idea” of “Shapes as the building blocks of art creation.” You will notice I have chosen to link 6 of the Visual Art Standards, which could be implemented sometime during the shape unit, and often could be repeated throughout the different activities.

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You see, you don’t teach the New Standards in isolation, but in a spiraling fashion. The goal is to hit each grade level’s standards sometime during the year. Each standard isn’t perfectly aligned with a single lesson, and you wouldn’t want it to be! Even if you don’t hit all of the standards at each grade level (with 10 plus standards at each level, it can be difficult) it will be a goal you can continually work toward.

What are your thoughts about teaching with Lessons, Units and Big Ideas?

What are some ways you are changing your curriculum to better implement the New Art Standards?

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.


Jessica Balsley

Jessica Balsley is AOEU’s Founder and a former AOEU Writer and elementary art educator. She is passionate about helping art teachers enhance their lives and careers through relevant professional development.

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