3 Ways to Teach for Creativity in the Art Room

teach for creativity

Art and creativity are seen as going hand in hand, but they shouldn’t be. The fact is that many activities that happen in art class involve minimal creative thinking on the part of students. This is a disservice. Not all students who take art classes will go on to work in arts-related fields, but all will need to think creatively in the careers of the future.

Teaching creative thinking is one of the most important things we can do for our children.

To teach creative thinking, teachers have to examine what creativity looks like and intentionally plan for it. Take the following description, for example. Is this an art activity or something else?

When the students walk in the door the supplies are laid out. The teacher carefully takes the children through the steps, one after the other. Following the teacher’s directions, the children make beautiful artwork.

This activity is art-related, in that students are using art supplies to create a product, but is it art? To answer that question, we have to consider the definition of art. The Oxford Dictionary defines art as “The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination.” When the activity above is analyzed through this lens, it’s clear that it lacks the opportunity to apply creativity or imagination. Instead, the students are mainly following directions or assembling. Assembling Activities, like the one described above, are art-related, but they are fundamentally not art in that they leave little room for creativity.

What is Art?

For an activity to be considered art it must involve Creating Behaviors, which are defined as skills or tasks that involve developing students’ abilities to generate original ideas. Teaching for creativity requires intentional planning and direct instruction. To teach creativity, instruction must leave room for students to apply concepts through some level of choice.

Click for free download!
Click for free download!

Assembling Behaviors are at one end of the teaching creativity spectrum. They ask for students to do things like recall information or replicate teacher examples. At the opposite end of the spectrum are Creating Behaviors, which require students to plan artwork, problem solve, and express meaning. Some pedagogies, like TAB, are designed specifically for teaching creative thinking, but any teaching style can be conducive to creative work.

To include more creativity in your classroom try the following tips.

1. Plan for choice.

Make sure to give students of all ages the opportunity to plan and make decisions. This can be done by using pedagogies like TAB, which I love, or by building in student choice to your current teaching style. Limited choice involves providing a selection of choices for students to pick from instead of deciding for them in advance and is an easy way to modify current lessons. For example, in a project where students are drawing, let them pick from markers, crayons, and colored pencils. This asks them to consider the qualities of the materials, what they personally like best, and what they’ll be most successful using. The ability to plan and make decisions like this is an important creative skill.

2. Include options for response.

When students respond to artwork, consider including multiple options or letting them use their own ideas. If you’re teaching about Van Gogh, have students make observations about the artwork. These will include things like the type of color used, line quality, and repetition. Pose the assignment as a challenge by asking students how they could include similar attributes in their own work. This particular task asks them to combine their own ideas with elements of Van Gogh’s style and is big on creative thinking.

3. Offer Open-ended Tasks

Open-ended tasks are challenging and fun. They also provoke diverse responses from students and really challenge them to think creatively. Challenges like “make artwork about a memory” or “create a project using unconventional materials” ask students to pair their imagination with their knowledge of media and process. If you want to learn more, Tim talks about creating a framework for creative projects in the Creativity Exercises for Every Level PRO Learning Pack.

The Takeaway

Creating Behaviors develop creative thinking skills and are an important part of quality art education. Teachers can teach for creativity by planning open-ended tasks, including options for response, and trying limited choice. These cognitively heavy tasks develop problem-solving skills as well as skills with media and process, plus they teach students to think creatively.

Fired up about this idea? Check out the AOE course Creativity in Crisis where you’ll learn even more strategies to take into your classroom to enhance creativity and cultivate learners who are prepared for the demands of our ever-changing world.

How do you teach for creativity?

Is teaching creativity an important part of your curriculum?

Melissa Purtee


Melissa teaches at Apex High School in North Carolina and is the author of The Open Art Room. She’s passionate about supporting diversity, student choice, and facilitating authentic expression.


  • Sarah S

    Thank you for covering this topic! My Plc this year is developing 21st learners in the art room.

  • Lauren Cryan

    So glad Art of Ed is focusing on this! I’d love to see more about assessing this valuable learning, as I plan to use something like this for my SLO, as well. I am working on implementing more choice and opportunities for creative thinking in my elementary art room. I am seeing the pay off immediately, as students are so deeply engaged.

    • I really find that creativity helps with engagement too. :)

  • Cathy Robey

    I like this topic as well as our school district this year is focusing on higher levels of thinking.

    I guess what is working for me in my classroom is 70% Assembling Activities and 30% Creating Behaviors. In the past I have tried having the roles reversed (70% Creative and 30% Assembling) but my students just weren’t doing very well and not progressing very much with their foundational techniques (how to paint, how to observational draw). They also were less engaged in art when it was more “creative”. For my school my kiddos (K-8) need more structured art.

    In the upcoming weeks I would like to see more examples of actual lessons that teachers have used that focus more on the Creative aspect.

    • mel

      I agree! My K-5 students don’t have the basics yet (none have had art for several years prior to my arrival two months ago). I feel very drawn to giving them choice, have been reading a lot about TAB for at least a year, but feel they don’t have knowledge to be set completely free just yet. I give them limited choice within assembling. For example, I am teaching K printmaking today. Last week we made our leaves out of foam and incised the veins, this week we’ll be printing them in red, orange, yellow analogous colors mixed (I’ll give them red and yellow paint on one plate for each two students). They’ll follow the lesson step by step, but they were given choice of what their leaf looked like (I had lots of images of different leaf shapes displayed for inspiration) and will mix (or not mix) the colors as they like for the printing phase.
      We have a district art show in the spring, and I plan to TAB a few projects to create work for the show after Christmas. By then the students will have been exposed to a variety of mediums, know procedures and clean up, and have gained basic skills in Art creation. So for the Art show we’ll have a huge display of very individual projects. Just not sure how to go about it exactly! Like Cathy, I want to see examples of TAB lessons for elementary (that ease the transition from assembling to creating).

      • Great idea for a lesson plan! One way to ease into more creative work is to provide limited choice. Let students pick from 3 materials, for example. Or teach about a specific media, then give students a theme to interpret. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.

    • I agree that there has to be a mix of both types of activities. My formula (with high school) is to teach a skill or process, then let students apply it in an open-ended lesson.

    • Cait

      I try to offer choice often. Students get very giddy when told their art is their choice. However, the quality of their work during choice days is low and rushed. I have yet to introduce choice in a productive way. I still teach skills, and have limited choice to drawings and paper collage and sculpture. Students seem to view it as fun, recess like free time. I am expected to display art through 5 large hallways and in a district show. Our choice art has not grown into W.O.W. art. Assemblage projects work great in my K-1 classes, but I offer choice center rotations for exploration more. Assembly projects work best for grading too. We grade standards based and creativity is not one of the standards. Behaviors are best during assembly projects. 2-5 never have step by step look-a-likes, but I do teach a skill, medium, or famous artist lessons and students choose their own topic/theme/image.

  • anna nichols

    My comment is in response to Melissa’s statement,
    “This activity is art-related, in that students are using art supplies to create a product, but is it art?”

    Every child is an artist, right? Art IS a work created by the artist. If the piece was made by the child’s hand, it is art. Period. Otherwise, we have thousands of people somewhere out there masquerading as “Art Teachers” when they are really something else altogether.

    When I first began teaching, I printed out and framed the dictionary definition of art to provide a kind of framework for class discussions about art. Here is the present definition according to Merriam Webster Dictionary: “ART = WORKS CREATED BY ARTISTS: paintings, sculptures, etc., that are created to be beautiful OR to express important ideas or feelings.”

    It boils down to how one defines ART. I suppose each of us could have our own definitions, but I was taught that the “Art World” believes ART is valid if it meets any (or all) of these criteria: the artwork expresses an idea/emotion, the artwork is realistic or the artwork is beautiful/well designed. This might seem simplistic, but these are the three aesthetic theories I teach my students. (Expressionism, Realism, Formalism.)

    We don’t have to like an artwork if it is ugly but expresses an idea, it is still art. We don’t have to like it if someone is creating art without a deeper meaning, but simply for beauty’s sake alone. It is still art. We also don’t have to like a piece because it looks realistic but fails to be expressive, it is STILL art.

    Melissa, thank you for posting such a terrific article! I love it when I am forced to think more deeply about what I do as a teacher. You do a great job challenging all of us to bring more creativity into the classroom. Keep it up!

    Mrs. Anna Nichols
    Visual Art Instructor, grades 6, 7, 8
    Founder, Editor, MANAGING THE ART CLASSROOM (artteachershelpal.blogspot.com)

  • Pingback: 3 Ways to Teach for Creativity in the Art Room | Norm's Teachers Blog()

  • Natalie Hamil

    I love this! Totally support this. Thank you for being open and honest.

  • Trevor Bryan

    Here are links to my Creativity Complexity Scale & Creativity Rubric: http://fouroclockfaculty.com/2015/04/trevor-bryans-creative-complexity-scale/ &
    http://fouroclockfaculty.com/2015/06/trevor-bryans-creativity-rubric/. Think they may be of interest to readers who enjoyed this article.

    • Shelley Menhennet

      Wow! I love your creativity rubric and plan on sharing it at my next Outer West Art Teachers Network meeting, with your permission, of course. It is just what I have been looking for! Thank you for sharing.

  • Shelley Menhennet

    I have taught P-3 Visual Arts for the last few years and this year am teaching gdes 3-6. The grade 3 and 4 students, although a challenging cohort of students are used to the way I work and how I push them to work independently and make many choices in their work. The grade 6 students especially have driven me nuts as they cannot do ANYTHING without my assistance! They have been spoon fed and It is impossible now to turn them around to my way of working with so little time left in the school year. I came up with what I thought was a brilliant piece of work for the grade 6 students so we researched the clothing of Kings/Queens/Maharajahs/Maharanis/Princes/Princesses/ KnightsEmperors/Empresses/Lords/Ladies and found out amazing fscts like it used to take Elizabeth I ‘s ladies in waiting approx 2 hours to dress her every morning! I then asked them to draw up a design for a model they would make in their journals detailing the materials they would like to use, how big it would be, who it was going to be, etc. They could base their model on a real person or completely make one up as long as the person’s clothing reflected their wealth and/or power. I presented them with a huge array of materials including wire, cardboard, poly balls, fabric, plastic jewels, sequins, foil etc, etc and they were all excited but once they started their model making it was disastrous. They just had no idea how to put anything together! If I had given them a recipe they would have been OK but I just refuse to do that. Consequently I ended up with a few terrific models and a whole lot of sad ones. I even had students that changed to doing a 2D collage as they just could not create anything in 3D. It was terribly disappointing but i’m going to save it up as an activity for my wacky grade 3 and 4 students later on as I’m sure they’ll do a great job!

  • Pingback: Should We Stop Assessing Artwork? | The Art of Ed()

  • Melissa Gilbertsen

    I agree with choice as an excellent motivator for getting kids to create a unique and personal work of art but, on the other hand, I have found the majority of beginning art students (especially middle school and up) usually end up feeling overwhelmed and literally frozen by just that: having to make a choice. That and as an early post stated – their work is rushed and nothing they want posted publicly.
    So, this is my current conundrum that is wracking my brain these days: How to teach my mixed 7/8 art foundations students how to generate ideas, how to play, how to engage their imaginations. I’m literally dying because I teach 2 6th grades 1st & 2nd period and, dang! They are in for a penny, in for a pound! The same prompt for them elicits repeated requests for more time, more time! The 7/8 group can barely give me 5 minutes and a joke of a sketch. The disparity in these two groups is actually really depressing me. The crisis I see is the swift and sure death of thinking outside the proverbial box. I don’t think it’s as important to teach portraits when my students really need to first get their flabby creative muscles in shape. Portraits and perspective are important but not being able to make connections between unrelated things impacts so much more than the art they do.

    So, any ideas about books that teach actual creative thinking? Pinterest gave me nothing useful. I just don’t want to wait til the end of the year to realize, sure they can draw a wicked face, but can’t create anything from their imaginations. Arrgh. Sorry, I just had to vent. And I have got to find a solution.

  • Pingback: Art Room Creativity – Art Room Guru()

  • Pingback: 3 Ways to Teach for Creativity in the Art Room – Breath of Life()