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The Real Reason Why I’ve Decided to Slow My Students Down

If your teaching philosophy is anything like mine, then you strive to expose students to as many materials, techniques, and learning experiences as you can during your limited amount of instruction. Dozens of projects in countless mediums, oodles of artist introductions, and techniques upon techniques all rolled into a tiny smidgen of time.

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For my middle school students, this seemed the most engaging approach to push through our curriculum. Reel them in with as many fast, attention-holding projects as I could. Cover lots of ground without staying in one project too long. To be honest, I loved the results. I always had plenty of eye-catching art to show in the hallways and our art shows were jam-packed.

However, as the common saying goes “a mile wide and an inch deep” was becoming more shallow than I thought.

Recently, I’ve experienced a shift in my educational outlook. I’ve been spending a lot of time looking into the approach of Project-Based Learning (PBL).

As an art teacher, it’s easy to assume that an art room is already rooted in PBL but most of the time, that is not the case.

Project-Based Learning is a method where students deepen their content knowledge through actively exploring real-world problems and challenges. Emphasis is placed on students thoroughly immersing themselves in the topic or problem at hand. More often than not, students present their findings through writing or presenting their work to an authentic audience. As former AOEU writer, Sarah Dougherty explains, “Many lessons in the art room fail to reach this level of cognitive complexity, miss out on authentic applications, or employ limited student choice or autonomy. A finished piece of art isn’t necessarily a ‘Project.'”

I wanted to know how PBL could look in my art room, so my students and I are giving it a try this semester.

students working collaboratively

Currently, we are 12 class days into an architectural and interior design project and the students could not be more in-tune with their work. Instead of trying to engage students with flashy projects, instead, I am empowering them with ownership of innovation in their work. It’s been a challenge for me to be patient with our timeline (and our empty hallway display boards) but I know that the depth of the critical thinking and collaboration combined with the breadth of the content knowledge that these types of projects are capable of, is well worth the wait.

students working in computer lab

If you’re thinking about trying out this approach in your classroom, here are a few tips:

  • Begin your projects with an authentic question or problem. It should be a real-world issue from outside the classroom that is open-ended and inspiring to students.
  • Try to serve more as a coach than a teacher by developing structures and routines that help keep students on track without altering their design ideas.
  • An important part of the problem-solving process is reflection and revision. Build-in enough time to allow for ample reflection and revision opportunities.

We hope you give Project-Based learning a try in your art room!

How have you implemented PBL in your own art room?

Do you have any tips to share?

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.

Tracy Hare

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Tracy Hare, a middle school art educator, is a former AOEU Writer. She strives to deepen students’ 21st-century skills by encouraging them to practice critical thinking and creative problem-solving skills.

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