6 Amazing Things About TAB Classrooms

Sometimes good ideas precede general acceptance. There’s no pedagogy in art education this is more true for than TAB. When Katherine Douglas, Pauline Joseph, and John Crowe pioneered this teaching method in the 1970s they weren’t trying to revolutionize the way art is taught, but the work they were doing was so powerful more and more teachers followed their example.

Today, TAB, which stands for Teaching for Artistic Behavior, has never been more popular. Presentations about the approach fill up fast, social media sites dedicated to the practice have memberships in the thousands, and gurus like Ian Sands are invited to be keynote speakers at conferences.

TAB has reason to be so popular. It’s a flexible approach that’s designed to be adaptable, so it works for all ages and in different settings. Its goal of teaching art by giving kids the responsibility of using ideas they develop has a clear connection to popular methodologies like Makerspaces and Genius Hour. Plus, the National Standards have finally caught up with TAB’s thinking when they were redesigned in 2014.

The days of one-size-fits-all projects are gone. It’s time for the rest of Art Ed to be more like TAB.

Here are 6 Amazing Things About TAB

students' colored hands

1. TAB simplifies your set-up.

Students are responsible for their own supplies in TAB classrooms. In most elementary classrooms, this looks like having students work in centers. Some upper-level teachers forego centers and just have accessible, labeled supplies. In both cases, students select their own materials. This takes some planning and organization on your part, but once it’s up and running, it’s a beautiful thing. There’s no more running around like a crazy person between classes to get supplies ready. In fact, kids also plan their own projects and are happy to mentor each other. Yes, this is as good as it sounds.

2. No more Groundhog Day.

Have you seen that movie? The premise is that Bill Murray’s character lives the same day over and over again. This sounds familiar to many art teachers! With a TAB set-up, each day and each class are individual and unique because kids use their own original ideas. It’s fun and inspiring instead of boring and repetitive.

3. Finished early? No problem!

In TAB classrooms, everyone finishes at different times, without issue. They just move on to the next step, which might be starting the planning of another artwork, working in a series, or completing a reflection. They know to do this because of the framework and expectations set by the teacher, which have to be taught and reinforced.

4. A flexible curriculum can meet everyone’s needs.

The quiet girl who loves to draw horses wants to work on adding value to her work. The three boys who want to build a giant cardboard castle need to learn about making attachments. The student with special needs who wants to cut shapes for a collage needs support. All of these things and more can be going on in a TAB classroom simultaneously. How you ask? Well, because the teacher isn’t trying to guide a whole class through the same set of steps, they’re free to provide one-on-one support. Plus, content is displayed around the room with command charts which students, like the boys who are building the castle, can use to answer their own questions.

An example of something like this is the Attachment Techniques Chart shown below. Made by Michigan-based K-5 teacher, Lisa Van Plew-Cid, this is a wonderful example of a resource that students can use to guide their own learning.

attachment chart

If help is needed and the teacher is busy, students are happy to share the unique knowledge they’ve developed pursuing ideas. They really know and remember what they learned, because the knowledge came from personal connection and exploration.

5. 3D can tame distracted behavior.

You know those kids who can’t sit still or be quiet for more than 3 minutes? The ones who are always tapping their pencils and peeling the paper off your crayons? They are kinesthetic learners and the sculpture center in a TAB class is their match made in heaven. You’ll forget that they are in the room as they silently build intricate structures or be amazed as they take a leadership role in collaboration with peers. Some students who might have difficulty focusing during multi-week painting projects just have an affinity for building and thrive when they can work this way. This doesn’t mean they won’t draw or paint ever – most TAB classrooms have expectations about trying a variety of materials.

6. Who needs to clean?

Students in TAB rooms care for their own materials. This includes cleaning up after they create. If this sounds like chaos, you’d be surprised. Kids finish at different times, so there is no big rush to clean all at once. Plus, everyone is using different materials so cleanup is less congested in areas like the sink.

TAB teaching is empowering for students, who love using their own ideas and for teachers who get to spend more time mentoring and less time monitoring. Sure, it’s okay not to have a TAB classroom – but you might enjoy teaching more if you did.

If you want to start or further your journey into TAB, check out the Choice-Based Art Education course where you’ll dive deep into the power of a student-centered curriculum.

Thinking of trying TAB? Ask your questions in the comments. I’d love to help!

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.


  • GG

    If a district has specific requirements that ALL students need to do, how do you ensure that happens in that environment?

      • Regina Peterson

        I am asking about specific requirements. Students will use tempera, create a water color using wet on wet techniques, etc. How do you ensure that all students in an elementary setting do that specific task?

        • Good question! You simply require them to. Both of those techniques would be taught at your painting center, then students would cycle through in a few weeks and try them. I would just make a mark in my grading book for who had done the activity I was requiring.

  • GA

    Can this work at the high school level?

  • I know getting teenagers who have never had choices in their education to make decisions can be difficult, if not impossible. Last year, I spent the first semester teaching skills and introducing limited choices (this or that?), and still had kids who could just not do it w/o copying someone else or something found on the internet. Next year, I would like to begin teaching choices the first day with looking at how artists work, making choices at every step: Art 21 shorts every day for a few weeks, for instance. Looking at different examples on how to do the same subject with the same medium. The habits of mind are good, but a bit abstract for my students. But I wonder if anyone has tried a checklist in the form of a poster. It could go something like this: how will you portray your subject? what do you want to communicate with or through it? How will it be displayed on the page or in the round? What media will you consider? How will that further your objective? And so on throughout a process. Is that too structured? Or is it still too difficult for kids to grasp?

    • No, I think it’s a great idea! I’ve seen teachers do similar things that work very well for them. I use Design Process Thinking to teach what you’re talking about. Here is a link with more info. Thanks for reading! http://purteeart1.weebly.com/blog/motivation

      • Thanks! I used your Design Process Thinking chart and added a table of questions off to the side.

  • Johanna Russell

    Thank you for this article. I am a teacher who loves structure, collecting student data, and having a high quality art products. And, I LOVE TAB!!! TAB made my students want the same thing that I wanted.

    Secondly, forget the art. If all a kid can do is what they are told how will they be of value in today’s economy? They have to know how to think in a way computers cannot. My learning has so much more value when I am teaching art and a state of mind.

  • sawyer

    I’m thinking of changing to TAB, I’m a new teacher (2nd year.) I used TAB ideas without knowing it in my advanced art classes but I would love some sound advice on how to start with an art 1 classroom. And maybe affordable resources. I’m not really in a place I can pay 100’s for professional development right now but I would love to get a taste of what I would be investing in.

    • Hi! You’re high school, right? I think you’d like my blog http://www.purteeart1.weebly.com. There is also a H S TAB facebook group that is awesome for resources. Both are free! AOE has a TAB course as well, if you’re looking for a more indepth study.

  • Wow! What an article! What would happen if there were 3 energetic boys and 3 energetic girls in a class of 28 students, planning a group project? Should i allow this kind of collaboration to occur? :)

    • Thanks Clyde! Organic collaboration is the life-blood of TAB – let them go for it!

  • Nimbuzz

    This is a GREAT program–allowing student choice, autonomy, responsibility for materials & scheduling and etc is basic Montessori–Maria Montessori that is–perhaps every Montessori classroom doesn’t do it all the time but this is what Maria intended. It’s about time schools caught up = better late than never. Modern brain research has discovered that people of all ages learn in a TAB/Montessori type of environment and do not learn when told to sit down and shut up in a traditional teacher driven classroom if the student has no emotional connection to the material being “taught.”

    • So true! The “sit and get” model is not what kids need to learn. Play, exploration and personal connection are so much more important.

  • Allie Lynch

    I am wondering what the first day of a TAB classroom would look like. How do you start? How do you introduce your students to the method? Do you spend the first day of class having students move around from center to center?

  • Mrs Morgan

    Hi I am a Primary ed student teacher in the UK. Currently Iam researching for my final dissertation which is exploring how a challenge based learning approach in art education can help children to understand their visual culture. I have not yet carried out my research project but am doing a literature review. I was wondering if you have any opinions on how to counter potential limitations of the TAB approach such as: how can you ensure children build up a diverse skill set whilst allowing them whilst honoring this kind of child led approach? Perhaps you could give me an example of how you tackle this. Also what other perceived limitations are there with this approach which need to be considered and how do you work around them successfully? Many thanks Gemma

  • Victoria Taylor

    Do you have specific resources for introducing this at the elementary level? I’m coming back to that level after a 5-year hiatus, to students who had little experience with using art supplies. Also curious as to how this would be done with very young (Kindergarten) students- limit the centers, at first? Thanks – lots of info out there, so a bit overwhelmed at where to start!

  • Susie

    Hi I work in an early years classroom (4/5 year olds) but rarely get the chance to be in the art room with the Children myself. Do you have any useful prompts for other adults in the space (which is already set up very much like a TAB classroom) to encourage independence and developments of skills? For example I love the “joining” chart on your blog but it would be too advanced for my children. Also, could do with some help to guide the adults in guiding the children “artistically” when I am not there. Any ideas?

  • Karen Di Biase

    Love the attachment sample. I am starting my new teaching methods.. where creating is REAL creating and not I do, We do, You do type (brain freeze… unless I am teaching a specific technique). I cannot quite understand the “post” sample of attachments.

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  • Catherine Ryan

    My first encounter with TAB was during teacher training. I think it is very applicable for the new JC & LC curriculum’s.