13 Technology-Free Ways to Engage in the Art Room

collage listening to music

Over the past several years, there have been vast and groundbreaking improvements in technology, both in and out of the art room. Technology has been used to enhance learning and make our lives more efficient in the classroom. Technology has allowed us to communicate and collaborate without being in the same room. Virtual learning during the pandemic would not have been possible without technology! But now that we are back in the physical classroom, it is time to reassess technology’s role in our classrooms and learning.

If you find that students are more easily distracted by technology than ever before, read on for thirteen ways to re-engage them.

laptop in classroom

What is technology and its role in learning?

Before we get started, let’s define what technology is. According to Britannica, technology is “the application of scientific knowledge to the practical aims of human life…” While technology historically encompasses basic tools and machines, we mainly associate technology today with computers and the internet. Looking back to even just a century ago, tools were limited in access, and you had to acquire skills to use them. Now, technology can either do the task for us or require little effort and skill on our end, and we wonder where student stamina and grit have gone.

Because of the lack of effort and skill needed for today’s technology, Andy Crouch, author of The Tech-Wise Family, defines technology as “easy everywhere.” When it comes to learning, he elaborates, “The last thing you need when you are learning, at any age but especially in childhood, is to have things made too easy. Difficulty and resistance, as long as they are age-appropriate and not too discouraging, are actually what press our brains and bodies to adapt and learn.”

Likewise, it is a good reminder that technology is no replacement for a quality art teacher. “We are moving away from the teacher being the distributor of knowledge in a class, to a facilitator of how to access and use that knowledge,” reflects Rebecca Flanagan, a high school library media teacher. For this article, we will refer to technology in the most modern sense of “easy everywhere” so as to include digital tools such as computers and the internet.

collage of student looking into computer

But what about our responsibility to teach 21st-century skills?

There is certainly a time and place to use technology appropriately in the educational setting. After all, most jobs require applicants to have a certain level of technological literacy, proficiency, and comfortability. For ways to responsibly engage technology in your 21st-century art room, enroll in our graduate course or watch our Pack, Infusing Technology Into Your Practice in PRO Learning.

However, for us to continue growing as art educators along with the new waves of students each year, we need to make it a consistent practice to stop and reflect. We need to examine our teaching practices and approaches as well as our student demographic and their needs. Andy Hargreaves, a research professor at Boston College, says, “We have to move forward, but believing technology… is the only path to innovation for schools as we come out of this pandemic is preposterous and dangerous. It is an area of innovation—but it’s just one.

Because we live in an information-saturated world, a quick Google search makes data easy to come by. We haven’t had time to see the long-term effects of technology and therefore ascertain how to use technology wisely moving forward. Right now, what we have are anecdotes, not scientific data. We have a responsibility to look at as many of the consequences and data as we can to inform healthy habits moving forward in our classrooms. Noel Enyedy, Associate Professor of Education and Information Studies at UCLA, advocates, “Clearly, as we move forward, technology will be in the classroom in one form or another. It is unrealistic and irresponsible not to figure out how to use technology well.”

Our students have all grown up surrounded by technology’s “easy everywhere.” The first iPhone came out in 2007. Many of our students don’t know a life of playing outdoors until the sun goes down. Many have difficulty fully grasping what it’s like to have to learn skills through practice, trial and error, hard work, or asking for help. Many of our students know they can watch a YouTube video to figure something out or download an app to have it do something for them.

Because many of our students have grown up with this lifestyle, technological literacy is second-nature to them. It’s becoming rare that we have to explicitly teach them how to navigate a website or specific software. We do need to instruct them on how to be good digital citizens.

It is our job to teach a high-quality visual arts education. Sure, technology can assist with that and be beneficial in many ways. But it is also worth remembering that the great master artists in art history were still able to make phenomenal pieces without tablets, earbuds, or high-speed internet. They relied on technology that required learned skills and concentrated efforts, such as lenses, mirrors, printing presses, and pottery wheels.

Let’s look at thirteen ways we can “create more than we consume” in the art room.


1. Set the example.

Be honest. How often do you look at your phone during class or sit down to check your email on your computer? Even the most active and hands-on art teacher sneaks peeks throughout the day! Set the tone and example for your students by modeling it yourself. If you have a tech-free day of engaging artmaking, then fully dive in with your artists! Technological distractions can hinder teachers and their teaching as much as students and their learning.

2. Allocate short periods of time for technology with a purpose.

According to a study by Microsoft, our attention span is only eight seconds before we shift our thoughts to a million other things and a million other directions. Social media has cultivated a habit where we scroll, tap, or swipe past anything that doesn’t immediately capture our interest. It’s onto the next and, hopefully, better thing! If you decide technology would benefit a particular lesson, provide a designated amount of time. Setting aside a short amount of time will motivate students to focus on the task instead of getting distracted by multi-tasking on other tabs or listening to music.

paper mache globe

3. Make messy art!

This is perhaps my favorite tip of them all! Set firm expectations, then plunge into some messy, hands-on learning. When students need both hands to construct an artwork or both hands are covered in paint or clay, there is no safe way to touch a phone or computer.

If you need messy artmaking ideas to captivate your students, check out these:

4. Consider if technology is a need or a want.

The next time you sit down for some lesson planning, ask yourself, “Can we do this in person, or do we need the app?” Consider opting for the in-person option first and then do the app as an extension after students have learned the skill with their hands. For example, if you are about to start a color wheel lesson, you can have the students paint a physical color wheel with tempera paint. They can recreate it or manipulate it on a digital platform when they are done.

It’s incredibly difficult for a digital platform to teach the same skills as painting a physical color wheel. Students measure a color wheel with a protractor and compass, use a graphite transfer to replicate the design in a radial pattern, mix colors from three primary colors, and then painstakingly fill in the design with attention to craftsmanship. These are all very valuable skills that do not get practiced when we default to a solely tech-based lesson.

5. Read physical texts.

It is easier to share a link to an article or video you want your students to read or watch. Plus, most of our textbooks are now digital! However, there are benefits to printing out a text, making photocopies, and distributing them to your students. Most digital resources are designed for fast and casual consumption—the opposite of what learning requires. Those digital resources can be used after incorporating physical texts to enhance foundational information.

It is worth noting that digital texts can be very helpful for students with learning differences. Digital texts can allow students to adjust font sizes and colors and use text-to-speech. It can improve the quantity and quality of notetaking as well, and it is generally lightweight, easily accessible, and portable.

Here are four of the benefits of a physical text:

  1. Students are less likely to get distracted by other tabs on their web browser or notifications on their devices.
  2. We gain and retain more information when we can trigger as many of our senses as possible. Students can hold the paper, visually note where on the page the text is, smell the paper, and mark pages of importance by folding corners.
  3. Students can annotate directly on the paper to show thought processes, take notes, and build connections.
  4. Students will be more likely to slow down and absorb more information.

handwritten sketchbook spread

6. Handwrite assignments.

Similar to the last tip, it can be much more convenient to have students type their assignment and digitally submit it. It’s easier to read, easier to grade, and easier on the supply budget. For students with learning differences, typing can be extremely helpful! Unfortunately, we lose valuable skills and learning opportunities when we rely on typing over handwriting.

Let’s investigate some of the positives of incorporating more handwritten assignments:

  • Knowledge is reinforced by manually writing it down—even if the assignment or notes get lost.
  • Practices fine motor skills, hand stamina, and pincer grasp to train for longer periods of drawing and painting.
  • Pairing handwriting with doodles to sketchnote improves visual literacy.
  • Writing in pen encourages intentionality because students will be more likely to think before writing versus relying on a delete button and apps like Spell Check or Grammarly.

7. Facilitate games with movement.

There are so many educational websites and apps out there to make reviewing information a fun game. But did you know getting students up and moving can provide richer learning experiences and enhances the retention of memory? There are lots of ways to incorporate movement into the art room.

Here are a few ideas to try:

8. Break out physical art reproductions.

For all the veteran art teachers out there, we know you have a drawer full of art reproductions including posters, brochures, postcards, calendars, and old textbooks. For all the newer art teachers, you probably inherited a pile or two in your closet! Now is the perfect time to whip out those physical reproductions for art discussions and activities. This will eliminate the need to look at phones or screens. Students can physically hold the reproduction (engage the senses) and move their arms (tap into kinesthetic learning) to point out various parts.

collage listening to music

9. Captivate all of the senses.

Although this was touched upon above, we can expand on it even more. Designing your lessons to captivate as many of your students’ senses as possible will make learning more engaging, memorable, and delightful! When we use screens, the only senses we are able to tap into are touch, sound, and sight—and even then, everything has the same glossy texture of a screen, button, or keyboard and is just a replica or recording of reality.

Consider a digital drawing app. While there are great tools available to amplify learning, they do not seize all of the senses as painting with acrylics would. Think about it: you can feel the texture of the canvas and stretcher bars, smell the paint when you squeeze it onto the palette, see the vibrant colors swirl as you mix and blend them together, and hear the clink of the paintbrush in the water cup.

Instead of showing a video on how to use a particular supply or do a specific technique, let students explore and make discoveries on their own first! The video can then be shown to review key pieces of information and terminology.

10. Engage curiosity.

How often do you hear, “I’m bored!” in your classroom? Hopefully not often, but if you are like most of society, that sentiment increases daily. Boredom is a relatively new concept born of luxury and the ease technology brings. We are more impatient than ever, and any hint of “downtime,” such as waiting in a line, can get even the most disciplined of us fidgety and checking our phones.

Likewise, how often do you see this scenario: A child gets an expensive toy and casts it aside after a few days. The same child gets a giant cardboard refrigerator box, and it entertains them for weeks. How can we tap into this natural curiosity, creativity, and energy?

Let’s look at a few ways to challenge our students without technology:

collage of technology mixed media artworks

12. Immerse in nature.

When we go outside, many of us are still surrounded by technology. We have perfectly manicured lawns, meticulous gardens, traffic noises, lights, buildings, and bustle. Why not take your students on a field trip to be more isolated in nature for some amazing art inspiration? Plan a field trip to a nature conservation center or national or state park.

Get some artmaking ideas to infuse nature from these two articles:

  1. Bring Nature Into Your Art Room With These 5 Project Ideas
  2. How to Infuse Nature Into Your Studio Practices—Insights From Artist Emma Freeman

13. Draw from observation.

Drawing from photos or tracing can be helpful. However, there is a lot of merit to drawing from observation. It takes a different skill set to transfer a three-dimensional object to a two-dimensional plane. When drawing from a photo, whether it’s on a screen or printed out, it has already simplified the process by putting the object on a two-dimensional surface.

Technology has made many aspects of teaching art easier than ever before. We are able to stay connected with our students and their families, we can virtually bring artists to our classroom, and we can collaborate and celebrate with other art teachers around the world. But, in order for us to stay on top of our teaching game and continue to meet the needs of our budding artists, we also need to consider the less-than-desirable effects of technology. We hope this roundup inspired you to be more intentional with how you bring technology into your art room. Get back to the basics and tap into your students’ natural drive to be curious, creative, and compassionate. And a bonus? Along the way, you will instill skills to encourage hard work, discipline, and perseverance.

How do you navigate healthy technology use in your classroom? 

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.


Lindsey McGinnis

Lindsey McGinnis is AOEU’s Media Content Manager and a former high school art educator. She is passionately equipping art teachers to be successful in their classrooms and firmly believes that art is a safe place for students to explore and process the challenging topics and concepts around them.

More from Lindsey