Curriculum Approaches

The Good, Bad, and Ugly of Moving to Choice (Ep. 087)

In this wide-ranging conversation, Andrew talks with AOE writer about all the great (and not-so-great) things that come with moving toward a choice pedagogy. Along with reviewing the history of TAB and some incredible resources, they discuss their personal journeys into choice-based teaching (8:45), Kelly’s highlights that come with being a TAB teacher (14:00), and the myth that TAB teaching is “easy” (23:45). Full episode transcript below.


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Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show’s produced by The Art of Education, and I’m your host, Andrew McCormick.

I’m going to get right to the point here. I think that TAB, or at least some version of choice-base, really is the future of art education. When you look at all the outcries from districts, and parents, and even employers, about the vital importance of creativity. Giving students creative choice and freedom, is a huge part in shaping them into being life-long creatives.

You know, I’m always bumping into teachers, either in person or online, who tell me about their transformation, or jump, into TAB. While I’ve never been full TAB, myself. Honestly, I’m not that organized and structured to get my classroom to function that way, without having to pull back the reins a bit, I’ve been choice base for a number of year. And, what I hear from these new TAB teachers, is a mix. Everything from, “It’s awesome, and I’ve never felt more vibrant and alive in my classroom. My kids are loving it.” To, “Oh my God. I’m exhausted. This really isn’t working.”

I’m thinking, like with everything, there’s this huge gamut of experiences with TAB. There’s tons of good, and assuredly, there’s probably a little bit of bad, and maybe there’s even some ugly. So, I’m excited to bring on Kelly Phillips, AOE staff writer and conference presenter, to talk about TAB. Now Kelly is a TAB elementary teacher in Massachusets, and she was a pretty interesting background with TAB. I’m really excited to bring her on, here in a second.

If this talk sparks some interest in you to dive deeper into TAB or choice … maybe you don’t want to go all in yet, but you want some more student autonomy added to your teaching style … then AOE’s course, Choice Based Art Education, would be a great resource. I’ve taught Choice-Based class a few times before, and I see, first-hand, teachers developing awesome tools, strategies and ideas, to add more choice to their normal repertoire. Being Choice-Based, or TAB, isn’t easy, but it is so worth it when you see the excitement and creativity that your students start to exhibit. It’s totally worth it.

So, let AOE make it easier for you. Choice-Based is a three credit class, and it begins at the first of every month. So, head on over to the, and check out this course, and all the other great classes under the courses TAB.

All right, let’s get Kelly on here to talk about all sides of being and moving towards TAB.

Hi, Kelly. Thanks for coming in and talking about choice and TAB with me tonight.

Kelly: Hi Andrew, how’s it going?

Andrew: Good.

Right off the top, here, I want to get some things cleared up. How do you think of yourself, and your instruction, and teaching? Would you say that you’re a choice-based teacher, or TAB, or are on the choice spectrum? Where are you with choice?

Kelly: There’s three real versions of choice, when people talk about it. It’s choice-based, which can have a spectrum, and then there’s center’s based, which people do, and I really fall on the full-choice spectrum. My philosophy is TAB teaching for artistic behavior, and that’s absolute full-choice. The child is the artist. It’s really all about not having too much teacher-directed learning. There’s definitely a lot of skills-based things as well, but it’s really, all of the artwork and choices for materials are made fully by the student. So that’s where I fall.

Andrew: Okay. That’s awesome and fantastic, and I just want to do a little disclaimer. Because, it seems like when Tim or I either talk about TAB, or have someone on that references TAB or choice, we always have a couple of people that, very respectful, voice some disagreements on how things are being represented. I do want to be respectful, because there’s book there’s a website, there’s amazing model teachers, and even conferences out there, that really talk about the full-on TAB system.

I think that sometimes TAB gets thrown around loosely, and people say they’re TAB, or say that someone else is TAB, and they’re not really TAB. Then, we get people who start to police their own, and it’s, “Show me your TAB bone fides, because you’re not TAB enough.” So, do you as a TAB person, do you care about that stuff? Are you into a strict interpretation? Or, are you just like, “Lets all just do what we do”?

Kelly: I’m definitely really respectful of the fact that this system is not new. The TAB system’s been around for 40 years, and it was developed by some really, impressively dedicated educators, a long time ago. They put a lot of work into building this philosophy. I’m really respectful of the fact that, that the teaching artistic behavior model. People are like, “Oh, it’s a new thing.” It’s really not. It’s something that people have been working for a really long time on.

There is that crossfire of teacher’s who come in and say one thing, and people are like, “No, no, no. That’s not the TAB mentality about that,” or “That’s not the way we do it.” I’m of the school of thought where, there are a ton of people who really want to try this model and get into it, and it can be kind of hard when people who have been doing this for 10, 20 years, come in and say, “No, no. That’s not the way to do it.”

So, I’m in the middle of that. I’m really excited when people want to start trying it, and I am definitely someone who will be like, “Oh, actually, the TAB model it actually is full-choice, or it’s this way,” to educate people. But, I’m really excited about the fact that so many people want to try this system. I think it’s a good idea to keep an open-mind about, when people come in for the first time, they’re not always going to know where things are coming from. But also know, that there’s so many people who have been working for a really long time on this, that throwing around the TAB brand, without really being that, it’s definitely not something I take very lightly either.

Andrew: Right. I feel like there’s been times when I been full choice, and I’ve dabbled, but I’ve never been TAB. I know that it’s got to be really frustrating for people who are TAB, to see it misrepresented, and even worse than just misrepresented, is misaligned, or maligned, I should say, when it’s being misrepresented. So, people give it a bad wrap or don’t understand it, because it’s being misinterpreted, or mislabeled. That’s got to be really frustrating. I think it’s, probably, it’s all about the approach. There’s two different approaches, “That’s not the right way to do it!” Or, “Here, let me suggest some better ways that work.”

Kelly: Exactly.

Andrew: So, it’s probably all in the tone and the demeanor of how everyone helps everyone else out.

Kelly: Well, I think the thing about it is, there’s so many amazing resources out there. And, I think because it’s a grass roots organization, the TAB community is pretty loud and proud. The TAB Facebook group is huge, there’s almost 3,000 people. And, people are on there everyday posting resources, and what’s happening in their classroom, and things that they need help on. There’s all sort of resources online. The Teaching for Artistic Behavior website, and “Engaging Learners through Art-making” is an awesome book to get started, and the “Learner Directed Classroom,” is another one. So, there’s lots of really great resources out there, as far as people who are extremely passionate about the TAB model, and there’s also a lot of really great literature about it. So, if people want to learn and be a part of that community, I think it’s totally welcoming. You don’t want to be afraid that you’re not doing it right, if you want to start out. But definitely be aware of the fact that it’s definitely a model of teaching that is full-choice. It’s 100 percent. And, that people are really passionate about maintaining it as that model.

Andrew: Every TAB person I’ve ever met, talks about their journey, or their shift, or transformation into TAB. Did you have a similar journey, and if so, what was it like? What was the jumping off point for you?

Kelly: I think I was unconsciously lucky in my career. I went to the Mass college of Art and Design, MassArt, in Boston, where TAB was researched and developed. I had a bunch of teachers, John Crow and Tringie Jensen, and Louis Hutland, they were all my professors at MassArt. So, I was taught a lot of TAB and participated in a lot of TAB in my under-grad. And my teacher, John Crow, came to me and said, “You strike me as somebody who would be really into that.” So, I actually did my student teaching in a TAB classroom, so I was never a traditional teacher.

I ended up getting my first job at a Catholic school, just outside of Boston, and I went in there, really excited to do TAB. I had been surrounded by all these people who were so excited about it, and so invested in it. Then I went for it on my own, and I got shot down from so many sides. When you first start out, when kids are first learning how to come up with their own ideas, the artwork is weird, and it’s experimental, and you have to collect a lot of stuff.

If people are used to that 1970s style of art teaching, which is all about the product. Which I think probably 99 percent of art teachers out there now, don’t believe in that. But that’s what a lot of people grew up with. So, I had to claw my way through it. I dabbled in having more project-based stuff, and came back to the idea of the fact that I just had to be more confident in my belief in what this kind of teaching does for kids. And, that it really makes them into artists, instead of kids who are taking art class.

Andrew: You say you got shot down, but now you’re loud and proud and doing it. So, what happened? Did you change school districts? Or, did you just get more vocal in your advocacy and promotion of it?

Kelly: Honestly, it was a lot of conversations on the phone with peers. There was some tears, and some real soul searching initially. I did switch to a school district where I had a classroom, which was pretty important. I had done TAB on a cart, and that was, for somebody who knew a little bit more about being on a cart, I think it would have been good for me. But, I went from a classroom to a cart, from my student teaching. I just didn’t have that muscle memory yet, to be able to fit it into that. I just wasn’t confident in myself as a teacher.

Then, I switched to a school district where I had more support, and a classroom, and I started to do it. There’s always pushback from people, the kids were what really kept me motivated, because, I remember, I had my student teaching practitioner had called me, and was like, “I was talking to someone today and they said their teacher does a classroom like mine, and it was you. And that kid was so excited that you became their teacher this year.”

Hearing that I was being talked about three towns over, by a kid who was so excited about art class, was like, “Okay. I have to stick with this.”

Andrew: That’s awesome. You know, Kelly, I think you are a magical unicorn. Because I don’t know if I’ve ever known anyone who has done student teaching in a TAB classroom, that’s a lot. But also, you did a TAB on a cart. You are Princess TAB, that you got both of those things under your belt. That’s awesome. That’s amazing.

Kelly: They were a struggle. It wasn’t perfect.

Andrew: I’m impressed. I did art on a cart for three years, and I’ve had selective amnesia, and I’ve forgotten about how rough those years were for me.

Talking about the shift into choice, and maybe it’s a little less of a shift for you, because you grew up with it. people always want to hear about the good, and I definitely want to hear about the good. I also want to hear about some of the struggles, the good, the bad. But, let’s start off with the good. What, for you, has been some of the biggest, brightest spots, of being a TAB teacher?

Kelly: I think there’s something about a TAB classroom that is, it’s like a growing, living being. I’ve never been so humbled as an artist, as I am when I watch a kid work from beginning to end on their own idea. Just the conversations that happen in my classroom, and the artwork that gets made. I think that the reality is that these kids are much smarter than me, in the way that they could come up with lessons that I could never think of. That’s just a reality of having a child’s brain. I think that it’s so amazing to watch a kid at their level.

I think a lot of times, administration, and parents, and outside forces, they want us to have that craft-ivity, they call it, where we have this perfect product. And, I think that sometimes that can take over, and it definitely has before in my classroom, where I’m searching for this perfect outcome to hang in the hallway to support my program. I think we don’t let kids work through the good, the bad, and the ugly. We don’t let them delve into what it really means to be an artist who struggles with an idea. Who makes something they don’t like, that has to work through, until they get to a point where they’re like, “Oh my God, I really worked for this amazing outcome.” So, I think that’s probably the best part of it.  It’s pretty amazing part.

Andrew: Yeah, you mentioned something that really got me thinking. I think it’s been popular the last five, six years that I’ve been teaching. I hear about classrooms that are open to failure, and accepting of failure, and using failure as an opportunity to learn. We want our teachers to do that, and we want our buildings to do that, and we want our administrators to encourage that.  But I just wonder how many times we encourage our students to learn through failure. Like, we want our teachers to do it, because that shows their being innovative and thoughtful. But then I just think, so many times, we don’t allow our kids the same luxury. The full engrossing, experience of learning. Trying something and having it be horrible, and then learning from that. We don’t give our kids enough opportunities with that.

Kelly: I think a lot of it comes from … one of them is time. I’m an elementary teacher, and I teach 45 minute classes with two minutes in between. I want my kids to have this great experience, and sometimes I feel like, if I curate an experience for them that’s really step-by-step, and I know they’re going to get to that end point, that’s like, “Yay!” That might feel good with that short class period.

The other part of it, I think, is we have their best intentions. We only want them to feel successful and proud in our classroom. But, I think the unfortunate part is that we’re taking that ownership away from them, when we’re trying to beautify the experience of being an artist. Being an artist is hard, it’s a struggle, it’s going to take some failure. I think, especially, in this day in age, and I know because you teach middle school, a lot of our kids aren’t allowed to fail, in their real outside lives. If don’t give them that opportunity in a place like the art room, where that’s okay, where else are they going to do it? They’re not going to do it in other places in their life.

So, this whole idea of growth mindset that we talk about at meetings and things like that, we have to live it. And we have to be okay with, at the end of 45 minutes, having a kid leave like, “I have a problem, and my artwork failed today, and I’m going to spend the rest of the week thinking about this class, and collecting materials to make that sculpture come together the way that I want it to.”

Isn’t that what you want for kids to have when they leave your class? They might feel upset, but I think that it’s motivating. It’s a motivational struggle.

Andrew: One of the things I think as teachers, whether you’re a TAB teacher or a choice teacher, or even still teacher-centric and project based, you know, “I’m going to do this project, and then this project.” Which, I kind of am, sometimes. I think we have to redefine what success in learning looks like. I think for so many of our kids, education success looks like, “I worked hard, I did what I was told, I got an A” and just not imaginative at all. They want this linear, “I do this, I do this, I do this, I get the thing I want.” Art and creativity isn’t really like that.

I’m going to go off on a weird tangent here, but I’ve been doing a lot of work with the National Core Art Standards, and one of my favorite ones is, “Artists can make an artwork without a preconceived plan or idea.”

Kelly: Totally, I love that one.

Andrew: Yeah, it’s my favorite one because it’s like, “Okay, here’s some stuff, here’s some ink and bamboo. I don’t know what you’re going to do, but have some fun with that.”

I did a project like that, and at first, the kids were like, “So what are we supposed to do?”

And I was like, “I don’t know, experiment. Have some fun.” We did that for four days. No structure, just kept getting out the bamboo brushes and the ink, and they loved it. Finally, I got into my rut of, “Okay, let’s put this together,” but I tried to give them a lot of different options. But, I think one of the things is redefining success.

Talking about failure, I want to give you a two-parter, here. We’ve talked the good, I want you to think about the ugly, like what’s something you tried that really failed. And then, I want you to think about something that really surprised you, like,” I thought this was going to be really hard, and it was really easy. Or “I thought this was going to be a slam dunk, and boy, this was a lot of work.” So, toughest thing, and then surprising thing.

Kelly: I do think that a lot of times, TAB, in general, when I think about it, when I talk about it with people, I’m very much like, “it’s amazing, and you really have to do it, and it’s perfect.” But, I also want to be honest with people, that I go through the same struggles as everybody else. I have tough days, I have days when kids are not motivated, and all of those things. So the realities of an art room are still the realities of an art room, when you’re teaching full choice. They may be a little bit different, bu there’s definitely pitfalls and downfalls. I just want to be honest with people about that.

I think that probably, the hardest part is, probably working with kids, who, in particular, are not yet ready to be okay with that ambiguity that you were talking about. With starting an artwork and not knowing what you want as a teacher. I think that, unfortunately, that kids who come from a place where they’re a little bit afraid to be wrong, that can be really, really hard for them to come in, and have me say, “Okay, this is how this classroom is set up.” And we go through, it’s very structured initially. It’s very structured like, “This is how we us things. This is the way this classroom runs.”

But when I start to set them free, they’re almost like, “Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. How do I make you happy? How do I do what I’m supposed to be doing? How do I keep a smile on our face, as the teacher?”

And, I’m like, “No. I’m happy, I just want you to go and explore.”

And they’re like, “No. I can’t I’m not capable. I’m not able. I’m not worthwhile as an artist, and it’s just not going to be successful. You can’t make me.”

Although, now that I’m calling this the bad and the ugly part, that’s probably the most rewarding part, when you get it to happen. But, I have had kids go through my program, from beginning to end, and every class is a struggle with them, because they’re just not in that place to be comfortable with that kind of ambiguity. But, I also think that when they leave my classroom, that they have a little bit more practice in that. And it’s not so scary and difficult, when they have to go out in the world and have situations that don’t have a preconceived outcome.

Also, TAB classrooms are notoriously messy, and I think that you can probably get on board with that. It’s a lot of materials. And it’s a lot of stuff. And it’s a lot of child-friendly organization, with big boxes of stuff, and random things. My whole classroom, right now, is pretty much full of bottle caps and paper towel tubes, and just really random stuff. You have to be okay with that, and okay with it being a little bit messy. I know sometimes that can be hard. I work in a school of elementary teachers who are so organized, and everything’s color coded, and everything’s clean and perfectly set up, and my classroom, it’s just not like that. It’s just not.

Andrew: So, what you do you think was the biggest surprise for you. Going into it, sometimes I get this from TAB people, and I just want to say, “Okay, come talk to me in a year.”

They’re like, “Hey, I’m going full TAB, because it’s going to be so much easier.”

And I’m like, “Oh, I don’t think you understand things.”

So, that’s a bad surprise, like, “I’m working way harder than I thought I was going to have to.” Did you have any of those, where things were tougher, or when things were easier than you thought they might be? Or you pretty well prepared, coming out of school, that you knew what you were getting into?

Kelly: No, no one’s prepared coming out of school. Even though I had all of that teaching … The thing is, I did my student teaching in a classroom that had been running for 10 years, so everything was set up. The big thing about TAB is that the space is part of the teacher. It’s part of the Montessori style model. Like, the Regio Amelio style. The environment is a huge part. It’s something that invites kids to think, and it’s also organized in a way that kids feel comfortable in the space. They can find their materials. They can move around the space freely. They know where things go. That’s a huge part of it.

I went into a classroom that was bare-bones, nothing. I set up my whole TAB classroom, tore it back down. Set it up again, tore it back down. I was making notes every class, like, “This traffic flow stinks. You can’t keep the hot glue in the corner like that. It’s a problem.” I think the legwork outside of the classroom is huge, initially, and I think a lot of people don’t realize it.

This is why people think it is easy, when I’m teaching a class, after I’m done with my five minute demo, it’s a lot of me walking around, being like, “Oo, wow. Talk to me about what you’re working on.” It’s a lot of me going and having individual conversations. It’s a lot of me walking around silently sometimes, just looking around, seeing what’s going on. So, it looks like I haven’t put much effort in, but the initial set-up and preparation is really huge. I think it’s been a little bit easier, the more time that I’ve done it. I’m not going to say it doesn’t every get easier. But the legwork and the set up, initially, is really huge.

Andrew: Yeah. I think that’s a good point, and one of the things that some friends and I were saying is, “You know, for a new teacher. First year, second year. Who was trained in a college in a very still discipline-base, arts education, very traditional approach, to just scrap everything and just jump right in to TAB.” My friends and I are saying, “It’s almost like you have to be a teacher to really learn some stuff first, to then shake it up. You’ve got to learn the rules.”

I don’t know if I still buy that as much, but I think some people who have never don it, they can sometimes bite off more than they can chew. It’s exactly like you said, they don’t realize, “Boy that looked easy.” And, man, there’s a lot of work that people don’t see to make TAB classroom really hum along.

Kelly, I got to get you out of here, but I got to ask you before I let you go, since you been doing this for a while, was there some advice that you wish that you would’ve gotten as you were starting out as a new TAB teacher that you never got? Or what advice would you give someone who’s going through this journey, and either transforming into TAB, or has been doing it for a while?

Kelly: I think I would touch on the thing that you just talked about, which is starting out and going online, and looking at what other people are doing is great. You want to be a part of that community as much as you can, but also look a it with some anti-rose colored glasses, too. Remember that there’s a lot of mess and stress, and stuff behind the scenes. You just want to remember that the TAB classrooms that you see, they went through the same struggle that you’re going through. The transition for everybody is really, real.

I actually really appreciate that about TAB people, especially people that are really transitioning for the first time, they really share a lot about, “This is what’s happening to me? Has this happened to you?”

Then, there’s 57 comments, like, “Yes, this has happened. This is exactly what you need to do. This is how to deal with this situation.”

I think that joining that community and being a part of it, and then also taking it with a grain of salt. Some of these teachers have been teaching this philosophy for a really, really long time. And, they will give you a lot of information, but also, you are not going to be perfect on your first day out. TAB itself, itself, I always tell people this, it is a growing, living, breathing classroom. My TAB classroom has never been the same two years in a row. There’s always something different, and that’s what’s great about it. What I love about it. It gets a little bit better every year. Sometimes I have to take a step back, and undo some of the things that I’ve done. It changes and evolves over time.

I would say, do your research, definitely. It’s not something that you can do without being really willing to be super reflective. One of the things that I was taught early on was, take copious notes about what is happening, and what you need to work on for the next time. So, have a space where you can write about, “This is what really worked with this class. This is what didn’t work. This is what I need to change.”

I think, sticking with it and being really confident in it. That took me a little while, because I’m very much somebody who likes to go with the flow, and I’m really happy not making any waves. Then I realized, “Oh, if I’m going to teach in a public shool, and I’m going to be this weird art teacher, I am making waves. I have to be able to ride the waves.” If I have an administrator that doesn’t agree, get them on board. If I have parents who don’t agree, take it with a grain of salt. I have to be able to stand up for this model.

When people say that I’m not doing my best for the kids, because it doesn’t look like a traditional classroom. I have to be able to say to them,”Actually, the reason that I’m standing here, telling you that I’m not going to change, is because of the fact that this is the best for the kids.” So, just really sticking with it, and having a backbone about it.

Andrew: Well, Kelly, I really appreciate that answer. Especially at the end, as you were like, “Actually … ” I can just see you snapping your fingers, and wagging your finger a little bit.

Kelly: I did.

Andrew: I love that attitude, to stick to your guns. That’s awesome.

Kelly: Thank you.

Andrew: Well, thanks so much for coming in. I really appreciated it.

Kelly: Oh yeah. This was awesome. I love talking to you about choice, because I know it’s a big part of your classroom too. So it’s really fun to have these conversations.

Andrew: Thanks, Kelly. We’ll talk to you later.

Kelly: Okay. Thank you Andrew.

Andrew: I stand by my statements. Kelly Phillips is a magical unicorn. What an awesome foundation she had in her under-grad schooling to learn and practice TAB. Even with all her training in it, from student teaching, I think she nailed it on the head, when she essentially said, “There’s still tons of issues in a TAB classroom. And they’re more or less the same issues that a teacher driven classroom would have.”

I think Kelly would agree with me that arguments of what’s easier or tougher to run, a TAB version or a teacher-based version, that misses the mark. I think it’s really about what fits your style. What’s true to how and what you want your students to learn, and it’s about being true and honoring the creativity of your students. Now, this can happen in a non-choice classroom, as well. We might just find it easier, however, with TAB, that TAB gets at that creativity and honoring every student, a bit faster, and a bit more efficiently.

Sure, there are struggles with being a TAB teacher, and if anyone tells you that it’s the way to go because it’s a whole lot less work. Be skeptical. But, don’t let those initial or even persistent struggles, derail you from your journey into choice. Your work transforming or moving into choice is vitally important, and your students need you. They need this creative outlet.

Art Ed Radio is developed, produced, and supported by The Art of Education, with audio engineering by Michael Crocker.

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