So What Should We Be Teaching? (Ep. 081)

A while back, the guys talked about those lessons that just aren’t working anymore–the lessons we might just want to move on from. So how do we decide what we should teach? How do we decide what should be part of our curriculum? Join the guys as they try an optimistic approach to this discussion, covering creative thinking vs. technical skill (4:30), your essential projects (11:45), and finding the right variety of experiences for your kids (15:00). Full episode transcript below.


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Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by The Art of Education and I’m your host, Andrew McCormick. This was a good couple months ago when Tim and I had a conversation on the podcast about the types of lessons that it’s okay to stop teaching. Maybe they’re stale, old, not working so well anymore. Maybe they’re not imaginative enough. They just aren’t connecting with students as well as we’d like. Let’s be honest here. I’m really criticizing myself here as I’ve had to let go of a number of projects, projects that just aren’t working for my students anymore. You know what’s really funny? Sometimes we try so hard to keep these projects alive, to hold on to them despite the fact that they’re not working.

Again, I’m casting major shade on myself here. We’re probably way too emotionally invested in these projects. We’ve got to just let them go. Anyway, a Facebook post came in awhile back on this podcast and someone simply posted, “So what should we be teaching?” It’s funny because I think that that comment was pretty innocent, didn’t mean much, but it really gave me pause and it made me stop and think that perhaps I had fallen into a rut that I often see my students fall into and one that I’m not a real big fan of. My students, and perhaps me, were defining ourselves by what we aren’t, by what we don’t like. “Everything is dumb and everything is stupid.” This is an identity of nope. Nothing is interesting. Nothing is cool. It’s really an identity of nihilism and being jaded and literally being too cool for school.

I’m doing everything I can as a teacher to defeat this attitude of my students, and I’ve been saying this a lot lately. “Let your freak flag fly, honey.” That’s hard to say. Be bold. Be you. Tell me what you do like and love, not define yourself by what you don’t like. Like I said, perhaps I’ve fallen into this same sort of rut or maybe it’s Tim’s fault. I’ve been spending too much time with him. I actually want to re-examine this idea of letting things go, but I want to actually approach it differently. Let’s not talk about what we don’t want to do and what we need to get rid of. Let’s talk about generally what is working and what we could be doing.

This entire episode is really focused on different approaches to curriculum. How to go about the planning. How do we decide what we want to teach and what’s going to work with our students? One of the great ways to shake this up and shape up your curriculum is by checking out AOE’s class, Designing Your Art Curriculum. The curriculum class is a great hands on class that, like all AOE classes, gets you to learn alongside other great inquisitive art teachers as you design the tools to implement a curriculum that this fits your teaching style and your students’ needs. Head on over to and check out this course and all the other great classes under the Courses tab. You know, it’s been a few episodes since I’ve brought Tim on. He’s been hosting me a lot more lately, so I’m really excited to share this talk that we just had recently.

Thanks for coming on, man. I really appreciate it today.

Tim: Hey. I am excited to talk to you, as always. I think this is going to be a good episode.

Andrew: Yeah. It’s been awhile, but way back in Episode 66, we did a talk about “Seven Projects That It’s Okay to Stop Teaching”. Then when you add to this, we did an episode on “Love It or Shove It”. It could be easy for people to think that we just sit around, being grumpy and tell people what not to do. I think it’d be really nice today to flip the script around and start thinking about some things that people should start teaching. Let’s really change it up here. Hit us with some positivity right off the bat. What should we be teaching?

Tim: Okay. I will jump into the positivity in just a second, but let me just qualify that and say that we are pretty grumpy. I think that’s a good descriptor, but yeah. I think it’s important for us to talk a little bit about the positive side of things, how we can be optimistic and how we can look at what we should be doing because it is too easy to get negative. I appreciate all of the approaches that keep things positive, but as far as specific ideas on what we should be teaching, for me, I think creativity is at the top of the list for me. Technical skill is fun and it’s important, but I think it’s more important to get our kids thinking creatively, doing new things, trying new materials, coming up with all sorts of things in their mind that are a little different, a little outside the norm. However you go about that, I think it’s important to get kids seeing differently and step outside of your traditional projects.

I assume we’ll dive a little bit more into that, but I also think it’s important to teach stuff that you’re passionate about. It’s really tough for people to get into different projects or different media that they don’t love. There’s something to be said for letting kids try all different media, all different materials, all different types of art, but I think it’s important that we teach things that we are passionate about because a big part of our job is getting kids excited about teaching art or about making art. To do that, we need to be excited ourselves about teaching it.

If you can pick subject matter that you’re going to talk about, artists that you want to teach, materials that you love working with, then your passion, your excitement is contagious and that’s going to get kids excited about creating art. Again, we talk a lot about how things are different for every art teacher, but I think this is just another case of that, where you need to find what you’re passionate about and try and pass that along to your students.

Andrew: What strategies then would you use when it comes to creating new curriculum? By that I mean do you have some kind of go to touchstones, where it’s like, “I’ve got to get more art history in, contemporary artists, materials, techniques, pop culture relevance”? What are your go to’s when it comes to coming up with new ideas?

Tim: Oh, that’s an all of the above because you never know where inspiration is going to strike. You just have different things that catch your interest. You think to yourself, “Oh, that would make for a great project.” Then you just need to sit down and think about it. For me, a lot of times that comes from contemporary art, where you’ll see a new Banksy come out and then it really gets your mind going. You start to think, “How can that be incorporated into your classroom?” Or there’s one time I saw this lady with some incredible tattoos and I ended up asking her if I could take a picture of them and just between subject matter, design the artistry of that. I turned that into a lesson as well.

I think my mind is just always in that place of observing and getting inspired by what you see. Then as teachers, we’re always in that mode of, “How can this apply to the classroom? How can I bring this back to my kids? How can I make this work as a lesson?” I think just always being aware of what’s going on, always being ready for inspiration to strike. Having your sketchbook with you so you can take some notes or do some quick sketches just when you see things that might work and figure out how you can turn those in to projects, turn those in to ideas. I don’t know. What about you? When you’re looking for new stuff, where does that come from for you?

Andrew: For me, it’s definitely the pop cultural tie-in and relevance. I always try to think about, “Okay. What is going on in our students’ real lives, our lives outside of school, that is compelling, interesting, popular, hot? Then how can I use that as a hook to get them excited about making artwork?” For example, there’s that new movie coming out that looks pretty cheesy. The Emoji Movie. Who knew that dumb little emoticon stickers would spawn an entire movie?

Tim: Right?

Andrew: That could become a graphic design project, a painting and drawing project. It could be a sculpture project. My kids this summer bought emoji inflatable inner tube things. It’s tapping in to what’s happening culturally I think is a great way, whether it’s a really popular TV show or movie or video game, I think opportunities that we have as teachers to show those things is a curve ball to a lot of students who think we’re only going to show them stuff from the stuffy old art history books. Then you bring in, “Hey, look at the cover to this manga book that’s out there. Look at how this designer put the text and the drawing.” It’s just a way to get kids excited about things. I’m always looking for that. That’s my go to.

We’re talking about ways that we create new projects and where we get our inspiration from. How do you know what’s going to make the cut? I know school just started for most of us, and for some people, it’s maybe still around the corner. I always start the school year off with double the amount of projects that I want to do that I know I’ll reasonably have time for. How do you know what’s going to make the cut and what we’ve got time for?

Tim: Yeah, that’s a tough one. I think a big part of it is dependent on the curriculum that you’re supposed to teach. Most people have certain media they have to cover, certain subjects, certain art history that needs to be a part of that. I think you’d start from there and just build off of that. You can decide where or how you want to add to that. Again, going back to that idea of what you’re passionate about and what you really want to teach. I think those are things that need to take priority. You are getting the curriculum that you want to teach. You can get your kids excited about that same curriculum. Every time we run up against it with, like you said, there’s not enough time to fit all of those things in.

I think it’s important to just be willing to let go of projects, as I think there are a lot of times where if we go back to what we were just talking about, being inspired by pop culture or being inspired by something that you see, that may not stick around for too long. That may be a one time project. That may be something that you teach one time and then you say, “Oh, I’d like to try that again next year and make these improvements.” Then you’re done with it. A lot of times, those things get cycled out really quickly. Pop culture obviously is constantly turning over. Those things don’t stay relevant. You can’t be married to those projects. You need to be willing to shift them. You need to be willing to get rid of them. Even if they did work well, be willing to try something new.

You and I both talk about how we cycle out projects a lot more than most teachers do, but I think that kind of mindset can help everybody, where don’t be afraid to get rid of a project after you’ve done it a couple times. Maybe you bring it back in three or four years, but always be willing to try something new and make sure that you can dive in to, like I said, what you’re passionate about. Those things need to take priority.

Andrew: I’m going to surprise you here a little bit. I think it’s important for teachers to come up with a list of, “Okay, gotta do this one.” Maybe that’s given to you from the district or maybe you just know, “This project is a no-brainer. It’s a rockstar.” I actually think for people listening out there, one of the things I would say is first look at your materials and techniques and disciplines in art. If you’re not teaching sculpture, print making, something along the lines of technology … I would even say jewelry or functional ceramics. Those are such popular disciplines for kids to get into that if you are an elementary teacher or middle school teacher that has this smorgasbord approach to classes and not a specific high school content class, those projects are just so popular. It’s a no-brainer that we’ve got to do them.

I don’t do it like, “Okay. I have to do the altered self portrait project.” I will say, “Okay, I have to do a drawing project.” That’s a non-negotiable. I have to do a technology project. I’m not going to go through a whole semester and not give kids a chance to work with technology. Then I have a steam have to do project too where it’s like somehow they have to build something that requires a little bit of applied math or technology. Something like that. I also have a gots to do collaborative project. I think having a big collaborative project … Now that can fluctuate. Every year, it could look totally different, but doing those types of projects to me has been a non-negotiable.

I want to circle back to something you said though a little bit ago, which was cycling out projects. We both admit that we do it a little faster than other people. For you, how long do you think things stick around? How long do they turn over? Are there pros and cons to this? Do you ever feel too spastic with how fast things are turning over?

Tim: Yeah. Okay. You asked me a lot of questions. We’ll take them one at a time. For me, some projects stick around year after year. I think we did an entire podcast way, way back when about the projects that define your program, those things that you teach all the time. I have a handful of those that I absolutely love, kids are successful with. They’re teaching the right skills as far as, like you mentioned, collaboration and creativity that I talked about. I’m more than happy to keep coming back to those. There are others that are one time things, where maybe they fail miserably and you’re like, “Not doing that again,” or maybe you get through it, it was a good project, but you just have the feeling that that was a one-off. We don’t need to repeat that one. Like I said, you need to be willing to allow that to happen.

Then other times, I feel like projects where I’ll teach them once, I can improve it so I’ll try it again the next year. Maybe improve it one more time. That’ll be it. I would say most of my projects are new year after year, but I think it’s less about finding that exact project, but more finding a variety of experiences for kids, where like you mentioned, trying out some different things, whether it be technology, ceramics, sculpture. Wherever those interests may lie, wherever that may lead you. Just making sure that you’re teaching the right things. I think in order to keep it fresh, it’s good to keep those cycling out. What about you? How often do you change out your projects and what are you looking for when you bring in something new?

Andrew: Well when it comes to bringing in something new, I’m looking for … I think for me it’s all about student engagement. What’s something that’s really going to get kids fired up? Well let me back up. I think usually those projects can lead to some amazing results, some amazing learning, but the results … I never set out like, “Hey, what new project can I do where we’re just going to have this stunning, amazing artwork?” It’s more like, “What’s going to get them fired up and be a really memorable experience?” I think at one point, we did say that we turned over our projects. 80% of our projects we’re teaching every year are new. I think I’ve actually calmed down a little bit on that. I was just thinking as you were talking and I wasn’t listening to you that honestly, I think about a third of the projects I’ll do … I really do think it falls down to this. A third of the projects are projects I’ve done before. I can rely on some predictable outcomes.

A third of them are projects I’ve done, but I’m really doing some things different because I wasn’t happy with what we’ve been doing in the past or how it’s turned out. Then I would say there’s about a third that are like, “Hey, never tried this before. It’s totally new. This might just be a total failure.” I sprinkle those around a little bit. I do think that if you were going to do a class where it’s like, “Hey, this is 100% never done any of this before,” boy, that might be exhilarating, but so is jumping out of a plane with no parachute.

Tim: Yeah.

Andrew: To have a couple projects in there where you’re like, “Okay. I know that this one is going to be easy or a comfortable landing.” That’s how I see it being broken down.

Tim: Okay. If I can add one more thing there, I realized I didn’t answer this last time. You talked about just your own personal feeling of bringing in those new projects and your comfort level. You can’t constantly be coming up with something new because you need to have some safe thing. You’re going to burn yourself out if you’re constantly trying to flip things, constantly trying to bring in absolutely new things. I think when we talk about that 80%, it’s not necessarily completely new ideas, but maybe new ways of teaching things, new ways of approaching this media. I think while you don’t always have to be bringing in new ideas, you should constantly be reflecting on the lessons you have. That 80% are trying new things and coming up with new ideas on how to approach the lessons you have.

Andrew: Yeah, I like that. That makes a lot of sense. I’d like to do as we wrap up some specific parting words. You know, we’ve been thinking about this podcast as things that we should start teaching and not just be doom and gloom. Can you come up with a project or two that you think people aren’t maybe doing that they should be doing?

Tim: Yeah. I guess I don’t know if I have a specific project in mind, but just a way to approach what you’re teaching. I think the biggest thing goes back to what you said about collaboration, what I talked about way back at the beginning of this talk, with creativity. I think you just need to try different things. I feel like we get so stuck in our mindset of, “This is drawing class. This is what we’re going to do. This is painting class. This is what we’re going to do.” There’s no reason you can’t combine different ideas. Why can’t your ideas on design and drawing translate into decorative ceramics? Why can’t your painting techniques and your color theory be applied to different sculptures? Just think about how you can approach media in a different way, how you can combine some different things. Maybe try and take a new approach to how you work with media, how you can combine media. Be creative in your teaching because that’s going to force kids to be creative in their art making as well. I guess that would be my big advice is to rethink the way that you approach media in your class.

Andrew: For me, I’ve been thinking about this a lot this summer because I’ve been trying to binge watch and read all sorts of sci-fi and fantasy and nerdy things. It dawned on me, I was like, “Why do I like comic books and movies so much?” It’s because it’s storytelling. I started thinking about the importance of storytelling in our world and in creativity. Even storytelling past school. Companies are talking about, “How do we tell our story?” The craft of storytelling and marketing. I think to tap into some of that, how compelling storytelling is right now, if you’re not doing at least one project on comic books … Sequential drawing illustration storytelling, that’s a huge one. Then I also think a project on music videos. How do I take the art of music, sound and make that visual and translate that into something? Then you’re getting into technology and video production.

I just think those two projects alone would get kids, students, super jazzed up and excited about art. They lie outside of the normal parameters about what a lot of kids think of as art education. Definitely I’d love to see more and more people get into comic books and video production.

Tim: Yeah. Good ideas. I like those a lot.

Andrew: Well that’s me, man. I’m full of good ideas.

Tim: Nerdy ideas, but good ideas. Yes.

Andrew: That’s true. All right, man. Thanks for coming on. I really appreciate talking with you.

Tim: All right. Talk to you later.

Andrew: Thanks to Tim for coming on and sharing some ideas and general strategies when it comes to coming up with relevant takes and ideas in curriculum. We’ve brought this up on a number of podcasts, so perhaps it’s not a huge insight, but a great strategy for what to teach and what will work with kids is going to be that we need to be flexible and responsive to our students’ needs. Your curriculum should be contemporary and relevant while also being true to your own strengths and passions. We don’t want to fake it, but at the end of the day, we also have to plug in to our students’ needs and wants.

Maybe starting off at the beginning of the semester with some questionnaires type of things. Understanding, “Why do my students want to take this class? What do they want to learn?” Have an honest conversation with them. Say, “I could forge ahead with a curriculum that I think is going to work well for you guys, but I want to get to know you. What do you want out of this?” Then see where you guys can meet in the middle. When we do this, we’re putting more of a focus on process and less on product. I think that’s beneficial. Definitely we’re thinking about ways that we as art teachers get our students to use creativity to build mindsets and not just skillsets. It is possible to have it both ways.

Art Ed Radio is developed, produced and supported by The Art of Education with audio engineering by Michael Crocker. You know, Tim and I try to steer you guys to check out some of the great AOE courses here at the end or pro packs, but I actually want to step back for a second and put a plug in for just checking out some of the sheer mass of great free resources that are online at If we’re talking curriculum, we’ve got a ton of great PDFs and planning sheets to help your curriculum … To help it get figured out and get you on your feet. I’m always amazed at how many awesome resources I find on the AOE website when I use the site’s search function. Just type something in and there’s just so much to find.

While you’re there, checking out all those great, free resources, make sure you check out some of our old podcast episodes as we’re starting to build up a pretty good-sized library. As always, new episodes of Art Ed Radio are released every Tuesday and additional content can be found under the Podcast tab on All right, guys. Thanks for listening.

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.