Saturday, January 18, 2020

Themes in Art, Strategies for Art Making

Screenshot of E. Delacruz's Pinboard: "Themes in Art: The Stuff of Life". January 2020.

APA reference for this blog post:

Delacruz, E. M. (2020, January 18). Themes in art, Strategies for art making. E.Delacruz: Art Education in the 21st Century

What is Art About?
This blog post talks about two interrelated aspects of art and art making. Themes in art and contemporary strategies for art making. Themes in art are those (purportedly) universal (big) ideas found within the arts and humanities (works of art, literature, film, dance, theater, history, philosophy, sociology, psychology, the sciences, etc.). Contemporary strategies for art making (how art is created) are those artistic dispositions, ways of thinking about, and creative strategies that artists use to engage their practice, which is to make works of art. Themes in art mentioned in this blog post are derived from the humanities at large. Contemporary strategies for art making are derived from the current writings of respected art educators who describe how artists do what they do. I discuss themes (big ideas) in my first section, followed by some references. After discussing themes in art, I discus contemporary art making strategies, followed by some references. Finally, I offer a brief account of how the profession of art education, as reflected in the new Visual Arts Standards, has now officially moved toward this way of thinking.

Why do Artists Make Art?
Artists convey their ideas, values, and experiences in works of art. Themes (the big ideas conveyed in works of art) embody the meanings and aspirations of their creators. Sometimes they reflect the questions, investigations, hopes, dreams, problems, and fears of humanity. Other times they reflect artists' ideas abut art itself, how art is made, and who art is for. Readers of the new National Visual Arts Standards (Stewart, 2014), and the popular Understanding by Design (UbD) framework for curriculum planning will recognize language about Big Ideas and Enduring Understandings, shaped by Essential Questions (McTighe & Wiggins, 2012) as, in essence, a thematic approach. Designing art learning activities with big ideas at the forefront makes sense today. 

An ideas-based (thematic) approach to art curriculum planning has been around a very long time, way before UbD hit the education scene. For example, in 1996, I co-wrote with art educator Philip Dunn describing some of the ways that art teachers utilized thematic planning. We observed two examples from the 1990s. At the "DBAE: Integrating the Arts Institute" held during summers in South Carolina, which Philip organized and hosted, and where I taught, "teams of arts teachers work together to develop complementary units of study, organized in a variety of ways around selected works of art that deal with central ideas: themes in the humanities, concepts (including, but not limited to, design concepts), social and environmental issues, great eras, artists, or cultures" (Delacruz & Dunn, 1996, p. 76). And the Getty-sponsored Florida Institute for Art Education, also held during summers and where I taught, was organized around the construction of interdisciplinary curriculum units called CHATs (Comprehensive Holistic Assessment Tasks). A CHAT was a thematic instruction/assessment unit focused on a central work of art and developed with multidisciplinary connections. Notably, in addition to exploring the themes and meanings (big ideas) embedded in a work of art, and making art based on a thematic approach, a CHAT unit was designed "to help students develop critical thinking and writing skills, foster an appreciation of their own cultures and the culture of others, enhance their abilities to work cooperatively with others, and foster sociability, self- management, and self-esteem" (Delacruz & Dunn, 1996, p. 77).  For specific examples of art lessons that engage themes, see Kay Alexander's and Michael Day's Discipline-Based Art Education: A Curriculum Sampler, published by the no longer in operation Getty Center for Education in the Arts in 1991, and listed in the references. This book is now available as a free download from the Getty.

Although readers knowledgeable about the history of k-12 art education theories and practices may not see the connection, I find a strong connection between some of the approaches to curriculum planning and art making in the k-12 classroom emanating from the DBAE movement of the 1980s and 1990s and the currently popular Teaching for Artistic Behavior (TAB) movement. In a DBAE curriculum, students were asked to model their art-making after the practices of artists. In "Develop Theme-Based Lessons for a More Authentic Experience" (n.d.), TAB art educator Ian Sands asserts the primacy of the thinking and practices of artists, asserting that that artists are inspired to make art based on their experiences and interests, and not with a starting point to their art making being questions like "I’ll work in 1 point perspective today. What should I create?" (Sands, n.d., para 2). For Sands, "Theme teaching begins by presenting the student with a question or topic to inspire thought. The student considers the theme and then generates a series of possible solutions. From these possibilities, the student selects a final idea for his or her project" (para 3). Readers interested in TAB will find a useful listing of TAB writings and resources in my earlier blog post "Learner Centered Teaching Approaches in Education and Art Education, circa 2020".  

An ideas-based curricular approach is not limited to the educational motivations and practices of art teachers in the K-12 sector. Indeed, one has only to look at the ever-expanding Expressive Arts Movement, writings and art educational practices associated with embracing Mindfulness, art museum and community arts educational practices, art education practices in early childhood and senior care facilities, and programs, workshops, and studio art classes offered by artists and art cooperatives in their local communities to realize how big ideas in art and the life experiences of learners come together in creative educational settings.

Some Themes/Big Ideas in Art

Common themes/big ideas in art include: 

Place, Identity, Family, Consumption, Time, Memory, History/Histories, Legacy, Stories, Dreams, Secrets, Desire, Loss, Death, Humor, Play, Escape, Companionship, Romance, Protest, Ecology, Paradox, Compassion, Fantasy, Power, Structures, Systems, Transformation, Fiction, Balance, Boundaries. The list is endless. See the Art21 website at for exploration of artists who have incorporated some of these themes/ideas in their work.

Continuing the endless list...

Other themes/big ideas found in the arts and humanities include (but are not limited to) Sustainability, Ecosystems/Bio-Regions, Urbanization, Gentrification, The Ages/Eons, Rites of Passage, Rituals, Celebrations, Cycles of Life, Kinship/Belonging, Assimilation/Resistance, Sense of Place/Mapping, Borders/Border Crossing, Local/Global, Nationalism/Transnationalism, Hybridization, Stereotypes, Heroes and Leaders, Freedom, Dignity, Capabilities/Disabilities, Truth/Deception, Objective/Subjective, Social Justice/Social Issues/Social Change, Conflict and Adversity, War, Poverty, Tragedy, Suffering, Love/Hate/Jealousy/Expressing Feelings, Awe, Revelation, Myths, Allegory/Parable, Irony/Parody, Spirituality, Sacrifice, Afterlife, Transitions, Dreams, Altered Realities, The World/Universe, Other World/Celestial, Subliminal/Ethereal, Microscopic, Cyberworlds/Cyborgs/Human-Machine, The Future, The Past, The Subconscious/Inner Worlds, Predictability/Chance, Nonsense/Absurdities, Contradiction, Taste/Fads/Trends/Fashion, Beauty/Ugliness, Pop Culture/Kitsch, Public/Private, Inner/Outer, Age/Growth/Evolution/Metamorphosis, Order/Disorder, Chaos, Stability/Instability, The Everyday/The Special, Conformity/Non-Conformity/Disruption, Communication, Form and Function, The Special Materiality of Art, Art that Transcends Materiality…list like this are never complete and wholly inadequate. For example, in "These 20 Artists are Shaping the Future of Ceramics" (2017), Casey Lesser finds ideas embedded in and conveyed through the ceramic work of contemporary ceramic 20 artists she highlights. Ideas identified by Casey Lesser (writer and editor for Artsy, an art website an online art marketplace) include autobiography, social commentary, narrative, truth, beauty, ubiquity, subjectivity, humor, play, levity, fantasy, religion, conflict, time, science, and ecology, to recount a few of Lesser's descriptions. Sometimes, as Lesser's descriptions reveal, big ideas in art are about the art itself. Lesser's descriptive analyses mention ceramic artists' engagement with concepts such as materiality, malleability, scale, natural elements, synthetic materials, metamorphosis, function, tactility, tradition, innovation, improvisation, and experimentation. 

Readers may notice that in this blog post I have collapsed a thematic approach with the current language of UbD's "big ideas" curricular approach (see Wiggins 2010 commentary about big ideas and themes listed in the references of this blog post). Readers may also notice that this approach is now often associated with a Teaching for Artistic Behavior (TAB) approach. Some older readers may also recognize aspects of this approach in the Discipline-Based Art Education (DBAE) movement, with its focus on the professional practices of artists and other professional disciplines informing the arts. It matters little whether we call a thematic/ideas-based curricular approach in art education a UbD-inspired Big-Ideas approach, a TAB-oriented artist-and student-centered approach, a reflection of the new National Visual Arts Standards, or a DBAE inspired approach with its insistence on modeling k-12 art lessons after the thinking and practices of artists, art historians, art critics, and philosophers of art. The point of an ideas-based program of study in art education is to engage learners in thoughtful and informed explorations of the stuff of art, and in the creative expression of students' thoughts and feelings about that stuff. I discuss how contemporary art educators believe that teachers might go even further and teach about specific artistic practices (aka strategies) later in this blog post. But first I think it is useful to make a few more distinctions about themes and ideas conveyed in art.

Big Ideas/Themes vs. Subject Matter, Big Ideas/Themes vs. Style

Themes are the big ideas, motivations, values, and questions posed in art works. They convey the human experience and underlie specific subject matter or topics in works of art. For example, the subject matter of Edward Hopper's painting, "Nighthawks" (1942), is an urban diner scene, or more descriptively, three people sitting at a diner late at night in a dimly lit downtown area of town. The theme, or big idea of this painting is, as Hopper himself noted, "the lonliness of a large city" ( Viewers may further ascribe additional meanings to this painting, including "human isolation and urban emptiness" ( Judy Chicago's "The Dinner Party" (1974-1979) is a grouping of thirty-nine place settings commemorating important women in history and arranged on a triangular table. Each place setting consists of "embroidered runners, gold chalices and utensils, and china-painted porcelain plates with raised central motifs that are based on vulvar and butterfly forms and rendered in styles appropriate to the individual women being honored" (Brooklyn Museum, n.d., para 1). The subject matter is as the title suggests, a celebratory dinner with table settings for 39 guests. The themes or big ideas of this work tap into feminist ideas of history, power, disruption, and affirmation, challenging the exclusion of women's accomplishments in history, dismantling distinctions between high art (typically created by men) and low art or craft (typically created by women), elevating women's traditional domestic arts or crafts (sewing, weaving, embroidery, china painting) to the level of "high art",  and the power of collaboration when women meet in numbers and work together on common goals (hundreds of women worked on "The Dinner Party") (Brooklyn Museum, n.d.).

Many educators have made distinctions between themes and subject matter. I find writings about this distinction, offered by history, literature, and writing educators  (Bjork, 2019; Ideas of the Twentieth Century, n.d.; Pressfield, 2016) to be particularly clear and useful. Also useful are writings about themes from the professions of history education (Ringelspaugh & Palmer, (n.d.), science education (Science for all Americans Online: Common Themes, 1990; Rogers, 2000), social studies (The Themes of Social Studies, 2017), and my personal favorite, the world of science fiction (

Big Ideas in art are also not the same thing as the style in which an art form is created, although the style of an art work certainly informs its meaning. Style is a category used by art critics and art historians to group together works of art based on characteristics such as subject matter, composition, visual devices, where the art was made, who the artist was influenced by, patronage, artists' beliefs, etc. Grouping artists of similar styles is mainly a Western device for making sense of art (see For example, a painting may be done in a surrealistic style. One might find writings about Surrealism that trace it to its European roots in the early to mid 20th century, that talk about the ideologies of artists and thinkers in that time and place, and that that describe its subject matter and artistic devices such as "bizarre imagery with unsettling juxtapositions, "saturated or monochromatic colors", "dreamlike qualities", "biomorphic objects", etc. (see Ideas or underlying thematic content of a painting done in a surrealistic style may be tied to ideas about how we perceive and experience reality, how we feel about the state of the world, the nature of dreams or the unconscious mind, ways that archetypal symbols convey meaning, hidden compulsions and memories, humor, fear, how and why the human imagination conjures up absurd alternate realities, psychedelic or psychoanalytic musings, defamiliarization, etc. See for an interesting  discussion with images of contemporary pop surrealist artists. Although subject matter, style, and meanings in art are closely aligned, it is important to help students differentiate between these aspects of art.

Why is a Thematic/Big Ideas approach desirable in contemporary art education programs of study?
Beyond subject matter and style, art has meaning (what it's about), motivation (why it's created), context (when, for whom, where?), form (materiality), structure (design, composition etc,), and function or utility (what it's used for). The "aboutness" (an Arthur Danto term) and the "why" of art deserve attention in our teaching. Why do we do anything other than an ideas-based approach in K-12, and for that matter, in post-secondary art education programs of study? As Mary Ann Stankiewitz observed in The Roots of Art Education Practice (2001), when art programs, university level and then K-12, were developed in the US (1800s and forward) influential art educators in those early years believed and claimed that the elements and principles of design needed to be taught, and as a result, the elements and principles approach became and remained the focus of art programs of study until only recently. Regarding why art programs of study K-12 through the university bachelor's degree continue to be organized and labeled around studio media (drawing, painting, ceramics, photography, digital arts, etc.) rather than around some other organizational structure, I suspect that it is due in part to mis-perceptions about artists' practices as being limited to specific media (one was a painter, one was a sculptor, one was a printmaker, etc.), it used to be a logical way to configure studio spaces for teaching, and because old habits are both firmly embedded and hard to break. What might a studio art course labeled "Narrative Art" or "Design Thinking" or, better yet, a Minor in Social Justice Art look like? 

As educators writing for PBS Art21 (the highly acclaimed multi-year documentary on contemporary artist) observe, integrating contemporary art and themes into teaching requires a shift from predominantly technique-driven instruction to idea-driven instruction This is not to say that the materials, techniques, media, and processes employed by artists are not equally important to the ideas conveyed in art. Rather, it is useful to think about both what art is about and how art is created. Again, picking up a thread in the PBS Art21 quote above, "many artists do not work in a single medium or technique and instead try to explore an idea, event, situation, or question through multiple media and visual strategies"

References for the above

Alexander, K., & Day, M. (1991). Discipline-based art education: A curriculum sampler. Getty Publications. Retrieved December 1, 2019 from

Bjork, M. (2019, September 7). What is the theme of a story? And why does nobody agree? [Blog post for Michael Bjork Writes]. Retrieved December 1, 2019 from

Brooklyn Museum. (n.d.). The Dinner Party. Retrieved December 1, 2019 from

Contemporary Approaches to Teaching. (n.d.) PBS Art21. Retrieved December 1, 2019 from

Delacruz, E. M. (2020). Themes in art: The stuff of life [Pinterest Board].

Delacruz, E. M., & Dunn, P. C. (1996).  The evolution of DBAE. Journal of Aesthetic Education, 30(3), 67-82.

Ideas of the Twentieth Century. (n.d.). Philosophical themes in the novels [Course Handout from the course Ideas of the Twentieth Century]. University of Texas at Austin. Retrieved December 1, 2019 from   See also

Lesser, C. (2017, February 22). These 20 artists are shaping the future of ceramics [Blog post]. Artsy. Retrieved from

McTighe, J., & Wiggins, G. (2012). Understanding by Design® framework [Online White Paper]. ASCD. Retrieved December 1, 2019 from

National Core Arts Standards. (n.d.). National Coalition for Core Arts Standards. Retrieved December 1, 2019 from

National Visual Arts Standards. (n.d.). National Art Education Association. Retrieved December 1, 2019 from

National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies: Chapter 2—The Themes of Social Studies. (2017), National Council for the Social Studies.  Retrieved December 1, 2019 from See also: The College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards: Guidance for Enhancing the Rigor of K-12 Civics, Economics, Geography, and History. (2017). National Council for the Social Studies. Retrieved December 1, 2019 from

Pressfield, S. (2016, February). The difference between subject and theme [Blog post]. Retrieved December 1, 2019 from

Ringelspaugh, M., & Palmer, M. (n.d.). 7 Themes [Webpage for Online History Course: American Experience]. Retrieved December 1, 2019 from

Rogers, S. W. (2000). The use of themes in science. Houghton Mifflin Company. Retrieved December 1, 2019 from

Sands, I. (n.d.). Develop theme-based lessons for a more authentic experience. Retrieved December 1, 2019 from

Stankiewicz, M. A. (2001). The roots of art education practice. Davis.  Available at

Stewart, M. G. (2014). Enduring understandings, artistic processes, and the New Visual Arts Standards: A close-up consideration for curriculum planning. Art Education, 67(5), 6-11. 

Wiggins, G. (2010, June 10). What is a big idea [Blog Post]. Big Ideas. An Authentic Education e-journal. Retrieved from

How? Contemporary Artists' Strategies and Dispositions

Artists' Strategies

How is art created? Is there a "language of art" that artists employ and that art educators might teach to their intended learners? Contemporary art educators have described not only some of the big ideas in art that convey human inquiries and experiences common within the humanities at large, but also how artists do what they do. Until recent years, much of that writing has concerned the so-called elements and principles of art and design, derived, as Maryanne Stankiewicz explained, from the early beginnings of school art programming in the 1800s. In 2004, contemporary Chicago-based artist and art educator Olivia Gude introduced post-modern principles as an alternative to the still popular elements and principles of art approach (line, shape, color, etc...) in school art programs. For Gude, "these 'newly discovered' postmodern principles are often the fusion of a visual form and a conceptual artmaking strategy. They are hybrids of the visual and the conceptual. This hybridization is itself a hallmark of many postmodern cultural productions, eschewing the boundaries imposed by outmoded discipline-based structures" (2004, p. 8). At that time, Gude identified eight important postmodern artmaking principles as: appropriation, decontextualization, hybridity, layering, gazing, interaction of text and image, and representin’.  Later, in "Principles of Possibility: Considerations for a 21st-Century Art & Culture Curriculum" (2007) Gude published a followup to her 2004 postmodern principles. In her principles of possibility article, Gude explained why contemporary art making approaches are important today, "an art curriculum is not a mere container of aesthetic and cultural content; a curriculum is itself an aesthetic and cultural structure. Students should be able to sense, examine, and explain the structure of the art curriculum; these explanations should emphasize important ideas and themes associated with traditional and contemporary artmaking practices" (2007, p. 6). Challenging (again) art educators to move beyond structuring art lessons around the elements and principles of art (line, shape, color, etc.), Gude asks, "do we really want students to say that art is "about" line, shape, color or contrast and repetition?" (2007, p. 7). She contends that "what is at stake is making use of the structure of the curriculum to exemplify the very heart of the art educational experience for the student, for the school, and for the community" (2007, p. 7).  In her principles of possibility article, Gude offers "a useful structure or checklist that art teachers can use to determine whether a curriculum provides a range of important art experiences. The list is structured, not according to principles of form, media, or disciplines, but from the students' point of view, imagining what important ideas about the uses and making of art we want students to remember as significant" (2007, p. 7). Here, Gude offers as a possible structure the following principles: playing, forming self, investigating community themes, encountering difference, attentive living, empowered experiencing, empowered making, deconstructing culture, reconstructing social spaces, and not knowing (2007). Gude's subsequent writings extend these ideas. I list them in the references below.

Like Olivia Gude, art educator Julia Marshall has written extensively about contemporary art practices. In her 2009 chapter for the NAEA anthology Globalization, Art and Education, Marshall provides “a condensed description of some important trends in the art world and some artists who work within them. The intention here is to illustrate some of the central themes and strategies of this artwork to make them accessible and useful to teachers and students of contemporary art” (2009, p. 89). Here, Marshall identifies specific artists and their conceptual categories: Takashi Murakami: Fusion, Saira Wasim: Layering, Wang Jin and Do-Ho Suh: Employing the Meaning of Materials, Collage of Cultural Icons: Sui Jianguo, Yinka Shonebare, and Jean-Ulrick Desert, and Marian Heyerdahl: Tapping the Global Image Bank. For Marshall, engaging students in examination of iconic contemporary art images can help students understand art making strategies that may trigger their own ideas, catalyze critical insights, and use this knowledge to inform and shape their own artwork.

In "Visible Thinking: Using Contemporary Art to Teach Conceptual Skills" (2008) Marshall further advocates for inclusion of the study of contemporary art in art programs of study. Building on the observations of Dennis Roland and others that "art practice involves higher level thinking" (p. 39) and that procedural knowledge (learning how to apply knowledge) is as important as learning the 'facts' (2008, p. 39), Marshall continues to make her case for the study of contemporary art in art programs. Marshall writes, "I have in mind a particular type of contemporary art--the kind that not only puts ideas and concepts into visual form but also reveals the thought processes by which that form was conceived. These works make the thinking (or cognition) behind their ideas and forms visible; they are easily seen in the form of the work. In allowing us to see the conceptual strategies behind them, these works make these processes accessible, teachable, and learnable. Students can see, learn, and use these processes for generating statements in their own art. Students can also come to understand the conceptual strategies behind less transparent works of art and the images of visual culture. On a broader, deeper note, the artworks presented here can help students to understand how the mind conceives and shapes its interpretations of reality" (2008, p. 39). In this article, Marshall identifies two contemporary art making strategies/ways of thinking that would be valuable in an art program of study: Conceptual Collage (juxtaposing non-coalescent or distinct images) and Metaphor (seeing one entity in terms of another). Marshall highlights these two strategies/ways of thinking by describing the following selected artworks and artists works: "Tapis Volant-Time" (Flying Carpet)by Wang Du, "Han Dynasty Urn with Coca-Cola Logo" by Ai Weiwei, "Twilight of the Idols 8" by Kendell Geers, "Superama" by Gabriel Kuri, and "Fragment Grenades" by Charles Krafft (USA). Marshall then illustrates how one might teach in this way, describing an art lesson that she has used and sharing students works emanating from her art lesson. She concludes her article with the following claims, "the focus here is on thinking and concept development as fundamental art skills, which are as basic to making an artistic statement as art techniques and design principles " (2008, p. 44), and more provocatively, "it is a common belief among art teachers that honing technical skills should should precede developing conceptual skills. It implies that students cannot make meaning until they master the materials of techniques. I disagree and concur with Freedman, 2003b)that these capacities need to be developed simultaneously. Contemporary art, in providing us with images in which the conceptual strategies behind them can be easily accesses, offer is a great tool for doing it all" (2008, pp. 44-45).

Similar to Marshall and Gude, in their 2018 article for the NAEA publication Art Education, “Contemporary strategies for creative and critical teaching in the 21st century” Jessica Hamlin and Joe Fusaro observe that "contemporary artistic methods and capacities suggest opportunities to support not just the production of important art, but to nurture a broader set of dispositions and skills in students as they enter into an uncertain, increasingly complex, and globally interconnected future" (2018, p. 8). Like Marshall, Hamlin and Fusaro identify and analyze the works of specific contemporary artists, gleaning from their analyses propositions that they believe would serve well as as entry points for student art making in the classroom that is informed by contemporary artistic methods. And, like Marshall, Hamlin and Fusaro describe specific artists and their works, along with accompanying  examples of how art teachers have built lessons around the identified artists. Propositions for entry points for teaching with contemporary art offered by Fusaro and Hamlin include: Follow Curiosities and Pursue Meaningful Questions: Art as a Form of Collective Knowledge Production; Focus on Process, Experimentation, and Play: Art as an Opportunity to Think, Learn, and Invent; and Move From the Personal to the Political: Art as a Space to Address the Now. Hambin and Fusaro offer the following as a concluding commentary on the importance of teaching with and about contemporary art. "In an increasingly complex and visual era, art education should emphasize the critical capacities exemplified by contemporary artistic practices: the ability to grapple with meaningful questions, to participate in generative collaboration, to play with ideas and materials, and to radically reinvent the world. These skills are the foundation for cultivating new generations able to face the challenges and uncertainties of the 21st century and beyond. Artists have always been the avant-garde. Their work helps us see ourselves and the world around us in new, unpredictable, and important ways (2018, p.14).

When artists make art, do they think in ways that are special or different from when they are doing other kinds of things? If yes, what are those ways of thinking? Emerging in 2007, the Studio Thinking framework offers insights and recommendations. Studio Thinking: The Real Benefits of Visual Art Education (2007) set out to systematically investigate what it is that visual arts teachers in arts-based high schools teach in their classes, and how these classes are organized ( The Studio Thinking framework shines a light on those broad thinking dispositions, or habits of mind, that visual arts teachers teach in their classes. Now referred to as Studio Habits of Mind (ShoM), these broad thinking dispositions include the following: Develop Craft (Technique & Studio Practice), Engage & Persist (Finding Passion & Sticking with It), Envision (Imagining & Planning), Express (Finding & Showing Meaning), Observe (Looking Closely), Reflect (Question & Explain and Evaluate), Stretch & Explore (Play, Use Mistakes & Discover) and Understand Art Worlds (Domain & Communities) (  Since its original publication Studio Thinking (2007) was updated in Studio Thinking 2: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education, 2nd Edition (2013), and extended to K-8 classrooms in Studio Thinking for the Elementary School (2018).  Readers interested in Studio Habits of Mind (ShoM) need only to conduct a Google search to find a plethora of applications offered by art educators. The definitive source, would be the original Studio Thinking books and the Studio Thinking website (, which provides links to resources, examples, and research.

Artists' strategies and dispositions gleaned from my readings and discussed in this blog post are best understood (as Fusaro and Hamlin suggest) as entry points for contemporary approaches to inquiry and art making in art education programs of study. Taken together with a big ideas curriculum, one would hope that learners, art students of all ages and in all kinds of learning environments, would be well equipped for engaging the complexity of the world today armed with a way of thinking and doing that resonates on a personal level and has impact on a societal and global level. Readers familiar with the new Visual Arts Standards (2014) may see connections between the strategies and dispositions identified in Studio Thinking writings and the language of the standards.

References for the above

ArtCore. Middle School model based on Studio Habits of Mind

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind. Harvard University Press.

Gude, O. (2004). Postmodern principles: In search of a 21st century art education. Art  Education, 57(1), 6-14.

Gude, O. (2007). Principles of possibility: Considerations for a 21st-century art & culture curriculum. Art Education, 60(1), 6-17.

Hamlin, J. (2014, December 31). How can small gestures provoke big change? Art21 Magazine. Retrieved May 15, 2020 from

Hamlin, J., & Fusaro , J. (2018). Contemporary strategies for creative and critical teaching in the 21st century. Art Education, 71(2), 8-15.

Hamlin, J., & Fusaro, J. (2014, December 9). Revamping art education for the twenty-first century. Art21 Magazine. Retrieved May 15, 2020 from

Heid, K. (2008) Creativity and imagination: Tools for teaching artistic inquiry. Art Education, 61(4), 40-46.

Hetland, L. (2005). Studio thinking: The real benefits of visual art education. Teachers College Press.

Hetland, H., Winner, E.,  Veenema, S., & Sheridan, K. (2013). Studio Thinking 2: The real benefits of visual art education. Teachers College Press.

Hogan, J., Hetland, L., Jaquith, D. B., & Winner. E. (2018). Studio Thinking from the start. The K–8 art educator’s handbook. New York: Teachers College Press.

Resources created by teachers based on the “Studio Thinking” approach.

Hathaway, N. E. (2013). Smoke and mirrors: Art teacher as magician. Art Education, 66(3), 9 - 13. Available at

Jaquith, D. B. (2011). When is creativity? Art Education, 64(1), 14-19. Available from

Lesser, C. (2017, February 22). These 20 artists are shaping the future of ceramics [Blog post]. Artsy. Retrieved from

Marshall, J. (2008). Visible thinking: Using contemporary art to teach conceptual skills. Art  Education, 61(2), 38-45.

Marshall, J. (2009). Globalization and contemporary art. In E. M. Delacruz, A. Arnold, M. Parsons, & A Kuo (Eds.). Globalization, art, and education (pp. 88 - 96). National Art Education Association.

Sheridan, K. (2011). Envision and observe: Using the Studio Thinking framework for learning and teaching in digital arts. Mind, Brain, and Education, 5(1), 19-26.

How is an ideas-based art lesson fashioned?
As my discussion above demonstrates, the profession of art education is gradually moving away from an elements-and-principles and materials-and-techniques based framework for designing curricula. This is not to say that artistic conceptual thinking and strategies for making art have been abandoned. Rather, we see art educators subsuming these important concerns under the reasons why people make art (to convey ideas) and how they make art (strategies and dispositions). Informed by Wiggins' and McTigue's Understanding by Design curriculum framework, the new Visual Arts Standards, adopted in 2014, reflect this change. 

Developing a standards and ideas-based art lesson using the UbD framework and the new Visual Arts Standards involves the following steps to shape lessons.

  1. Identify big ideas for an art lesson that you want to implement with your students. 
  2. Research artists who engage your big ideas. (steps 1 and 2 may be reversed)
  3. Based on your research on artists and the big ideas that you have identified, write some enduring understandings, which Wiggins and McTighe define as broad, philosophical  statements about the big ideas found in your artworks.
  4. Then write essential questions that convert your enduring understandings into questions that probe your big ideas and enduring understandings. 
  5. Establish acceptable evidence of student learning. This could include student in-process and final art works, their writings, their sketchbooks, their participation in critiques, your assessments and grading criteria, student exhibitions, etc.). 
  6. List and explain art concepts and skills to be acquired (what students should learn/know and be able to do) .
  7. Describe what kind of art your students will make and how they will make it. Then determine what they need to do prior to beginning their final work of art for this lesson. This includes exploratory exercises with materials and processes, student research and planning, etc. 
  8. Describe your own instructional strategies that will help students acquire your intended learning outcomes. 
Wiggins and McTighe provide an example of a planning template for a UbD art lesson (

Wiggins and McTighe refer to this curricular planning approach as "Backward Design" because it places assessment (evidence of learning) before determining learning activities (as has been our tradition and training university undergraduate art certification programs with regard to writing lesson plans). 

There is an abundance of material available about the UbD framework online, so I don't see a need to explain it further here. And for the most part, a big ideas-based curriculum approach makes sense. But I have found certain aspects of the UbD framework to be somewhat confusing. For example, what is the difference between themes in art and Big Ideas found in art? What is the difference between Big Ideas and Enduring Understandings? What is the difference between Enduring Understandings and Essential Questions? I share my findings below.

In Wiggins' and McTighe's UbD framework, Big Ideas are theories. Wiggins notes that themes in art are the same thing as what he calls “big ideas”. Themes in the arts and humanities explore and convey ideas about the nature and purpose of human existence. Enduring Understandings translate and extend Big Ideas into statements of intent for learning. They summarize important ideas and core processes that are central to a discipline and have lasting value beyond the classroom. Essential Questions convert Enduring Understandings (declarative statements) into questions. See more about Enduring Understandings and Essential Questions below.

Enduring Understandings

Enduring understandings reshape the big ideas into broad declarative statements. They can focus on concepts, themes, issues/debates, problems/challenges, processes, theories, paradoxes, assumptions/perspectives (


  • Frame the big ideas that give meaning and lasting importance to such discrete curriculum elements as facts and skills.
  • Can transfer to other fields as well as beyond the classroom,
  • “Unpack” areas of the curriculum where students may struggle to gain understanding or demonstrate misunderstandings and misconceptions.
  • Provide a conceptual foundation for studying the content area.
  • Are deliberately framed as declarative sentences that present major curriculum generalizations and recurrent ideas. (
Essential Questions

Essential Questions take the Enduring Understandings of a lesson and reframe them as broad questions that can be used to motivate and shape student inquiry. McTighe and Wiggins define essential questions as “questions that are not answerable with finality in a brief sentence…” Their aim is to “stimulate thought, to provoke inquiry, and to spark more questions—including thoughtful student questions—not just pat answers.” Essential questions guide students as they uncover enduring understandings. “Instead of thinking of content as something to be covered,” they state, “consider knowledge and skill as the means of addressing questions central to understanding key issues in your subject.” They also assert that "essential questions are those that encourage, hint at, and even demand transfer beyond the particular topic in which students first encounter them, and therefore, should recur over the years to promote conceptual connections and curriculum coherence” (National Core Arts Standards: A Conceptual Framework for Arts Learning, 2014). 

According to Wiggins and McTighe, a good essential questions has the following characteristics (

  • Is open-ended; that is, it typically will not have a single, final, and correct answer.
  • Is thought-provoking and intellectually engaging, often sparking discussion and debate.
  • Calls for higher-order thinking, such as analysis, inference, evaluation, prediction. It cannot be effectively answered by recall alone.
  • Points toward important, transferable ideas within (and sometimes across) disciplines.
  • Raises additional questions and sparks further inquiry.
  • Requires support and justification, not just an answer.
  • Recurs over time; that is, the question can and should be revisited again and again.
A concluding remark about all of this

An ideas-based art curriculum that engages students in exploration of the big questions of the humanities, including questions about the nature of art itself, reflects what artists do and have always done. The profession of art education now appears to be moving in this direction.

References for the above

Hamlin, J., & Fusaro , J. (2018). Contemporary strategies for creative and critical teaching in the 21st century. Art Education, 71(2), 8-15.

National Core Arts Standards: A conceptual framework for arts learning. (2014). National Coalition for Core Arts Standards.

Stewart, M. G. (2014). Enduring understandings, artistic processes, and the New Visual Arts Standards: A close-up consideration for curriculum planning. Art Education, 67(5), 6-11. 

McTighe, J., & Wiggins, G. (2011). Understanding by Design framework. ASCD.