Pat Klos | May 2013

Jumpstart Your Lessons with Artful Thinking

Jumpstart Your Lessons with Artful Thinking, Education ClosetTeaching with the Artful Thinking routines is my #1 go-to technique for engaging and motivating students to learn and for jumpstarting an arts integration lesson. Studies show that approximately 65% of our students are visual learners. Why not help students develop deeper understanding of the content by tapping into this phenomenon? You will not only bring lots of art into your classroom and get kids talking excitedly about it with each other.

But, you will also be teaching and practicing critical thinking skills students need for the 21st century.  The routines are easy to teach and are adaptable to any grade level classroom.  Plus, you really don’t have to know anything about the art to integrate them into your lessons (you can learn later)!  What could be better? 

Take a look at the painting* above.

What do you think is going on or might be happening in this picture? What do you see in the painting that makes you say that?  Or, imagine that the scene is part of a story. Is this painting telling the beginning, middle or the end of the story?  If you decide it is the middle of the story, then, what might have happened before this? What might happen after?  If it is the end of the story, what happened before?

These questions are examples of two Artful Thinking routines called “What Makes You Say That?” (a routine which asks students  to interpret and justify answers). And, “Beginning, Middle, End” (a routine asking students to imagine and to sequence). Artful Thinking routines are fourteen short, flexible and easy strategies developed by Project Zero, a renowned educational research group at Harvard University along with Traverse City, Michigan Schools.  They were designed to use art as the power for developing critical thinking skills and connecting students to the content. They do both beautifully and artfully!

When using the routines, students observe a piece of art (any teacher selected painting, sculpture, photo, or artifact). Then, respond to it by exploring, describing and connecting to what they see.  Incidentally, for auditory learners, the same routines apply to listening to a piece of music.  The routines are classified into categories of critical thinking skills Project Zero calls thinking dispositions.  Students might be asked to make interpretations and inferences with “I See/Hear, I Think, I Wonder”, provide evidence and reasoning with “Claim, Support, Question”,  or explore viewpoints with “Perceive, Know, Care About”, to name a few.

You will be amazed at how even your quietest students will respond automatically and freely to the art.

Art works as a conversation starter because the visual aspect of it inspires reactions in students. Students don’t have to know anything about the artist, the genre or the medium in order to connect to what they see in the art (either does the teacher—you just have to find a piece of art or music that connects to your content or gets kids to do the type of thinking you want them to practice). Art is a neutral territory for kids—they don’t worry about making mistakes because there are no incorrect answers.

Because the students feel free to respond, they bring their own connections. Along with, background knowledge to the discussion and respond more thoughtfully and easily. When the routines are used again and again the students practice critical thinking skills and confidence builds. This leads to creating critical thinking habits. You will see struggling and ELL students soar.  Your students will become better articulators, become more detailed observers and develop into better writers when you employ the routines.

You will also see your students develop deeper understanding of the content when it is linked to a piece of art:  it creates a visual peg and/or another way to connect to or build onto the concepts already known. It is brain based teaching at its best.  You will find that when you implement an Artful Thinking routine with a content connected art piece (such as a geometric Kandinsky abstract to show obtuse, isosceles or acute angles) as anticipatory sets, activities to build or assess background knowledge, in reflective processes or for formative assessments, your students will be drawn into your lesson with more enthusiasm and greater understanding.

Try it out for yourself!

You can find the full array of routines with detailed descriptions for and how to use them at the Artful Thinking website: or check out my Artful Thinking “cheat sheet” at Edutopia:’lresource-artfulthinkingroutines.pdf 

*Painting:  “Surprised by the Storm” (1887) by Ferdinand Hodler

About the Author

Pat is an arts integration specialist in Anne Arundel County, MD. Having been a mentor teacher and instructional coach, she passionately believes that integrating the arts is the best approach to teaching: it enriches the classroom environment with art, engages students and motivates learning. Her mission is help all teachers realize that they can teach through the arts with a little know-how. Pat appears every Monday. Email Pat.