Is Imitation Wrong?

3 Min Read  •  Inspiration

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to lead a professional development session for the art and music teachers in my district. I was tasked with sharing ways that arts teachers can make instructional shifts to better align with the common core. One of our activities sparked a great discussion between our art teachers and music teachers. And also discuss the concept of imitation.

After a few other activities, I shared David Coleman’s Guiding Principles for the Arts for grades K-12. Coleman was an author of the Common Core State Standards, and this document is meant to guide the development of arts curricula. Since it was a long document, we jigsawed the sections, dividing up our group so that a few people could read and share about each principle. After reading their assigned principle, teachers added to a Padlet to answer the following questions and later shared with the group.

  • Is there anything in common with our current standards? If so, what?
  • What looks different from our current standards?
  • What of this do you already do?
  • How might this affect your instruction?

Most teachers agreed with the principles, although there was some discussion of the barriers that held us back from actually following them. The one that sparked the liveliest discussion was this paragraph in principle number 5:

“Another way students can gradually build their mastery of the arts is through the practice of concept of imitation and applying what they have learned in their own work: taking a great work of art as a model, and trying to make something that looks or sounds like it. The concept of Imitation is an ancient technique. Students have always learned about painting, for example, by drawing or painting the paintings they study. They may not make new masterpieces, but with guidance they can reckon with the same challenges and choices that the artist faced.”

A high school art teacher read it, and immediately disagreed; saying that he did not think that good student art is accomplished through the concept of imitation of famous artists’ works. He explained that he doesn’t want his students to imitate. He puts all of his efforts into helping his students use their creativity to produce original artwork. A high school music teacher countered with the point that in music, they are constantly trying to imitate the great musicians because that is the highest level of excellence that can be achieved. Are art and music that different in this regard?

From a general education teacher perspective, recent professional learning has taught me that mentor texts are the best way to teach writing, yet in math, students should think flexibly and explore various ways to find an answer. So it is possible, I suppose, that the disciplines of art and music could have different viewpoints. However, in art, music, and writing, we are creating, so I think they must be more similar than different. It could also vary from elementary to high school, or from beginner to expert. A beginner may need to begin by looking at models and imitating before developing the comfort level to produce original work. As teachers, we naturally scaffold for our students. Is the concept of imitation not a part of scaffolding; guided practice, and gradual release?

Maybe it comes down to the vernacular. Austin Kleon, the author of Steal Like an Artist, has an applicable chart titled “Good Theft Vs. Bad Theft”. On it, “imitate” falls under bad theft, and “transform” replaces it under good theft. When learning, students do need to imitate at first. Once they have mastered the imitated technique and have a proper foundation, then they can begin to decide which rules to break or not to break, allowing them to be creative, original and eventually transforming their art form.

What are your thoughts on the concept of imitation?