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By Tempest NeuCollins
If we are mindful in the art projects we create or present to our kids, art is ideally set up to foster a growth mindset, which in turn will help our kids navigate through their life in a spirit of constant learning.
‘Growth mindset’ is a term which stems from the incredible research of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck. Dweck spent two decades researching both adults and children and how they interacted with the world and solved problems. She eventually defined two types of mindsets, ‘fixed’ and ‘growth’. A “fixed mindset” is one where the person assumes that his or her character, intelligence, and creative ability are static givens which can’t be changed in any meaningful way. A “growth mindset,” is one where the person thrives on challenge and sees failure not as evidence of unintelligence but as potential for growth.
From Dweck’s research, we know that these two mindsets are formed by our early interactions with parents and educators, and have implications throughout our entire lives, predicting not only how successful kids will be as they move, or don’t move, into higher education, but also their future success in careers, and even relationships.
I am relieved to note that Carol Dweck also found that a growth mindset is one that can be cultivated and taught; by being mindful of the activities and language we as educators use with kids, we can create an environment that instills in kids a passion for learning rather than a hunger for approval. Dweck found that using language focused on process and growth could alter how kids responded to difficult questions.
I first came across Carol Dweck’s ideas when I was an art teacher at a K-5 school in Brooklyn, and when I began embracing process over product in my classroom, saw powerful results. Ideally, the arts teach kids to be creative, curious, willing to experiment & explore; it teaches them to seek questions, and develop ideas. But, not all art assignments are created equal, and having ‘art time’ is not enough to foster these life-skills.
Search Pinterest for ‘art lesson’, and you’ll find many beautiful examples like the ones above. When I taught art at the elementary school, these were the type of projects expected. They provided an easy check-off of objectives and the results were simply assessed. And, frankly, they are pleasing to look at. However, with projects such as these kids are demonstrating little more than they can follow directions. It is setting them up to define success in whether or not their picture looks ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, and offers little opportunity to experiment, question, and grow.
My background is in studio art, and I immediately saw that my students were not engaged with projects such as these. By assigning projects that were effectively ‘follow-the-leader’ prompts, I found I didn’t know anything about their diverse backgrounds, ideas, or personalities. So, I began designing my own projects that would introduce ideas and concepts, but allow room for students to tell their own stories. The difference was remarkable. Suddenly, ALL the kids were engaged, not just the kids who were already inclined towards art. And this was because they had a safe place to explore their own ideas, tell their own stories, and yes, make and solve their own mistakes. Through these process-focused projects, my students began to recognize that there was more than one way to approach the problem and that every solution, when well executed, offers a unique perspective. As a result, they learned that instead of mistakes being a failure to replicate an ideal, they are opportunities to expand ideas and use the process as an opportunity to creatively problem solve.
Image examples from Doodles Academy, an online art curriculum that presents open-ended art projects
This assignment marked a sea-change in the way that I have since approached teaching art.
I eventually left teaching to stay at home with my daughter, and I founded an art-education non-profit called Doodles Academy. We create an art curriculum that is easy for any type of educator, with or without a background in the arts, to implement. One of our founding principles is to present projects that get kids excited around an idea or concept, but allows them to filter that idea through their own interests and present their own narrative. All the artworks in the example above are from the same project, but you can see the radically different ways kids approached it. In other words, we design our projects with a Growth Mindset in mind.
Regardless of whether you are using pre-designed projects or creating your own art projects, here are some simple ways to incorporate a growth mindset into your art curriculum:
- Educators should be a guide, not an expert. For example:
- An educator should never mark on a kid’s work, because it teaches them there is a right or a wrong way to do something. Instead, the educator can ask questions to get the kid to examine their own approach to the creative problem, or if a demonstration is necessary, demonstrate on a different piece of paper, ideally with more than one example so students can see multiple approaches.
- The educator should train themselves to stay away from pat phrases such as “I like it”, which emphasizes not only on the result but also a non-specific and objective viewpoint. Instead, the educator can offer the students concrete observations such as “I notice that you used red in the sky.” Then ask for the student’s input “What can you tell me about that?” This gives students the opportunity to reflect on their ideas and tell you about their creative thinking and problem-solving process.
- Choose projects that are open-ended. When we design a project, if we can picture the exact result we will get, it’s not a project we want to develop.
- Present the same material from multiple perspectives. With our projects, each lesson begins with a discussion, or journal prompt, of an thematically linked artwork. Students are prompted to make observations about artworks that that are grounded in evidence. Through the five-lesson project, students progressively built up their knowledge of a topic, theme, or culture, until they notice and find similar motifs across artworks, and understand them by pulling from their knowledge of prior artworks. You can replicate this simply by being mindful of presenting and engaging kids in discussion around multiple viewpoints and ways of approaching a problem.
- Take your time, and present new skills and concepts in bite-sized chunks that students can thoroughly explore. But continue to challenge kids by scaffolding skills and knowledge over the course of a project. By approaching the culmination of knowledge and skills in this way, kids aren’t overwhelmed with new information. They are able to build knowledge and skills in an environment where they feel ‘safe’ experimenting, but because of the conscious skill-building, it is still an intellectually rigorous environment to learn in.
Tempest NeuCollins has an MFA in studio arts from the School of Visual Arts in new York City. After receiving her degree she spent years working as a teaching artist in NYC, then transitioned into teaching art full time at a K-5 school in Brooklyn. In 2015 she founded an art-education non-profit called Doodles Academy. Doodles Academy works to close the opportunity gap by empowering educators to bring an impactful art curriculum to their students, regardless of their background in the arts, where, or what they teach.
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