Why It’s Ok for Creative Kids to Break the Rules

Did you know the founders of Google both went to a Montessori school growing up? They met in college, but quickly found they had a lot in common with the way they were brought up in terms of their schooling. They state this upbringing helped them both to think outside of the box, become self motivated, and learn that it was ok to break the rules sometimes.

I was thinking about students I’ve had in my classroom and I KNOW those kids!

Here’s the scenario:

You introduce a simple lesson on mask making and the objective is to make a face.  Then, a hand shoots up. UH. Even as the art teacher I am thinking, “What now?” from this particular student. They ask “Can mine be a dragon face instead of a human face? If I make a nose, can it be 3D instead of flat?”

One part of me wants to say “No- This is the lesson we are doing, and in a class of 30 I have no way to individually help you with all these wild ideas.”

But… Most of the time, against my better judgement, I’ve let students break the rules or parameters during art lesson in efforts to preserve creativity and individuality. I allow this when a student asks me first, and can show me they have a concrete plan to move forward with. I secretly like it when kids push boundaries with creativity. Alternatively, sometimes I’ve found a student who has come up with their own parameters for the art project in hindsight. I didn’t catch it during the lesson. Sometimes these end up being my favorite pieces and I pick them for the art show.

Am I a walking contradiction?

What about the kids who DO follow the rules? Perhaps these students had innovative ideas but didn’t carry them out because they didn’t want to get into trouble?  No fair, huh.

I know I wouldn’t make a good “choice based” art teacher, I’ve always craved the structure that a whole group lesson brings, however, I still value creativity and individuality. That’s why I work hard to design balanced lessons that bring a little bit of everything to the table.

The last thing we would want to do is stifle the creativity of “the next Steve Jobs” right?


How do you handle creative kids who want to change your lessons?
Do you give in, make a compromise, or stick to your guns?  


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Jessica Balsley

Jessica Balsley is the Founder and President at AOE. She is passionate about helping art teachers enhance their lives and careers through relevant professional development.


  • Rina_k6art

    Hi Jessica
    A large part of the answer to that question comes from the time frame project time frame. A student may want to do an elaborate detailed job that can’t be completed in the allotted time frame. I build in a couple of ‘catch up’ days each year so these kids can finish. Other times I tell students ‘I am going to teach it this way in class. You can use what you learn here to make it whatever way you want at home’. I also build in some wide open projects with really long time frames so that kids can truly do whatever they want. For example, kids can make whatever plaster mask they want, and whatever animal pinch pot they want. These yield amazing, unique projects, but I’m not going to lie – it is much harder to teach. 

    • I totally second your response. The time frame is a huge aspect on whether or not I say “yes.” I too struggle with wanting to let every student take the project in whatever direction he or she pleases, while balancing the fact that I only see my students for 50 minutes per week. 

      • It’s kind of a specific little issue that only an art teacher can understand, isn’t it?

        • Marilyn Peters

          Jessica and Amanda that is so true. I have more leeway since I see my students daily, even if it is only for 12 weeks per class, except AP which does run all year. There is no one else on any staff that really understands the kind of issues we have as a content, and I know because I taught general ed. elementary for 11 years. Life is very different for “specials”, especially art.

  • Ms Novak

    I totally get this!  I think it is an art teacher ‘issue’ – what a great issue to have though huh?  Our programs are all about asking questions and breaking from the mold.

    I generally try and create lessons that will allow students some of these choices to begin with.  If we are doing straight self portraits – we will do a 2nd silly self portrait to let them have green hair, a dog nose, two different colored eyes.  Or perhaps if we are doing a project  where I am focusing on their arms and legs being bent on their paper – they can choose where their people are, who their person is, what their person is doing — every once in a while I will get a kid that will do a robot instead of a person, but the expectation of the project is still met.  I will do my best to give the students as many options as possible to help them think outside the box while not having to worry about the ‘rule’ followers.


  • Wendy Gilbert

    I always frame my projects with “guidelines” not “rules” because “guidelines are simply a guide. I’m always ok with a student altering the guidelines as long as it’s going to take the project to the next level. Many times students want to alter the guidelines in order to do less. I’m never ok with that. There’s always that one kid who will say “I didn’t know we could do that.” 

  • Marilyn Peters

    I teach high school. With my general art first year students I dictate most of the materials during the first part of the class, but my studio lesson projects are open enough that student voice in their artwork can still be evident. When I get to teaching them about expressionism and a few other projects after teaching about various media I start letting them also choose the media they want to use to create. For their final I set up a still life and they have to do the still life, but they can choose perspective, media and style. I get nice results! When I am teaching a particular medium in any of my other many varied elective classes I do dictate the media. Then I usually give them some choice in the style or subject matter. When I am teaching a particular style or culture or subject matter they get more say in the media. In my AP classes students get lots of structured freedom if that makes sense. I have projects and media that only the AP students get to use, but each AP student is so different, plus I teach all 3 AP studio classes in conjunction with another class or at the very least all together. It is hard to dictate the entire lesson when one student is doing a drawing portfolio, another a 2D design portfolio and yet another is working on a 3D portfolio. And these students may be in the ceramics class–I know I am crazy for allowing them to multi-roster me in such a way, but if I didn’t my students wouldn’t get the art opportunities.

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