Keep the Cookie Cutters in the Kitchen!

Cookie Cutter

I recently had an “adult art experience.”  A girlfriend and I attended a social painting class as a girl’s night out.  There was wine and paint and good conversation.  Sounds wonderful, right?  Well, it was fun to be a student again and I loved the atmosphere of the studio and the art materials (okay, and the wine), but…. something was missing.

Cookie Cutter Art Classes for Adults

What could possibly be wrong with that scenario, you ask?

The problem was the lesson.  This was, by far, the most “cookie cutter” art experience I have ever had in my life as a teacher or a student.  The teacher stood in the front of the class and told us what color, what brush, what brush stroke and even when to rinse our brushes.  Everyone’s project looked a tiny bit different at the end, but basically they were the same.  I felt absolutely no ownership or pride in my finished product.   I didn’t have to think or process or make any choices.

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I enjoyed myself and had a fun night with my girlfriend, but I didn’t learn anything new or leave feeling in any way inspired. This experience made me stop and think about my own instructional techniques, lessons and classroom environment.  I paid money and spent my time working on a project that I brought home and sadly put directly in the recycling bin.  The thought that my students might do the same with their artwork makes me cringe!  I couldn’t help but ask myself: Am I cultivating creativity?  Do my students demonstrate pride in their art work?  Are they thinking (maybe even sometimes failing) and learning something along the way?  Am I providing a meaningful art experience?  Are my students leaving my classroom inspired to create?

I know this is a debatable subject, but in my opinion there is no place for “cookie cutter” lessons in today’s art rooms!  Even basic skills and step-by-step techniques can be taught with an ounce of inspiration and a dash of problem-solving.

If you are looking for a fresh new approach and agree with me, AOE has a few new projects cooking.  Download AOE’s free lesson plans written by certified art teachers and brimming with creativity, problem-solving and 21st century skills.  Also, our newest class, Instructional Strategies will be premiering this summer jammed with ideas to keep you and your students inspired no matter the media.

What is your take on “cookie cutter” lessons?  Do they belong in the art room?

Have you heard of “Adult Social Painting Classes” before? Ever attended one?

PS. For another great conversation on this topic- Check out this article from Art Project Girl.

Heather Crockett

Heather is AOE’s Project Manager and an expert in differentiation, curriculum development, and assessment. She is a veteran teacher in the art room and at the graduate level.


  • I too, have experience a Social Painting class but it seems like I had a different feeling towards the entire experience. While I totally relate to how it was “cookie cutter” and that I would never approach my teaching with the same set up – I was appreciative of the atmosphere for adults created by the whole concept. When I went with a friend, we met a number of people who were painting or getting creative for the first time. As an art teacher, I asked them what was exciting about this experience – and it was simply that the cookie cutter approach allowed them to learn something for the first time without a lot of stress. One individual, a male from out of state, was having a blast and kept saying “I would never do this on my own, never!” It was fun to see people get creative for the first time. Of course, the wine was a plus.

    A big difference in my experience is that the instructor continually reminded us to make our own decisions – that if they wanted to play safe, they could follow along but if you wanted to paint something else – anything else, the sky was the limit and that we could ask for any colors we didn’t see. Of course, I took the second approach and went with whatever came to mind. The whole time, I was asking my neighbors questions and getting to know these people, that for the most part would not typically be found painting.

    Good experience aside, I totally agree that we can’t approach teaching with cookie cutters. Thankfully, I think art education has definitely begun the right journey into problem solving, creative thinking, etc. In fact, I think art educators are leaders in this kind of approach; far beyond many other areas. I love those successful lessons that end with students getting excited about their work (I just finished a photography unit with 8th graders who were extremely pumped up by the experience, especially how different everyone’s project was) – it is completely rewarding to know you got it “right”.

    • I agree it was a fun atmosphere and neat to see adults experiencing something totally outside their comfort zone. Sounds like your teacher really challenged you push the boundaries and create your own piece!


    Thanks for the conversation and link! I am really interested in this topic and am finding it more and more difficult to follow my own intuition as my class size burst at the seems and sometimes I’m just scrambling to find a chair for the new kid who just arrived. I’ve learned though since my proclamation of no cookie cutter art that creative freedom and learning can happen in the boundaries of almost any project as long as you link it to A. Personal experience B. imagination

    With a schedule that is as packed as our classes I actually need cookie cutter projects to maintain boundaries that are needed in this environment. I always start though with a question that engages the kids in a personal way and encourage kids Input and value their personal creativity. I really wish I could teach the way I used to when things (class sizes and budgets and schedules) were more realistic, but the recession in the city has taken it’s toll on all programs. We all go in everyday and do amazing things with our own time and money because we care so much. As long as we keep caring and challenging ourselves to maintain the dignity of personal expression

    • Artprojectgirl

      As long as we keep caring and challenging ourselves to maintain the dignity of personal expression we are bringing our best practices to the public school system. I think this conversation on creativity is starting to look very different depending WHERE you teach, which is why education is the social justice issue of our children’s lifetime.

      • Well said, ArtProjectGirl – I agree that sometimes the way things are run from above put many obstacles in our way. As long as you give it your all and know that students will benefit from whatever you can muster, you are a successful creative arts leader. My hat’s off to you because it sounds like you have challenges facing you every day.

  • Melissa

    I always *cringe* when I see pics on Facebook of the “awesome” painting “class” where everyone makes the same. Exact. Thing. I know my students need lessons that allow their own additional creativity despite any guidelines I may lay out.

  • C. Ibarra

    This cookie cutter art topic has been a source of much internal debate in my 4 years of teaching art. So much so that I am beginning to think it is no longer a useful one (at least for me). Art students are as diverse as art teaching philosophies; arguing that “cookie cutter” art ( a relative term) is bad is really just another cookie cutter mold for art teachers. Anytime we try to pigeonhole ourselves into a particular camp we close our minds off to new possibilities, and maybe to the needs of our students. Whenever I have tried more of a highly structured approach many students who feel less confidence in their art skills suddenly begin to see the possibilities. Students who are more confident like projects where they have the freedom to spread their wings. In essence, both types of projects are valid in a student’s personal art learning continuum. If we favor one project type over the other, we end up favoring one type of student over another. Why not strive for balance?

    One way of looking at it that has helped me come to some internal conclusion is to think of music students. Does a child learning piano for the first time get told to compose a musical piece right away? Of course not. They learn skills and techniques trying to emulate other piano players and composers. When that student is ready, they will compose music and their personal style will shine through. I think it is the same with visual arts, and many other subject areas. Let’s help our individual students figure out where they are, where they want to be, and how they can get there.

    • I found your post very thought-provoking, thanks for weighing in! There seems to be a variety of ideas about what constitutes a “cookie cutter” lesson. I feel that a lesson can be structured and still integrate personal choice and creativity. In my opinion, a “cookie cutter” lesson means that all final projects end up looking more or less the same (which is what happened in my adult class). When the final product is pre-determined, it is easy to see who’s skills are still developing. Would it make the less confident student feel worse if his or her project didn’t turn out “right?” Food for thought.

    • lulu

      Music is a performing art. World class musicians perform works of Bach and Mozart. This is not the same as a visual artist being given a model to copy. Art instruction can have guidelines as well as a motivational discussion and or an interesting problem to solve. I’ve successfully encouraged insecure learning disabled students to explore their own solutions to problems by presenting appropriate challenges. Cookie cutter art is not art.

  • Jenn G

    I agree the cookie cutter adult classes are fun, but lame. The question begs to be asked, are people who attend these classes looking for a fun night out or to be creative? I hated the process personally, being told what to paint, where, when, with what color, but I’m a creative person to begin with. The people I went with would not have made a painting otherwise. Is cookie cutter art better then no art at all?

    • Jenn,

      That is a great question. I think some art is better than no art, but places like these might skew the perception to parents of what ‘art class’ in school is all about. Just an idea.

      • I never really thought about how parents’ perceptions might be skewed by this experience. Yikes!

  • MuralsByMassucci

    As an Artist and Muralist, I cannot see myself paying for a “cookie cutter” class of this nature. Why pay for something I can do myself? However, I do understand why some friends of mine have attended these events. They feel safe, uninhibited, and free to be creative. They do not view these situations as a “real” class. It is simply a place to relax and have fun. No one is there to critique and judge their work.

    As a teacher for a homeschool group (grades 1-12), I have mixed feelings about cookie cutter classes. As a general rule, I do believe they stifle creativity (my ‘artistic view’). However, if used appropriately (and in moderation), they can be helpful – especially for students that feel uninspired, non-creative or un-artistic (my ‘teacher view’).

    While individual lessons are usually taught from one angle or viewpoint, I always encourage students to use their own thoughts and ideas. I want them to think of different ways to utilize the materials they are provided. I want them to use THEIR creativity (not mine). For kids that get “stuck” and don’t know what to do, I can provide hints and starting points. Like many schools, my classes also need to stay on budget for materials, but that does not mean that the students creativity has to be limited as well.

    The times I utilize “cookie cutter” lessons, is usually with my youngest groups who need visual aids and support with basic skills (cutting, gluing, etc.). Having a lesson plan that can be followed or easily modified makes it less frustrating for first graders. The other thing to remember is that younger children are still learning (and need to learn) the basics: listening skills, following step-by-step directions, mastering cutting, gluing/pasting, painting, etc. They are learning about control – i.e.: how much glue is too little or too much. By having some lesson plans that are designed to be step-by-step (or cookie cutter), they can focus on these important skills that will be needed as they get older. It goes hand in hand with creativity. If a student is creative, but unable to cut and glue they way they want to, their frustration level becomes high and they would rather abandon the project all together. Technical skills and creativity must be taught simultaneously.

    The other time I find myself using cookie cutter lesson plans is with high school students. We will do a step-by-step “demo lesson” together. Afterwards, students will do a second project on their own. They will have free will to be creative and explore all the new techniques they learned. If a student is take an art class for the first time in high school, they tend to be more shy and nervous about their skills. They need more reassurance and cookie cutter demos allow them to have more confidence and a starting comfort level that they can jump off from.

    As an artist and teacher, I have taken many classes, read countless books, scoured the internet, worked in almost every medium and have the ability to pass my knowledge on to others. I surely look at “cookie cutter” as boring! But, I have to remember that my students are seeing much of this information for the first time. It is all new to them. Some are excited to jump in head first without looking. Others are not sure what the outcome will be and are cautious because they don’t want to make a mistake. As instructors, I feel our role is to lead and guide our students through the process to develop their skills and creativity.

    Bottom line: Know the personality and style of students you are teaching. Develop lesson plans that will best help THEM to feel comfortable in class, instill confidence in their artwork, and a result in a successful outcome.

    • I like the idea of using the “cookie cutter” approach as a modification. I also agree that one has to consider the essence of the lesson. Is this lesson about skill development? Following directions? Exploring materials? Or creative expression? Can a lesson on skill development or following directions still integrate creativity and choice?

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  • arlyart

    In our art circles we call these types of establishments “art entertainment” not art instruction. When put in that context, they are harmless and often help folks have a fun, relaxing night just playing with paint, socializing, and bringing home a memento. (The instructors are actually obligated at most places to make sure you are satisfied with your memento as well….or they have to help ‘fix it.’) gahhhh! I used to loathe the programs, but now, I just see them as fun entertainment and realize that it might be the only type of art experience lots of folks have these days. Sigh…

  • paul jose

    I am agree with the post Cookie cutters are really useful can be used in kitchens as well as in art .
    Wedding Cookie Cutters

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  • Beth Allison Young

    I totally believe in encouraging children to go with an idea and expand on it! In this age of everything- and I do mean everything- planned out for children, it is more important than ever to encourage creativity in the classroom. Because we as art teachers often feel that we must constantly promote ourselves and our programs, I think that a lot of us are afraid of how the results of this exploration will look. (We are afraid that we will look like we don’t know what we’re doing.)
    When children branch out with new ideas, they will have successful products, but often they will try and then fail. I think that it’s more important than ever to look past the results and embrace the problem solving skills that can be cultivated through a true process oriented program. This, however, is very hard to do for us since we are visual people.