Dip Your Toes Into Choice-Based Learning

Art teachers run their classrooms on a spectrum from total control to almost hands-off. Most of us find ourselves somewhere in between, but when choice-based learning is discussed we all have a definite stance. As a teacher who leans toward to the control end, letting students make the most of the choices in their learning makes me get all sweaty and nervous. I know the value of letting students direct their own learning, but the logistics can be a nightmare! Here a a few things to get you started without sending you to the nut house…

Start With a Theme
Give your students a starting point. Dragons, Impressionism, portraiture…whatever! Just give them a jumping off point so they can explore the topic or movement or genre in a way that challenges and engages them. Think about what kind of amazing show or display you can create with the resulting pieces!

Make a Menu
Choice-based doesn’t have to mean carte blanche. Rather than giving your students one medium to express themselves, start with offering three. I know what you are thinking, “I can’t possibly teach three techniques in one lesson, I don’t have that kind of time!” Try a workshop day where you have three stations where kids can explore the different mediums. If you have access to technology, set up a YouTube video showing how to use the materials. Bring older students or parent volunteers in to teach at the stations. Students will experience the materials and then make the right choice for themselves.

Set Common Expectations
Articulate common expectations around your over-arching objective. No matter their material choices, students should have to meet the same standardized objective.

Choice-based art learning and teaching can be scary for some of us! However, it can be just the thing to kickstart some of our most reluctant learners and a great way to differentiate instruction.

Where do you fall on the control to freedom spectrum?

Are you comfortable letting students take direction or would you prefer to set the parameters? 




Sarah Dougherty

My name is Sarah Dougherty, and I teach elementary art in a large urban district in central Iowa. I love working with our diverse population of K-5 students to bring art to their homes, communities, and everyday lives.


  • Beth

    I was a Choice-Based teacher for about 3-4 years…it was the most rewarding teaching I’ve ever done! I had never felt so passionate about my job before. It is a crazy idea to wrap your head around at first (everyone I told thought I was insane when I first contemplated trying it out)…but if you do the research, test it out a bit, and come up with a plan that will work for you and your students, it can be well worth the effort! I still have students coming back years later now to let me know how much they enjoyed art when they had me, and how much they miss being in a Choice Based classroom. (My current administration was not in favor of this way of teaching, so I did have to stop unfortunately….I miss it so much!!)

    • Beth, it is a shame you had to stop something that was so rewarding and productive for both yourself and your students. Is there some way that you could make a proposal to better educate your admins? Let me know if I can help support!

      • Beth

        I did have a proposal, and a lot of research backing up what I was doing and why…my principal very bluntly told me he didn’t care and wouldn’t look at what I had. He said we’d just have to disagree on the best way to teach art, but since he was the boss, I had to do what he said. Frustrating to say the least. I do still try and keep projects as open ended as possible….I’m slowly sneaking more and more choices back into my art room all the time! :)

        • It is unfortunate when our administrators don’t think of us as experts (or at least collaborators) when it comes to making instructional strategy decisions. I applaud you for forging ahead, making a compromise, and still working to keep choices available for your students. Brava!

        • Cynthia Gaub

          That is so sad that your Admin won’t even look at excellent researched based options that are proven to increase 21st century skills. It reminds me how thankful that I am for the super supportive admin that I have! Hang. In there and keep working in choice when you can.


  • Erica Carlson

    I adore the concept of TAB and when I hear other teachers are doing it well, they make it sound easy. I have read the books, looked through sites…I can’t figure out how to do this with my budget and the design of my room. These are 2 things I only have so much control over (and the later is more concerning to me). So, I have found a middle ground. I try not to be all bossy about art projects. I am always thinking and looking for lessons that are not like step 1, 2, 3…and yours looks like mine or it didn’t turn out. But, rather “these are ideas on where you can go with these criteria”. I wish I could mentor under someone doing TAB well. Because watching the way some children behave when they get their choice time, makes me feel like having an entire choice period could be a great chance to just sit around and talk.

    • I , myself, am trying to recover from a bossy condition. Mentoring opportunities when implementing something like TAB would be fabulous. I really think it comes down to logistics, and being able to watch a pro would be invaluable. Try the talking activity and see where it leads! I’d love to hear how it goes.a

    • Colleen Haley

      I really started researching TAB last year and came across it when I was trying to figure out some ways to get some of my reluctant middle schoolers engaged. I started following a TAB page on FB and just asked if there were any teachers that wouldn’t mind me coming to observe. I was able to observe a wonderful 6th grade art teacher that helped give me some pointers on ways I could make it work in my class. I have the same problems of budget and class set up and have made it work pretty successfully in my room this year. I teach k-8 in 2 urban schools and 1 of my classrooms is basically just a hallway (about 15 feet wide and 40 feet long with no storage and these huge folding tables and folding chairs which don’t allow for a lot of different seating arrangements). I use a lot of recycled supplies from a local recycling store where I am able to basically fill my car with random things a few times a year for a pretty low membership fee. As for the other supplies, I found that I’m not going through some stuff as quickly as I did other years since not everyone in the class is using them at the same time. I also wasn’t stressing to make sure I had enough for 25 students to be doing the project at the same time, so I was able to get a few new supplies to create a center where only a limited number of kids would be working at 1 time. For example I really wanted to get ink and bamboo brushes and mask molds since my students have expressed a lot of interest in them. Normally I would’ve had to order many sets in order for a class to do a lesson with them but since it would be a center I only ordered a couple and its now a center in my room. I plan on getting a couple of these kinds of supplies each year to continue to add more and more center options for my students. I think if you can find someone who has been doing TAB for a long time they could definitely give you some ideas on how to make it work even with a not ideal budget and classroom. I’m still in a transition phase and occasionally I will go back to a more teacher directed lesson but the work I see from the kids when they’re able to choose is so much more exciting, they’re so much more engaged and have much more pride in their work. At the end of last year I had a bunch of my middle schoolers just throw away their portfolios, the same kids are coming into the art room at every chance now to check on their work or talk about an idea they have or what they’re planning to do during the next class- it reminds me why I wanted to be an art teacher in the first place!

  • art4fun

    Slowly, over time, I have implemented what I call “framed choices” to my teaching. I am pretty sure as an elementary art teacher I will not be completely choice based. I started with small steps, allowing students to choose the color of background paper. Now my students have much more freedom to make choices about what and how they meet the objectives of the lessons. My fears about chaos have not been met. Both my students and I have become better critical thinkers.

    • I completely agree with your baby steps approach, and I love the phrase “framed choices”! Everybody can get onboard with that! Critical thinking is what it is all about. Thanks for sharing!

  • artteach91

    I became fairly passionate about learning more about choice based art class… I teach k-3… and really wanted to implement this with the older grades… soooo I took baby steps… I did a guided drawing of the Mayflower and then have them the option of using whatever medium they wanted… I ever introduced cloth, yarn and mixed media techniques ( all of which were new to my little artists). Some really challenged themselves with the new mediums and some used what they were comfortable with… many successes!.. Will try this again… but giving the guided drawing have them a confident starting point! Perhaps I will eventually try giving up total control…

    • Christy, I totally agree with your thoughts about giving kids choices. It really does help build confidence. They sort of differentiate their won instruction. Once they’ve experienced choice based learning, we can start to encourage them to challenge themselves more and more, just as we do when trying new strategies. Baby steps all around! Thanks for sharing and keep us posted about your gradual release!

  • Katherine Douglas

    This is a great discussion. We like to say that TAB, or Teaching for Artistic Behavior, offers choice for teachers too! If you are interested in our resources, there is a long list here:


    I would be happy to correspond with interested people. Twoducks@aol.com
    Kathy Douglas

  • Nancy Merrifield

    I’m excited and intrigued about this way of teaching! Just came across the info for the first time while looking at classes through MassArt! As a kid I hated having to do exactly the same art project as my classmates… and while I am a pretty structured teacher, I want kids to be excited about what they’re doing. This might provide the balance.

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