Do Students Need to Plan?

As a former project manager, I understand fully the importance of the phases of a project’s life cycle. These include initiation, planning, implementation and closing. These four phases translate very neatly into a model lesson plan. The teacher initiates the lesson by presenting the project and the desired outcome. The students plan out their ideas on paper and then implement their plans by creating final works of art. The closing phase can be anything from a class critique to entering the work in an exhibit.

Most teachers would agree that all these phases are important and necessary, especially the planning phase. This phase provides the student the opportunity to gather ideas and develop thumbnails. Many teachers even dictate the number of ideas the student should write down and subsequent number of thumbnails.


While teachers seemingly understand the value of planning, many students do not. Some students comply with the planning phase, writing their lists and drawing their thumbnails. However, there isn’t a teacher reading this that hasn’t heard  students complain asking why they have to write their ideas down as they already know what they want to do. The students’ resistance begs the question: Is there always a true value to planning? Is it possible that these students are right? Do all students always need to plan?

Many people are natural planners. I myself like to gather my thoughts on paper. I write lists and scribble down ideas that I later assemble into more concrete plans. However, this is a rather abstract method of thinking and many people are more hands on.

Hands on people don’t think on paper but rather think by doing. To ask these types of planners to write down their ideas is an exercise in futility. These type of planners need to physically hold the objects they will be working with. They need to experiment and play with the materials to see what results form. It is through this manipulation that a concrete planner develops ideas.

Furthermore, concrete planners may not prototype at all. They may move directly from the manipulation phase into the development phase, their experiment transforming into their final work.

It is still possible to capture the concrete planners’ idea on paper. To do this, give them time first to play with the materials, then have them go back afterwards and describe the process that led to the final product. Have them explain what they did with the materials, what worked and what did not. This method may provide even more insight into the planning phase of your students’ projects, even if they didn’t plan.

We’d love to know: What kind of planner are you? 

Do you have students plan out projects ahead of time or let them jump right in? 

Do you think there is value to the planning phase, or is it just wasted class time?




Ian Sands

This article was written by former AOE writer and choice-based art education expert, Ian Sands.


  • Lisa

    I do direct my high school students to plan with at least 4 thumbnail sketches. Even if they complain it still does cause them to broaden their thinking which is beneficial in stretching them beyond where they thought they could go. While a few students do go back to their original idea, more students expand or add to that idea and many students end up with a different idea they came up with. I also urge students to continue to make changes in a rough draft of their chosen idea then more changes in the final project. This covers the “plan” by doing method but really it’s not planning, it’s experimenting or editing.
    I have been letting my 4th and 5th graders jump right in after brainstorming and the results are disappointing. Starting this week I will direct these elementary students to make a preliminary sketch in hopes that they make the project with more thought and dedication to meaning and craftsmanship.

  • Paul

    Teaching 3rd, 4th 5th and 6th graders,I always encourage the students to plan their works. Depending on the students I modify the number of sketches / samples / thumbnails, but usually I expect around 3 ideas and then sometimes a draft culmination of the three. The emphasis is for the planning experience to be less painful and more generative, so for some students it might just be a one-to-one discussion.
    I do however sometimes wonder what it would be like to scrap the planning phase. What would the results be like? If one could time travel and repeat the experiment, I am sure it would be quite revealing.
    Our work is not an exact science and as such I am sure this is another of those areas we will continue to wrestle with.

  • Holly

    Having the students plan their work is extremely beneficial to me as a teacher. When I direct students to their sketchbooks to begin their planning, I usually ask them if their first idea is always their best. Planning helps me to see if students are understanding the concepts and addressing the assignment requirements before they get too far into the creation stage. If I need to clarify my expectations or find another way to explain the assignment, I want to do that as early on as I can. I prefer to keep frustration levels to a minimum and having students plan an assignment allows me to jump in and help them if I know they are biting off way more than they can chew or to push them further if I know they are capable of much more. I use student planning as a barometer of how well I explained and presented my information.

  • ElizT

    Planning is a step to the art process I normally like to employ,
    however, when students only have 1 hour per week for art at my school,
    sometimes planning hinders us from completing a project. We have often
    done a sloppy copy or dummy copy of a project first, but I have found
    that many times the first try at something turns out better than the
    second or final try!

    That’s why I sometimes have students
    use a good piece of paper for their drawing or painting at the planning
    stage, so if it does turn out better than what is supposed to be their final project, we can instead use their planning sheet.

  • Jayme

    I am a future art teacher, and I know how important planning is at a collegiate level, but what about in elementary school? I know many elementary art classes are under an hour. With demonstration, getting supplies ready, and cleaning them up, that does not leave much time to work on a project, let alone time for students to sketch. Even in high school art, one hour is not a ton of time to get things done.
    I do think planning is important, but how important is it in elementary school art rooms? Is it okay to leave planning out sometimes in middle-high school art? Or is it my job as an art teacher to instill planning as an important part of the artistic process, even if it takes up my precious lesson and work time for students!?

  • Bangone

    I am a student, I’m the type who just like to gathered my thoughts and just do it but I guess as you get older you tends to forget things easily. It’s probably be better to plan and write things down so you know what your plan is without missing any key information. I went through a lot of projects for school that I keep on forgetting to put in the main information because I didn’t write them down so I forgot what it was, until the project is completed and submitted.