Rocks vs. Sucks: Follow-the-Teacher Lessons

Hey AOE Readers! We’ve noticed something interesting about the art ed world. For a group of individuals with a common goal, it’s amazing how different we really are. There are so many passionate opinions about how to deliver the best possible art education to our students. That’s why, we’re introducing a new feature for you today.

Welcome to “Rocks vs. Sucks,” articles where you can sound off on some of the most controversial topics in art ed. Over the next few Mondays, we’ll explore the ins and outs of four complicated subjects. We’re hoping that through meaningful discussion you’ll be able to refine your own thoughts about the trickiest topics in art ed.

Please note that we’re aiming to keep the discussion educated and free of judgement. We’d ask you to remember to disagree with ideas, not people! For each article, let us know if you think it “Rocks” or “Sucks” and why in the comments section. Let’s get started!

Rocks vs. Sucks #1: Follow-the-Teacher Lessons

Rocks vs. Sucks 1
Perhaps nothing incites more discussion than Follow-the-Teacher Lessons. You know what I mean. The bulletin board is full of 27 drawings of cats that all look the same. They may be different colors, some may have stripes and some may have spots, but they obviously came from a lesson where students were told, “Draw a circle for the head. Then add two triangles for the ears. Add a kidney bean shape for the body…and on and on.”

Let’s Discuss



Follow the Teacher Lessons ROCK. Sometimes students have a hard time getting started on a project. By giving them a scripted drawing to follow along with, they become empowered artists! It is so fun to see a student exclaim, “Wow! I never thought I could draw a castle, but I can!” Follow-the-Teacher Lessons are essential to student success and often catapult students into willingly taking more risks and doing more drawing on their own.


Follow-the-Teacher Lessons SUCK. Using Follow-the-Teacher Lessons kills students’ creativity. They are boring for both the students and the teacher. The finished products may look nice, but don’t reflect true ability or skill. If you assess a Follow-the-Teacher Lesson, you are only assessing how well a student can follow directions, nothing else. These have no place in an art room!

So, what do you think!? Do Follow-the-Teacher Lessons ROCK or SUCK? Let us know in the comments below. Please remember to keep it professional!


Amanda Heyn

Amanda is the Senior Editor at AOE. She has a background in teaching elementary art and enjoys working to bring the best ideas from the world of art ed to the magazine each day. 


  • Becky Martin-Meissner

    I think it depends what you intent is. If you are teaching perspective for the first time to elementary ages children, then guided for the first bit would be beneficial. Some skills need practice in order to get understanding before the student can utilize them in art. However, if that is a teacher’s main method of teaching their projects and art problems, then yes, it does defeat a lot of the purposes that we teach art.

    • Joan

      Agree 100%.

    • Great point, Becky. Intent does play a huge role. Perspective is a great example.

  • Carolyn Ibarra

    It rocks within a well-balanced variety of art lessons. Most music students learn how to read and play music by learning how to play songs other composers wrote. Many manual-based processes are learned that way. Eventually, with enough practice, they compose their own music. I really started learning how to draw when I tried to copy pictures I liked. Copying is the start of a skill building continuum. Once kids feel confident they start to experiment. Anyways, a teacher can show his or her way and encourage students to think about different ways they could make their shapes and lines if they are wanting to.

    • GG

      I completely agree. In days when there used to be apprentices for everything, that was how you learned. Eventually you have the basis to create on your own. When my daughter learns how to draw a new animal she draws it over and over and it morphs into her own drawing personality. Young students need the tools to feel confident on the next step.

      • Interesting point about apprenticeship, GG!

      • Michelle

        I think the problem comes when students feel like they never get to the “create on your own” in their school studio environment.

  • Sarah Ritter

    I agree with the earlier responses. I always preface these lessons with “I’m going to show you one way to draw this…” It is up to the student/artist to choose if they want to draw using their own technique. I emphasize skills that will carry over to drawing anything and encourage the use of the techniques I’m using for the lesson. For example, beginning with a shape we see. Size is often an important element that I build in as a requirement too.

  • Mary

    Follow the Teacher is a great tool to help students hone their observational skills. It is important to explain to the students why they are following you and sharing references to concrete images. For example: Post a picture of a horse and discuss the shapes that make up the body. Then use those shapes in follow the teacher to help all students achieve a recognizable horse. A few trials and they will be able to see the shapes in other objects and be more confident in their drawing ability. The zen of seeing…

  • Robby Sherry

    Follow-the-teacher lessons ROCK at the elementary and beginner levels but should try to be phased out. This would help students first get an understanding of basic knowledge but the let them explore and expand based on previous knowledge. Even inside follow-the-teacher lessons students still have to make their own choice to follow. In my experience if the student decides to try something different I allow it. But if they fail then they can allway refer to the teacher’s example.

  • Natasha

    These are thoughtful answers. I agree on the teaching for perspective, it’s hard enough to do as it is! The other one I did for years and years is drawing a tree. I started by explaining that trees DO grow following a formula (fractals), but then events modify the growth. My own teacher taught us in 4th grade, with the black silhouette, but never showed us how to add leaves! I showed a few techniques for leaves and emphasized observation. Over the years, kids would bring in huge poster-sized trees they drew on their own. The face as well follows a formula and again, has many variations if you look carefully. I hated seeing “self portraits” that simply follow the formula. Even my first graders blended layers of crayon tones to match their skin! I see that with a lot of teachers, what a great opportunity to understand diverse skin tones, but also to learn that browns are made from the 3 primaries, and hundreds of browns can be made by the balance of the three.

  • Natasha

    Tony dePaola’s “The Art Lesson” takes a little jab at art teaching by copying the teacher.

    • Owl

      Teaching the creative process is the most important concept we should teach our budding art students. We teach them that it’s OK to copy nature and other artists in order to see what most people cannot see. Artists are searching for truths and in this imperfect world it can only exist in our minds eye. There is no right way or wrong way to be creative and in the end it has to be your own way with a flair of rebellion against those who glorify themselves.

  • Mrs.C

    It depends on how you are using directed drawing lessons… they rock for teaching younger students how to “look” and use their spacial thinking, but every opportunity should be given in the lesson for the students to add their own creativity and individual ideas to their piece.

  • Jeff Lahr

    It is a helpful tool. After I have gone through a lesson with them,I have students use the skill that they have just learned and use it to create an original piece of art.
    PS I also teach my students to avoid using the word “suck”.

  • Tom Sarradet

    I use an Elmo document camera to teach my middle school students the basics of the medium that we are studying. I set up a still life in the middle of the class and I give the students the option of copying me or using their own perspective. This allows me to face my students and observe their progress while they can see the still life, me, and my artwork projected behind me. If a student has a question, I can easily zoom into an area and demonstrate not only to that student, but to the whole class. I have relaxing music playing and I constantly talk to the students about what I am doing and why. I tell them what art principles and elements I am incorporating into the art. For their personal creativity, I have them do one independent art every week using the medium and subject of their choice.

  • Sarah

    Middle school teacher here- I like to use demonstration for how to use a material- layers in watercolor, blending in pastels, etc. But we do that practice in their sketchbooks, not on their work. The other main things i demonstrate are faces, figure drawing, and perspective. Those are tough topics and there is a big ability jump between what they have tried before in elementary and what they can now do in middle so this reteaching is helpful. Just about every project, after we practice those skills, involve personal individual practice and topic choice. Everybody draw van gogh’s sunflowers for example, make me crazy. Why can’t everybody draw whatever flowers they want?

    • So true, Sarah. Why CAN’T everyone just draw whatever flowers they want!? I like that way of thinking- practice the skills then let them go!

  • Beth Townsend

    When I teach drawing lessons to elementary children, I like to take the mystique out of drawing by announcing that drawing is simply lines and shapes.
    I don’t know how many times I hear people say, “Ican’t draw!” or “I’m no good at drawing!” I think showing kids the basics of drawing, whether it is with Follow
    the Teacher lessons or with all those handy How to Draw books can be a good
    thing, to break drawing down to the simplest form so kids can experience success in drawing. For instance, how many times, when you’ve asked kids to draw a person, do you run into stick drawings? I liketo show kids how to take a stick person and turn it into a person with some sort of dimension by at least adding 3 more lines to the stick legs, arms, hips, so they become rectangles. Of course I don’t stop there, but show how, when those sharp edges become curves, it makes for a more realistic-looking person. I don’t see anything wrong with demo-ing how something can be done. In drawing exercises, from the get-go, lessons are about mimicking and practicing all the different lines the
    instructor shows the student. Sometimes a fluid line just happens—I remember one of my second graders won the State children’s quarter contest (for his age group) by simply drawing a fluid fishing line. He didn’t practice it for
    hours—It just happened! But, it was that one stroke of a kid casting a fishing line that caught your eye. However, most of us find fluidity through lots of “boring” repetition and practice—until something once mimicked becomes
    natural and our own.

  • Victoria

    I think it depends on the group: age, ability,etc. We art teachers need to be tuned in with the different characteristics of our classes. Some might need to begin with the teacher controlled idea, but this can blossom into their own creations. Many artists and musicians begin their career copying the work of others, then eventually begin creating their own pieces. I read a book about Paul McCartney, and that is how he started out: copying other musicians. But some students need to be given the freedom to do their own thing. I don’t think the answer is cut and dry.

    • Such a great point about reading individual class needs. Thanks for sharing!

  • Tobie

    It rocks! I teach at a private school pre-k-8th. It really motivates younger children helps them realize every thing is broken down into lines and shapes. The older kids enjoy a handout to follow along on their own, it helps build up their eye so in later projects I can give them a colored photo and they can draw it. The projects always end up looking different because they color or paint it their way.

  • K Hyman

    There is a place for follow the teacher lessons. I think they are very beneficial to beginning students, PK – 2nd, where you are trying to teach them to see things and develop an artistic eye. They break down the drawing process into easy to draw shapes and encourage students to try when they might otherwise feel overwhelmed.

  • Sheri MacMillan

    I don’t think it’s an either/ or issue. There is merit in both. I find that children in the younger grades, especially those who are frustrated or struggling, sometimes gain confidence in guided drawing. I don’t use this method on a regular basis but when I do, I guide them in a very general way just to get them started. Those who are already confident, simply take off on their own. The others follow suit. And they all end up with finished pieces that uniquely represent them.

    By the way, I love the idea of reading different points of view on topics regarding art ed. Just one suggestion though. If we’re seriously committed to keeping it professional, then the term “sucks” should be changed to something more appropriate.

    • Angela Rago

      Hi Sheri, “Finished pieces that uniquely represent them” is a great outcome for everyone! I agree that an approach “to get them started” is sometimes needed to get things going. I also agree that we teachers can find some better words.

  • Ms. Cooper

    Perfect timing. I’m struggling with implementing our district’s recommendations on how to teach the new standards. With the focus of TAB Choice teaching methods, I’m concerned that our students will not be given the foundational drawing lessons they need to learn how to create a drawing. “Seeing” is the first step. I’ve always stressed “look” for the lines and shapes and then put them together. Go back and build on the shapes by adding more information like how to describe the surface, add details, pattern, imaginary color, or contrast. Make it your own. Some students will go back to drawing rainbows and hearts but others will try something more challenging. I think that guided drawing lessons ROCK before “free-draw”.

    • Tami Eveslage

      The question is appropriate for me as well, as I plan to implement a choice-based art program for the first time this coming school year. As the one and only art teacher in a small parochial school, this is a choice I have made. I have had great success for the most part using “follow the teacher” art lessons with my younger students. I think the point has been made that they offer a chance for success which gives students confidence. However, sometimes I notice that, while I say things like, “Art is all a grand experiment.” and “This is one way to draw a person.”, the teacher directed approach is so similar to that of their academic classes that I have a child or two in every class who will watch, and listen, and when the demo is finished, they will raise their hand for “help” before even touching the paper. I think this is because they are afraid they will get it “wrong”. Like you, I think that good observational drawing skills are building blocks for creative art. I am hoping that I can use the direct instruction time at the beginning of each TAB class to be able to teach this important skill. I also plan to create lots of visual reminders for students.

  • Ouch, that’s a thorny question! Developmentally, elementary aged kids, at least those up to 3rd grade, are looking for schemas to follow (and a teacher to imitate!). So, walking that fine line of helping can be tricky. As our school has been working with a curriculum specialist, my department has been wrestling with how we should develop and present lessons to our students. Each of us on the team have lessons such as this. As we talked together, it became obvious that students develop schemas to help them bridge the gap for when they are ready (needing?!) to be pushed to develop their own way of translating the world around them that more meets with their goals as they get older.

    For instance, my 4th graders wrestled this year with learning to see what a fish *REALLY* looked like and they needed to be “encouraged” to break from their traditional way of drawing a fish (i.e., oval with a triangle at the end). It was a hard fought battle, but many of them appreciated their end results more. My first graders just didn’t get it when we were doing landscapes and they needed a more schematic approach to help them draw elements of a landscape and, so, when I used this approach it scratched the right itch.

    In the final analysis, if kids are allowed to interpret a subject however they choose, then what will happen when they come to an age where they expect themselves to be able to draw what they see how they see it? Without some foundational nudges here and there, the whole art experience could become very frustrating for them. When I taught high school, I would have classes of 9th and 10th graders who drew like 3rd graders because they didn’t have any foundation on how to break an image down to the basics.

    Phew! Sorry for the long-winded response. :)

    • Lisa Duffy

      Very True! The high school students that were never encouraged to draw what they see after they learned that basic format still draw like elementary students. It is a fine line and i believe can be dealt with on an individual lesson, class and student.

  • Alia Tahvildaran

    I have to agree with Carolyn–she hit the nail on the head in that guided/scripted drawing has a place within learning visual art. Copying from great artwork was even a college-level exercise in my experiences as a student. I admit that I struggled with the thought of EVER introducing guided drawing into my elementary art curriculum…until I tried it this year! (BTW–I love AOE and these types of conversation starters and I blogged about this same topic at Stop by sometime and let me know what you think–I’m excited to be part of the blogging community as observer and now as participant!

  • Angela Rago

    My teaching experience with guided drawing and painting has been positive. One example is cardinals ( bird drawings) which we worked on as a group. The results are quite varied. Students had fun, were excited, and felt good because they all succeeded. One 4th grade student said “I can’t stop drawing cardinals!” Basically I had them break the bird into simple shapes. Now they have an idea of where to begin. Lots of creativity and different paths followed. I did this with both 1st grade as well as 4th. You can view the results on Artsonia- Rhodes School – River Grove, Il for this past school year. In the past I have shied away from taking this approach, thinking creativity might be compromised. Now I think this approach provides students with another tool with which to be creative and express themselves.

  • Debra Hetzel Hanson

    It rocks for elementary lessons! Not only does it give students more confidence, it teaches them a method. Yes, it would suck if that was the only kind of lesson, but it usually isn’t.

  • Annmarie

    ROCKS in elementary art! To avoid redundancy, I’ll just say ditto to what Carolyn Ibarra wrote. And there are lots of ways to incorporate student choice into this method of instruction. Assuming the secondary art student has had strong elementary art direction, I think the follow-along method starts to lose its rockstar status as students get older. They should eventually apply what they’ve learned (building blocks, techniques/styles/theories taught in elementary school) to create their own personal style, create an aesthetic, and solve problems. Great dialogue on a sometimes misunderstood topic! Thanks!

  • Mary Ellen

    It rocks! I use directed drawing to teach kids how to think like an artist. We look at an image to determine the lines and shapes that make up the image.. Before drawing a line, I identify the line and ask: Where does this line bump a line already drawn? Is it straight or curved? Long or short? Which direction does it go? etc. With 4th grade, we start the year using the Monart method of looking at an image and breaking it into dots, circles, lines, angled line and curved lines. We do duplication exercises before moving onto drawing from a photo. I have found students develop confidence and skills using directed drawing.

  • Sasilvio

    I like to give the students the “why?” of what we are doing first and show some art history visuals. The students are then asked to create sketches on their own based on the introduced concepts of the lesson. I do not show them a teacher example until this is done. This helps them keep their own original voice before they want to just copy “my way” of doing the project.

  • Jen

    I think they ROCK! Saying that, I think younger students need step by step instructions. I remember even feeling myself tense up when I was older and a professor would just release us on an art project. Sometime a little hand hold feeling comfortable and gets you started on the right foot. But with that it is so important to let the student add little tweaks to the project that maybe weren’t in the lesson plan. This let’s their creativity shine through!!

  • Artprojectgirl

    I can’t get past the S word! Lol You all know how I feel about this topic by now!

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  • Laura Pepera Wilson

    Rocks for elementary students. They feel so successful when following along and creating an image. Many artist study famous artworks and copy the technique or image to learn. We learn from each other.

  • Michelle

    Many of you are discussing what I think of as instruction (guided drawing), versus step-by-step recipe like projects that I thought of as I read Amanda’s post. In education there is a place for teaching kids ways of seeing, modeling artistic processes and techniques, and sharing tips and tricks you have learned from experience. Where I think the “sucks” comes in (or stinks if you prefer) is when students are discouraged from trying new methods that work for them or when the only type of making they are doing is following what another person has figured out for them. Does everyone have to create a vase of flowers in the center of the page modeled after the work of another artist (i.e. Van Gogh?) or are they taught how to observe something from life such as a plant or an animal, shown how to break down a complex form into simpler shapes (+other tips for drawing from observation) and then asked to use that skill to interpret an image or convey a message of their own design? When do we ask students to branch out beyond learning technical skill and start investing in their skills to think creatively and communicate their own ideas through visual images? Art in schools with professional artist educators should be about both, not just at the secondary level but also at the elementary level in developmentally appropriate doses.
    I found the poem “The Boy with the Red Flower and Green Stem” this summer and it made me stop to think about this very same issue. (you can read it here:

    A lot of this conversation makes me wonder if we don’t unintentionally teach students that the only art worth valuing is work that is representational. What is the balance between teaching observational drawing and expressive drawing at the elementary level?

    • Thanks for the thoughtful response, Michelle! I have to be honest, I was a bit shocked to see the overwhelming response to “rocks.” You’re right, I was talking more about those “cookie-cutter” lessons in the article. But, I love the direction this thread has taken. There are so many great points and interesting angles. Such a great point to ponder about valuing only representational work.

  • Bertie

    Do you guys think that in a school environment that tends to stress a “right” answer these types of prescriptive lessons make students feel that the steps they are shown by the teacher is the right answer and therefore makes them more fearful of trying it their own way? I feel that in the typical school atmosphere the follow-the-teacher lessons can stifle creative expression and willingness to take a risk.

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