Rule Breaker or Creative Genius? The Talented (yet Terrible) Art Student

There is an image making the virtual rounds of a group of children having just finished an art class. In the photo, each student is proudly displaying a painting depicting an image of the snowman Olaf from the movie Frozen. Each student except for one little boy in the front row. Instead of Olaf, his canvas is a wash of muddy grays. The caption beneath reads, “Nailed it!”.




Of course, this image is meant to be humorous. As art teachers, we can relate. Most, if not all, of us have had experiences with students who just want to do their own thing. Sometimes, these students don’t follow the lesson because they haven’t reached the same skill level as their peers. Other times, you may have perfectly capable (or even extremely talented) students that choose not to follow along. They could absolutely do the assignment…they just don’t.


So, what do we do with the student who is a wonderful artist but a terrible student?


Defining Terrible

There are different degrees of ‘terrible’. Perhaps the most common type of ‘terrible’ is the student who listens and pays attention to the teacher’s directions, but then bends the rules of the project to meet his or her own needs. In this situation, the teacher’s reaction can range from slightly annoyed to completely fuming depending on how far the student has strayed. On the other end of the ‘terrible’ spectrum are the students who flat out refuse to follow any directions. Even on the rare occasion when these types of students pay attention, they never follow the lesson. Instead, they create their own things, which just so happen to look amazing.


Reacting Through Grading

An obvious reaction to the talented, yet terrible, students is to penalize them during the grading process. Clearly, if students are not doing what they are told, their rebellion should be reflected in their grades. Subsequently, students should not be rewarded for not following the lesson.  However, it can be a difficult personal decision to give a reduced grade to a talented student. Especially if the student has completed exceptional work, albeit not the assigned work. Furthermore, if the goal of the reduced grade is to correct the behavior, there is little chance of it being effective. This type of student is likely not motivated by grading practices.


Fight The Difference, Encourage The Difference

For what looks like yin and yang, these opposites will never strike a balance. Fighting the difference is like drawing the proverbial line in the sand. Your assignment was designed with a purpose, and just because the student can draw like no other, doesn’t mean he or she doesn’t have to follow the project’s guidelines. However, even though it is possible to deliver consequences to steer the student into submission, the resulting artwork will likely not be up to your expectations or the student’s ability level. Like grading, fighting the difference might initially seem like a win but will result in a net loss overall.

If fighting the difference is a battle, encouraging the difference will feel like surrender. When left to their own devices, these students produce amazing results. By encouraging them to proceed with their own plans, they will continue to make great art. However, is making great art all that we teach? Shouldn’t students first and foremost be “students” which includes learning to follow instructions? Then again, following instructions for the sake of following instructions isn’t learning. It’s compliance. We have to consider if our reasoning for not encouraging students to work on their own art is based on a desire for a certain level of control as opposed to educational objectives.


Examine Your Objectives

Before resorting to any of the aforementioned reactions, it might behoove us to examine our objectives. It is possible that the talented, yet terrible, student, while seemly taking the lesson in his or her own direction, might in fact be meeting our objectives. Not necessarily the micro objectives built into the daily project, but rather the overarching goals we hope our students achieve as a result of taking our class. We may realize that even though it doesn’t seem evident within the singular project that our student is hitting our targets, at the end of the course we may look at his or her portfolio of work and declare, “Nailed it!”.

{image source}


Which reactions have you experienced dealing with the talented, yet terrible, students?

How have you handled these situations in your classes?


Ian Sands

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


  • Phyllis Bloxson

    This has to be one of the hardest things we do. Thankfully my school doesn’t give letter grades for the related arts. I used to think that it was needed but after sixteen years of teaching art I have found that it really frees the students up to create more readily. If the objectives are met but the student work is not in total compliance I still recognize it just in a different way, Being different is not a bad thing after all aren’t we as art teachers DIFFERENT from our peers! I also make sure to give those students the opportunity to freely create.

  • Ms. C

    Okay, so using that particular photo was an interesting call. I know it was to make a point, but if any “art” teachers out there are having students paint Olaf, or any other copywrited character for a lesson, God help you.
    I think an added discussion to help identify out of the box/beyond the lesson thinking and producing, is INTENTION. Even an elementary school student can tell you their intention. And every critique or assessment, at every level, which is hopefully a varied combination of self, peer and teacher led, needs to include a discussion of intention. Look at your rubrics. What are you asking of the student? Are they well aware of what that is? If their product does not reflect ANY of the criteria, what was their intention? (If it was to let you know that copying Olaf is an insulting lesson, good!!!) Hopefully, you have a self reflective piece in your assessments and that could help tremendously.
    Only once, in 34 years of teaching, did I have a student not at least try some aspect of the lesson. The student was alternative in every thing he did, and art class was just one more territory to conquer. He was well versed and exposed (even as a middle schooler) to all genres of art. His rather haphazard sculpture, that he wrote “eat at Joes” all over, was a mess, yet he was able to tell me exactly what his intention was, and yes, it included how he chose not to do a non objective wood sculpture but instead to make comment about art and decay in society or some such…….OMG I don’t even remember, but it was the best art b.s. I have ever heard (and now I teach AP so I hear a lot) and for that alone, I swear he was ready for grad school.
    Looking at the end product will always leave us with questions; questions best answered by the student. This is why grades are the most challenging/hated aspect of our profession, and why they always should be. Where is this kid coming from…..what went into this? What’s behind this? There are really no terrible artists, just those coming from a background of intentions.

  • Lynne Barker

    I do have a 5th grade student who always goes outside the box and creates something completely different than what I have instructed them to do. For instance, when the class made clay owls from pinch pots,she made a cat with a bow on top of it’s head. Then when they were instructed to make snowmen or polar bears with white sculpey clay (no need to get the paints out afterwards) she made an abstract figure of a robed woman kneeling down holding a baby. I had a hard time getting frustrated because she had so much confidence and creativity going on. My purpose was to give them the experience of using the materials and discovering their added creativity. So she was graded on use of materials and tools, creating a form that was constructed properly instead of creating “the specific form that I originally instructed them to do.” I have found over the years, if I don’t choose a specific subject in clay, I will get tacos, volcanos and hershey kisses! I just consider this differentiation in the classroom, which we are all told to do since every child learns differently. I also feel in our classrooms, we have to be careful about rejecting student work since it will have such a huge negative impact on their confidence to create. I hear stories from students all the time about how past art teachers have done that to them, and now they do not enjoy art.

    • Lisa

      The 5th grader sounds like a true artist AND she covered the objectives. Sounds like a win/win to me!

  • Cynthia Gaub

    I do have a few of these, but one in particular comes to mind. I usually totally encourage his out of the box thinking. But then I teach a modified choice theme based program. I do have grading requirements, so sometimes his out of the box thinking does impact him there. In the “the world would be a better place” theme this year, he did a well crafted, slightly disturbing painting that showed Nicholas Cage (heads only) in a variety of his movie roles. The grade was based on “Can someone viewing the art easily determine your message/theme?” Since his was not clear to others, I think it was “the world would be better if every movie had starred Nicolas Cage”, he recieved a lower grade on that part. Of course he is a kid not really concerned by grades. Unless a student is disrupting others, wasting supplies or ruining tools… I try to be flexible.

  • Jess Kate

    I have 2 5th grade students who are fabulous artists but often disrupt the class and do little work. Recently I decided to let them write me a proposal of what project they want to make instead of our current unit. They must be able to justify how their project will meet the objective of the unit the rest of the class is working on. Their behaviors have dramatically improved since they’re much more motivated to work.

    • Ms. C

      Differentiation at it’s best. Awesome. Super creative kids who are disruptive are usually bored. Great call.

  • Jessica Blumer

    This is a tough call! I despise grading art partly due to this. Some of the greatest artists and innovators were rebels. My projects are pretty open ended, and I allow them to branch out. If a student has a gray mess due to complete lack of effort, then that is reflected in their grade. If they have a gray mess, but they worked hard and are beaming with pride, then I support them. I think flexibility is my default mode when trying to decide how to handle certain things.

    In college, I had a teacher who handled my “failed assignments” in a very negative, confrontational. way. He very clearly wanted me to achieve his vision of what he thought I should be doing. I just couldn’t seem to do it. I never hated art so much in life. I actually quit making it for a couple years due to his classes. Students need to be challenged, I think we just need to adapt to fit their needs. There is a very fragile line that we walk as art teachers. We have to know when to push them, but as also know when to back off and let go of the control.

  • Jess G

    Using this photo also brings up the issue of copyright in that I know the parent of one of the kids in that photo and this photo was never meant to go viral or be posted on several websites. The parents didn’t give permission to have the photo published. In fact she was quite shocked to see her kids image in multiple places. As a former graphic designer who worked with students I always had to have a signed release by all parents of students under the age of 18. So many red flags went up when I saw the photo. Is this not a copywrite issue? I just wondered. I know copywrite issues become so muddied in the age of Facebook and memes. i think it’s a great article but I’m just curious about the legality of using an image that was meant only as a Facebook post by a parent.

  • E Gibbons

    The “real tragedy” is the use of a cookie cutter lesson where sameness is judged to be success….

    To be fair though, this does not look like a school setting, may be an “arty party” for some birthday in a private setting (Fixtures, floor, and hints in the image make me think it’s not at a school)

    As for the article, I appreciate looking at it from all the angles you do… one must be ready for the unexpected as a teacher. Looking inward as an educator is always a good idea.

  • ElizTownsend

    I think this is where a proper rubric for grading comes in handy. When I read about the mindsets of accomplished artists and the reasoning behind art theory, as well as the broad definition of art, I find it very odd that I would fail a student who struck out on their own on an art project. I can see the loss of some points on maybe, following directions, cooperation, or other specifics I’m looking for in the project, but there should probably also be a whole lot of room in my rubric for success. I may not give this student the top grade because they failed to meet all the criteria, but I certainly could still reward their attempt at making art. The instruction might come where I explain to them why they did not get a better grade. Maybe they’d eventually catch on to the usefulness of compliance. Trying to find a balance between encouraging students to follow instructions and not squelching their creativity is always a challenge. When I teach portrait drawing, I tell (especially the youngest) students they may draw faces however they like when they draw on their own, but for my unit during art class on portrait drawing, they need to follow my instructions to learn some common and accepted art theory, if they care to get the most points on their work.

  • Laura

    I have several students like this, and I always take it on a case by case basis. I have had students who just tell me flat out they “don’t want to do it”, and I flat out tell them that they honestly don’t have to do it, but the consequence for not even trying is getting a zero, and I ask them to think about it. That usually works. One girl, “Sam”, frequently wants to change her projects midway through…I believe because she doesn’t want to push herself…she could go farther in her art, honestly, if she wanted to. Instead of completing the watercolor and oil pastel artwork, she might want to only do watercolor, stating that the pastels are too much for her. I refuse to budge, and I will re-explain the purpose of the lesson, and encourage her to try something different. Another student, “Ellie”, who is very very talented, will follow the scope of the lesson but will always hesitantly ask if she can do X or Y…for instance, we did that line project (where it ends up looking 3-D, like worms, or Dr. Seuss) and instead of making hers across the paper she wanted to make hers round. So I sat with her and we figured it out, and it came out awesome. Finally, I have a student named “Ray” who while I am explaining a lesson will produce all these ideas before we even start and since he works so fast he can usually create more than one of whatever we are doing…his enthusiasm makes me happy. I might have him make the first artwork “my way”, and allow him another go at it “his way” for the second one, and later on we have looked at both finished projects, along with my rubric, and I asked him which one he wanted me to grade considering my criteria.

    Most students know that if they ask me to tweek a project, I will always consider it and meet them halfway at least, because I always say, “My goal is to get you to learn how to use the art materials correctly and teach you to express yourself with your art, and however you end up doing that, I’m happy”.

  • Laurissa Kovacs

    I teach 7th & 8th grade art. Our first lesson is an “All About Me” collage where they browse magazines looking for images and words that describe them. One student of mine decided to cut out bodies of animals and heads of humans then glue them together. He then shredded up pages making confetti and glued it onto the edges as a border. The end result was hilarious and I was laughing the whole time I graded, his “head-swap” technique was very precise! So once I started grading his I used the same rubric for every one else’s collages and after grading each criteria he ended up with a 65. I felt his super creative art wasn’t what I instructed him to do but it was so well done that I ended up giving him bonus points for creativity. So I gave him a 85 instead. He was happy with that :)

  • erica

    Every time I see this image, I wonder how the parents are feeling about this image being used everywhere. . . it seems like a problem waiting to happen with how much it is being used for profit. It is absolutely HILARIOUS though so maybe they are just loving their minute of fame, hopefully?

  • S Thames

    I used to be frustrated by this as well, but in the grown up
    art world those who do their own thing are the ones who are noticed and remembered.

    How could we try to make our most talented students create art just like everyone else when creativity and confidence in one’s ideas is one of our major goals?

    I have found that using rubrics that focus on the points that I
    want them to learn, rather than a specific subject allows them to be creative
    AND follow directions. For instance, the rubric might say that they had
    to create an landscape in a balanced composition and have a point of
    emphasis. If they choose to add robots in the landscape – fine.
    candy trees – fine. Surreal style – fine. If Kindergarten is
    drawing polar bears, I show them a short video of polar bears, demo one or two
    tricks to drawing them, provide ample photographs for them to reference, then
    let them loose to create the polar bear picture of their choice. One
    student will draw a large polar bear head, another a whole family sliding down
    a hill, and another (who really just wanted to draw a ship) will draw a small
    polar bear in the distance with a large ship full of explorers. Did they
    all draw polar bears? Yup. Did they all practice drawing things
    using shapes? Yup. My students seem to thrive like this and I look
    forward to each day and the possible creative surprises that they might create.

  • Lisa

    At the high school level if a student challenges the assignment objectives I will let him explain what he’d rather do and how it will achieve the goal. If it satisfies the goal then I OK it. If not then he has to stick to the objectives given. My students have felt that was fair.

    I just starting teaching 4th and 5th graders and have the occasional rebel there too. I had a 4th grader who decided to model a mushroom instead of making a slab, draping it over the hump mold and designing it with negative spaces and scored on attachments. She did not get “credit” for the mushroom because it didn’t satisfy the learning objectives.

    The elementary students are not used to being assessed in art class. Because they forget it counts as a grade they don’t bother to ask me if they can differentiate. Some kids just want to fall back on what they know instead of learning something new. Others are on fire for an idea they have. It’s important to know the difference and act accordingly to help students work to their potentials.

  • BossySnowAngel

    I had a student a few years back who wasn’t great at art. His drawing skills were rustic. His color sense was odd. His composition skills were rudimentary at best. But his work ethic was remarkable. He filled sketchbook after sketchbook and took every class my school offered. He was bright, and a good writer, so he got into SVA in New York where he sold his graphic novel and now he’s returned to teach high school art. Full circle.

  • Margaret A. Uhlig

    When it comes to the issue of grades, I always tell my students that my grades will never tell them if they are an artist. But I also tell them, that if they enjoy art and would like to work in an art related field they should be able to create within the simple constraints of our lessons. In fact, true creativity often meets constraints AND pushes the limits. I love when they can rise to the challenge and do both!

  • Elizabeth Oh

    Great topic! For those students who want to do their own thing and not the project, that’s okay. They just won’t receive the grade/points for the assignment. However, they can do the assignment and then what they want to do for extra credit. I encourage them to do that, and it’s worked out. However, the ones who absolutely refuse to do the assignment, no matter what, they lose out. As art teachers we do the best that we can with everyone.