How to Push Students Beyond Their First Ideas

Creative thinking is an essential skill for successful art students to develop. It’s also a very teachable one if you approach it in the right way. Concept development is a way to start challenging your kids to think outside the box. It is both integral to the final product and also a common place students get stuck. All too often students rush to come up with an idea that will meet the criteria of the assignment and stop there.

Here are three tips to encourage students to examine multiple possibilities.

student brainstorming

1. Active Note Taking

I love it when my high school students doodle while I’m talking. When I introduce a new project, I actually encourage doodling, though I also accept ideas in written form. I always share a few different examples of ways to approach a theme or topic. As I discuss them, I ask students to sketch ideas or take notes. This way, when I’m done with my introduction, each student has multiple ideas recorded. You might even want to teach visual note taking as a specific strategy students can use.

2. Group Brainstorming

The power of group thinking is one of my favorite teaching strategies. One of the best ways to use it is in the idea generation phase of projects. I do it this way: after an assignment is introduced, I put kids in groups and give them five minutes to come up with 20 ideas. I encourage them to write down everything they think of. In fact, I sometimes have them focus on ideas that could never really work. After lists are made and time is up, each group shares with the class. This really gets students thinking because they are exposed to so many different points of view.

students working in a group

3. Questioning

As students develop ideas for artwork, I make sure to talk to them as much as possible. I encourage them to consider multiple solutions by asking guiding questions. Often, I’ll run into the issue of students who are considering trite imagery. It’s important to address this in a way that points out the issue in a positive and helpful way. I might say, “I notice your image is something I’ve seen before. What do you like about this image?” From there, we can work together to examine other avenues for expression.

Of course, the characteristics of the assignments can make or break your attempts at encouraging kids to think creatively. To prompt exciting ideas, your assignments need to be open to multiple interpretations and not tied to trite, overdone imagery. Working with themes is one way to accomplish this. I like to use words that have more than one interpretation to get my students thinking.

In the end, not matter how you do it, it’s essential  to plan lessons requiring our kids to think and generate multiple solutions. This teaches creative thinking, a skill that will serve students well no matter what career path they follow.

How do you get students to think beyond their first ideas?

Do you have any other tips to share?

Melissa Purtee

Melissa teaches at Apex High School in North Carolina and is the author of The Open Art Room. She’s passionate about supporting diversity, student choice, and facilitating authentic expression.


  • Leo Barthelmess

    I too love active note taking as it is the only way I can take notes or stay focused in meetings.My favorite strategy now is having the students create the class discussions for each assignment. Before the first day of each new unit, I assign homework for students to read, watch and think about the assignment and after ingesting the information I have them write 3 questions that came to mind. These 3 questions (x30) help move the class discussion the next day and help students develop ideas and a better understanding of the topic.

    • What a cool way to initiate deep thinking and collaboration!

  • Mel

    I require my upper elementary students (3rd-5th) to complete at least four thumbnail sketches of ideas prior to most projects. I don’t have time to conference with most of them concerning which is their most successful though.. how do I help them choose? Or is it enough that I am just getting them beyond their first idea? We discuss composition through the lens of the elements of art, but never seem to have time to analyze the principals that really make something successful. (I only teach at each school for one year, then they move me to a new one in the district.. it’s a stipulation of the grant).

  • Rachelle Kaufman

    I have my students revisit the same piece the next week and use a different medium like markers on a collage to add “details.” I find I have to watch k – 3 grades to make sure they don’t go too far by questioning why they are applying those details so they don’t dislike what they create.