Cookie Cutter Projects and The Truth About Originality in Art

Originality is integral to the value of art, but it’s hard to define and even tougher to teach. Part of the reason for this is the way our culture views original thinking like it’s a gift possessed by innovators who have mastered their craft. Many, including some art teachers, view it as something that can only be included in an art curriculum when students have progressed to the highest levels. Once they’ve learned the basics, we say, they can express their own ideas.

Unfortunately, many children never get to this point in art education. Their visual art instruction stops when it’s no longer a required class, often without ever having an opportunity to make work that is truly their own.

It’s possible to go through an art program without ever making original art, and that’s a shame.

The Effect on Students

When we have art programs that focus on the development of skills and techniques at the expense of teaching originality we sell our students short. Often, an art class works like this: the teacher plans the lesson and makes a model of the work to be created. They set out the materials then walk the students through each step. This model for teaching, so many of us use, teaches students to rely on us to make art, to follow steps we set.

hearts

Then, when we ask our students to come up with their own ideas they can’t because they haven’t learned how. Instead, many rely on the sort of trite imagery that makes art teachers pull their hair out: corner suns, hearts, and peace signs are a few examples. We shouldn’t blame them for falling back on these sort of images; we should look at it as a sign that we are failing to do something fundamental.

We shouldn’t blame them for falling back on these sort of images; we should look at it as a sign that we are failing to do something fundamental.

How Can We Foster Originality?

If we want students who are capable of original thinking we have to do three things: believe our students are capable of coming up with good ideas, teach them how to develop these ideas into finished works of art and let them practice doing this regularly.

All art programs need to directly teach creative thinking and independent decision making. Often we think we are doing this when in reality we aren’t, we’re simply adding “display-ability” to what could be an exercise dedicated to skill building. Learning a technique isn’t art, it’s the application of technique that is. Students are individuals, with different passions, preferences and a wide variety of ability levels. If a lesson produces work that is uniform or even all about the same interpretation of a topic it is not providing enough choice to really teach creativity.

Final Thoughts

cookies

Some derisively call these uniform sort of lessons “cookie cutter art” or “recipes” because they produce such similar work. This term can be offensive, but it can also be a starting point for the sort of reflection that makes us better teachers. It can cause us to think about the pressures art teachers are under to produce artwork for decoration.

Yes, displays are valuable and important, but should schools place more importance on what’s hanging up in the hall than what’s going on in students’ minds? This is a question we all have to find our own answers to and balance in our own way. For me, the truth about cookie cutter art is this; if the work produced looks so similar you can’t tell whose is whose without looking at the name on the back, then I wonder if making it is a valuable learning experience.

What do you think? Is there merit in cookie cutter type projects? 

How do you help your students create original work?

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.

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  • mary singer

    I think you could show some examples of your students ‘non-cookie cutter art’, and please include which ‘application of technique’ they have applied to it.

    • Tracy

      I would like to see examples as well but at th elementary level.

    • Lori Johnson

      Ditto these comments. I would love some examples of the “how” for elementary students. I appreciate your posts and completely agree with your thoughts, but I struggle to put this into practice, especially with younger elementary.

      • Ashley

        Younger elementary is the easiest place to begin offering more choice, they are fearless and excited in k-2. I manage it like this… we learn the primary colors, sing a song, sort scraps, find in the art room then I send them to their tables with supplies – at the beginning of the year it may just be ccrayons. As the year goes along and I teach collage, painting skills, then those supplies are offered as well for students to apply the art knowledge using their own subject matter.

    • The lessons that Amanda shared are great (especially for anyone interested in TAB). The tips in the link below are helpful as well. Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment!
      https://www.theartofed.com/2015/10/12/3-ways-to-teach-for-creativity-in-the-art-room/

    • Kristin Anson

      Hi Mary, I found that the easiest way to start embedding more choice into previously existing lessons is to start with the subject. So if you have a lesson that typically was a watercolor seascape, why not let the students decide what the subject is while incorporating all the watercolor techniques they should know. Once you allow kids to draw an underwater swimming Pikachu or a cupcake with scuba gear you’ll be amazed at not only how inventive they are but how much more engaged they are…and you are still getting at those watercolor skills. Further up the choice spectrum might be you building skills with multiple media and then letting the kids choose which media they will use (and explain why, great critical thinking) for their final pieces. I’ve blogged about my road to becoming more choice based at princessartypants.blogspot.com if you’re interested in checking it out. Good luck!

  • Kiara

    Agree with the previous commenter. I have a few art lessons that are 95% in the student’s control…but they are for my 5th and 6th graders. I need some ideas for younger students to build them up to that point.

  • Helen Snyder

    I began the year with the idea of doing TAB/ free choice gradually. Many students were not ready (neither was I) so we modified it semi-free choice (here are three materials for expression on this project). My older students were able to come up with ideas more readily 7 & 8 grade, I even let them work in teams.

  • Dawn Norris

    This year I am transitioning my students to choice. I recently introduced a unit on Architecture to my K-2 students. I had stations where the students could explore architecture through drawing, three dimensional sculpture and technology. We have been at this for a few weeks and it is exciting to see how the students have gone in many creative directions based on their interests and abilities.

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/548fa0de35e0dd7f376dd039465f7a2ada7185e3be9425d1d85656a0cdb2b220.jpg

  • Julie Bulissa Kohl

    You make some great points but my guess is that most who don’t teach creativity don’t because they don’t know how. It would be great if you could give some tips on HOW to do this rather than just tell us that we should.

  • Leo Barthelmess

    Cookie-cutter lessons can teach procedural ways to make art that can have value but without direction for creativity, the benefits of the lesson is very limited. There is always needs to be a balance between skill building and creativity. While no creativity and critical thinking is bad across subject matter and especially in the arts, minimal to no skill building can be worse. Skills empower students to create and make. With that knowledge comes exploration/play with confidence and understanding. Creativity needs to be fostered, cared for and grown. As a student experiences it it will grow along with their ability and expectations for creativity can be greater as they progress through their education. True creativity comes with knowledge and the ability to transcend that knowledge.

    • I agree, especially about exploration and play – they are essential.

  • B Lee

    What age group are you talking about? I find great value in guided drawing as young students begin to explore drawing, painting, what and how they look at things to create, etc. None of the drawings ever come out the same as each students understanding and application is a bit different. I am speaking of elementary level. We can’t expect students to do something if they have no starting point.
    I do see great value in individual creativity as they hone their skills and become more critical thinkers. In this modern day of art we are asked to think so much about the process it sometimes takes the enjoyment out of just creating art for the love of it.

    • I’m writing about all age groups. We have to teach creative thinking in addition to skills. There is room for both, in my opinion! Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment.

  • Connie Cummings

    Just wondering if you have taught elementary art? I completely agree that originality is KEY in the creative process. What I take issue with is your assumption that learning skills and techniques kills originality. Can’t you teach both? This is especially true in early elementary years where a student needs to learn skills in cutting, mixing colors, creating textures to make that big green, one-eyed, hairy monster in their imagination come to life.

    • Hi Connie! Yes, I spent eight years teaching elementary. I agree that teaching skills is essential, I just don’t think that type of instruction should be made into projects. Here is an example of a lesson that teaches color mixing through exploration. https://www.theartofed.com/lesson-plans/exploring-paint-free-lesson-plan-download/

      • Connie Cummings

        Thanks for the link. I look forward to trying and reading your other articles on TAB. I am on a cart with no time between classes so setting up centers is almost impossible. However, I am trying to introduce more and more choice into my lessons.

  • ian

    The cookies on the top of the page look delicious! Is it possible i could get the recipe?

    • Sure! Step 1: go to Food Lion. Step 2: Purchase bakery cookies. Step 3: Use photo shoot as an excuse to eat all of the cookies. *Based on my experience I’d recommend stopping at 3 cookies.

  • Shelly Berkowitz

    It’s my first year with all grades K-8 doing TAB (teaching for artistic behavior which is 99% choice). My students are 10x more engaged than last year with moderate choice cookie cutters. They go much more in depth, bring it further than I ever imagined, and create different ideas than I could ever dream of for them. I do bring in skill builders to introduce concepts, plus relevant, current, and local(when possible) artists. It’s been tough convincing administration sometimes, but other times, they love the independent professional development I’m researching to make everything run smoothly. Proof of learning is the hardest part, but everyone who experiences the working art studio environment is amazed at what everyone produces.

    • I noticed increased engagement when I switched as well! Thanks for sharing your experience!

  • Denise von Sternberg

    But I feel sometimes you have to start somewhere- with all the pressure to be accountable and show how you assess the children, it takes time and planning- I start with the basic “cookie cutter” ideas to build up the skills. Then I ask a question that they have to answer on their own, using those skills, but they use a rubric to check themselves (how I assess they have learned the skill.) They are encouraged to make those choices on their own, they are asked to problem solve both alone and with peers, and for advanced thinkers, I do a “Smarty Pants Challenge” (Can you show…?) I don’t recall the speaker’s name, but there was an interesting TED talk on how we are not out to raise a generation of artists, but thinkers.

  • Denise von Sternberg

    I think what’s hardest is justifying what you are teaching, the WHY you are teaching it and how it is useful. I thought about it, and I break my lessons down into technique/skill, content and application.

  • Allyson Avery

    Hello! I teach K-6, and I do think there is merit to these type of projects. Especially if tied to art history. If that hearts picture in the article is an example of “cookie cutter” then I’m guilty. I teach a lesson about Jim Dine, symbols in art, how to draw a heart, create symmetry, etc. But there is choice in color, pattern, line quality, color mixing. They do not produce identical projects, but we all worked on the same subject. There are a lot of standards to meet, and the student success is important. They are proud of a finished asthetically pleasing project.
    I do balance my curriculum with open ended projects, and a few weeks of choice based stations each year. I find that students stay in their comfort zone during this time though. They draw/paint what they already know and love. There is not a lot of growth. I’m there to introduce the immense world of art and culture, which they can not learn alone. ok, post too long. ;)

    • Jean Freer Barnett

      How do you determine which art history to include?

    • Jan Oxendale

      I teach K – 8. I used Jim Dine Hearts in the project. They look somewhat similar to the hearts in the sample. However, they all have different colors and heart designs. They used foam glue circles to hold the hearts up from the background. You will not be able to tell whose is who just from looking at them, but the kids know which one is theirs. They are not accomplished artists that have developed their own style yet. My job is to give them a framework and give them freedom within that framewporl to express themselves. We need to give children a direction and then they can make it their own. I may want my middle school students to create a portrait and color it with complementary colors. Many still want to use their own cartoonish faces, but I expect them to use complimentary colors. I also had them practice drawing faces.
      Creativity is key, and yet when you think of ad marketing, or commissioned portraits, the students need to learn that they need to design it around what their client wants.

  • Marilyn Simons

    With over 800 students there is no way I would know whose art is whose without looking at the name on the back! Honestly though the article is really thought provoking. I think considering the age of the student is also a factor. Fourth and fifth graders want to be able to draw realistically. Helping them do so requires practice. Projects can provide the practice and a product the student is proud of. Yes we display their work to decorate, but also to honor their work. Choice is critical to originality, but creating something similar to others in theme is still an original piece of work for each student. It seems that students art experiences would be very limited if they only created art of their own choosing. I like to think of my role as helping students progress or take their art to the next level, past what they could do on their own.

    • Thank you Marilyn! I love using themes too and you’re right – we have to help students “level up” beyond where the’d go on their own.

  • John Gullick

    I am a new art teacher (K-5th). What is TAB? Thanks for the good information in these posts.

  • Phyllis Bloxson

    I do both, it depends on the standard I’m looking at. Without knowledge of certain elements of art and how to use them, you lose the ability to create as well. I find my students struggle with individualality. Some skills are needed before you really have the freedom to create.

    • I agree, there has to be balance. Thanks for reading. :)

  • Sue Grumann

    I agree with all you said. I try to keep my projects as open ended as possible to allow students to take ownership of their art. This allows the art to reflect the individual student and allows them to grow as an artist without making work that is identical in most ways to the work of their classmates.

  • LaRhonda Brown

    I schedule “skill days” into our lessons. That’s when I take a day and teach a skill or technique. The kids know I will model and they will follow. Then, I assign an learning goal in which students may choose the subject and sometimes material (if the skill wasn’t material-specific). Students have a given amount of time to create a work of art displaying that particular skill in the manner they choose.

    • I love this! What a great way to build skills and include choice!

  • Frances Louise Rice

    HI! Love this post! I am a choice based educator in Washington state. Last year for financial reasons I took a position as a kindergarten teacher in a public school. My K team insisted we had to teach cut and paste cookie cutter lessons so students could learn to follow directions and cover common core curricula. I was passive aggressively cornered into complying after a month of avoiding these K team projects. I went to my admin and explained I was able to accomplish the important tasks of improving fine motor skills while also allowing for student thinking without the cookie cutter projects. I gave the example of how I drew an x on a rectangle of colored paper and had the kids cut out the 4 triangles which were created. They then each made what inspired them: a crown, a bow tie, a flying dragon, etc….Needless to say…I resigned and am happily back doing what I do best. Here’s a link to a blog post I wrote several years ago about divergent thinking and ways to guide students to discover their own ideas. https://wordpress.com/post/francifularts.wordpress.com/1061

  • BossySnowAngel

    For elementary students, who often don’t have daily art classes, cookie cutter projects work. They teach essential hand skills, color skills and basic art room techniques. For middle school projects, while a sample piece is helpful, it can lead to students simply copying the teacher’s example rather than developing their own voice. For high school classes, I avoid samples, but will sometimes show them past work by other students at the same level. This can be helpful when teaching more cerebral drawing skills like linear perspective or when discussing composition, design or color. At the high school level using art history images is a much better solution to encourage independent growth. It’s just 18 years of classroom from Art 1 to AP talking here.

  • Gloria Budz

    I’m not “for” them, especially from the middle school level up. I always have a central theme for a project I.E. (ARTIST based) but students ALWAYS have many choices. I do not allow them to copy examples they see. When they complain about it, I point out that if it were that easy, we wouldn’t be doing it. And YES, being creative and original, having ones owns thoughts and ideas is work! The creative process is exactly that, a process.

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