Why It’s Time to Move on From Projects

As a student teacher, I was all about projects. My supervising teacher had so many I wondered where all of her ideas came from. I was so proud of myself when I came up with an idea for a project based on the book, Mouse Paint. “We’ll read it,” I thought, “then I’ll give them little Q-tips to be feet and tails.” I did just that, spending three whole classes reading the book, having kindergartners mix little piles of paint with Q-tips and create tiny mice out of pre-cut parts.

mouse paint project

The work was adorable. Everyone said so, though you probably know this because you’ve seen something similar. I kept doing this project, year after year as a new teacher. I loved the way the work turned out, but it was always a struggle to make sure no students over mixed their paint and got too much brown. Later in the year when we painted again, I was always surprised when so few remembered the color theory I’d taught. “These kids!” I’d think, shaking my head.

Looking back on this experience years later it’s strikingly clear: it wasn’t the kids – it was my teaching.

Specifically, it was my focus on projects, which I define as artwork designed by the teacher to achieve a specific visual result. Projects vary from highly teacher-directed (sometimes referred to as “cookie cutter”) to more open ended, but they are all planned by the teacher with the end product in mind.

After six years of teaching, I changed my instructional practices.

No longer did I pre-cut little mouse bodies or walk my students through each step. Instead, I asked questions and let my students answer them through their work.

My color theory instruction followed this model and focused on exploration. I’d show the group at the paint center how to use the bright primary colors of paint filling the edges of my muffin tin trays, then ask “What color can you make?” and let them experiment. Often the first result would be a pile of brown, but the next week they remembered the experience and built on it.

muffin tins filled with paint

After a few weeks, my youngest students were paint-mixing masters, creating colors like sea green, dark gray, and petal pink all from primaries and white. They did not forget what they’d learned. Instead, they applied it to mix any color they needed for the painting they were working on. They became experts, teaching anyone who needed advice at the painting center and having lively conversations about color.

It turns out kids need independent practice to apply learning.

I realized when had I planned the steps in a project for my students, I made them dependent on me. To really see what our students know and can do we need to teach new ideas and challenge students to apply them in artwork with no predetermined end product, to explore and construct meaning instead of replicating our examples.

When I analyze my teaching, it’s no surprise my kindergartners didn’t remember how to mix orange or green or purple from participating in the project I planned; that’s not really what the the experience was about. If I’m honest, it was about making a copy of a book cover.

Lasting learning happens from taking in new information, then applying it independently because this requires problem-solving and deep thinking about new concepts. It allows students to connect new knowledge to personal experiences.

Comparatively, following the steps of a project is less rigorous and requires much less analysis and creative thinking on the part of the student artist. This is why it’s time to move on from projects and start challenging kids to apply concepts in artmaking based on their own ideas, not on ours. If you think this will waste supplies or student work will suffer, consider this; the real waste is a beautiful project it took weeks to finish and a room full of kids who don’t know how to mix colors.

What do you think? Is it time to get rid of projects or are they still valuable?

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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  • Stephanie Hulan

    I taught High School for many years, but am currently teaching Middle School (gr 5-8). In general, I found that I tend to start with a skill or a concept. Something with which all students can feel have success. We do small, open-ended activities or exercises, watch videos or have a class discussion. During this time I collect evidence of learning through observation and conversations. Giving students time to experiment, “make mistakes” without the fear of failing, really helps to build their confidence long before I would introduce the culminating task of the unit. They use their sketchbooks to collect, share and reflect upon these experiments, even coming up with their own interpretations or applications. These items also help them make personal and educated choices for their larger art creations. I still need to give them parameters for the larger artwork, but I try very hard to give them as much opportunity to flex their creative muscles, Such as with media choice or subject matter.

    • Your classroom sounds amazing! Thanks for reading and taking the time to share how you support student choice.

    • Julie Pate

      I love this. Thanks for sharing!

  • Mr. Post

    I could not disagree more with the idea of getting rid of projects. Imagine a music class where kids came in and were told to explore the instruments. Does anyone think they are somehow going to turn into musicians who can read and compose music? Or even make any sounds that resemble notes?

    Creativity happens in relationship to a task. There is a series of photo books that look at how clay artists approach certain forms. They have titles such as “500 Teapots”, “500 Mugs”, etc. The amount of diversity in those books is mind-blowing yet the artists are all working under the big umbrella of an idea – to create a teapot or a mug. Many art movements happen as a reaction to the previous movement in art – not in isolation.

    There are certain principles that kids can learn in art class through open-ended lessons. Currently my students are making three-dimensional rooms using tag board. I got the idea after seeing an AirBnB room located in Chicago that was made to look exactly like Vincent Van Gogh’s bedroom painting. (You can rent this room and actually stay in it overnight.) I taught my students how to create three-dimensional forms by cutting and by using paper tabs to hold things together. One student decided to make the Oval Office and has created Donald Trump sitting behind his desk using tag board. Without having the big umbrella idea of having to create a three-dimensional room he never would have arrived at the solution to create the President’s Office. My students have to meet these requirements in this lesson – the room must have at least one three-dimensional object in it, they must make the wall and floor visually interesting and the room needs to be in color. There is plenty of room for individual interpretation in this lesson but the lesson has a big umbrella framework to work in.

    • Your 3-D room project sounds really cool and I agree that choice can be incorporated in all types of learning experiences. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. :)

    • Terry Howells

      Students need to explore and identify the ‘big Ideas’ in artworks, the elements and principles and engage with these in their own works. When you say ‘umbrella’ – big ideas are umbrella’s or containers, such as identity, place, community, or migration they act as frameworks for inquiry.

      • Mr. Post

        I have a hard time wrapping my head around how little kids in my elementary art classroom would explore identity or migration as frameworks for inquiry? I cannot imagine how I would develop this kind of lesson.

        • Terry Howells

          A self portrait is ‘identity’ an artwork based on their home or favourite place to visit is about ‘place’ you most likely are engaging with ‘Big Ideas’ but not identifying them. Primary teaching should not avoid difficult issues or chances to engage in authentic development through ‘real world’ concepts – Check out; ‘Making Thinking Visible’ by Ron Richard, Mark Church & Karin Morrison.
          ‘Undertanding by Design’ by grant Wiggins & Jay McTighe.

          • Mr. Post

            It seems like a matter of semantics to me whether I start a lesson with the term identity or self-portrait. I find the more directly I speak with students the better they understand a concept. Using a term like identity seems like adding one more layer of lexicon to the process. I have never once visited a museum anywhere in the US and had the idea of identity occur to me when looking at portraits made by artists.

        • Chelsea Hayes

          My first graders are working at studio centers with the theme of Identity right now. They are building off of the work they have already explored in their classroom with their classroom teachers. Some are painting works on their identity, some are creating cardboard sculptures about their identity, some are drawing, some are using collage. It is incredible what kids will create when you show them some techniques and get out of their way, and make yourself into a guide on the side. Their interpretation of identity is sophisticated and they get it, so how could I possibly created a “project” for these kids when every identity is so different?

    • Who’s ideas are the children using? Your statement reveals you don’t trust children to conceive their own ideas despite your claim they have “room for individual interpretation: “Currently my students are making three-dimensional rooms using tag board. I got the idea after seeing an AirBnB room located in Chicago that was made to look exactly like Vincent Van Gogh’s bedroom painting.” What if the child is interested in exploring other materials? Artists task themselves. Slaves are tasked by their master or an authoritarian figure.

      • Mr. Post

        My statement does not reveal that I do not trust children to conceive their own ideas. I know that most people who wish to learn something look for a teacher. I personally only know one true autodidactic and even he would admit that he is constantly drawing on the knowledge and research of others.

        I will reiterate that my students are working within the framework of constructing a three-dimensional room – all of the choices they make as they construct the room are their own.

        As far as the child exploring other materials I do not worry about that. Each year my elementary students go through 2-3000 pounds of clay and countless gallons of paint. I pay for all of this myself as my school district provides exactly zero dollars for art supplies for the 700+ students I teach. My students work back and forth between 2-D and 3-D all year long and none of them ever complains about feeling enslaved. This is probably because I say Yes to all of their creative ideas as they work on their assignments.

        Not all artists task themselves. Michelangelo took commissions from the Pope. The Sistine Chapel is an example of working within a framework. I have many successful sculptor and potter friends who also work on commissions. They do not feel that the commission work compromises their creativity.

        • Michaelangelo was already an established artist when he took commissions..his development reveals numerous experiences where he was allowed to follow his interests. After spending a year in Ghirlandaio’s workshop, his self-education was marked by an extended period of time exploring sculpture and anatomy under the auspices of the Medici Family. Michaelangelo benefited immensely from this self-directed pathway just as Thomas Edison benefited from his early childhood experiences.

          What you really teach children in narrow curriculum settings is the school structure is static, they have no control and they are at the low rung on the ladder. Their compliance will be rewarded or penalized. This is a form of authoritarianism.

          Funny how we educate children to participate in democratic society.

          If you want to support democratically conceived learning and reach a child’s emotional drive, one needs to work from an abundant curriculum and offer a multitude of choices. In other words….emergent curricula. Children are far from blank slates.

    • Julie Pate

      Thanks for posting this and ‘going against the tide’ as so many people seem to be turning their backs completely on projects. You have some very valid points–I think there is room for freedom in art, and at other times, some parameters are needed. I have students who would flounder with complete freedom.

      • Mr. Post

        There are lots of ways to teach art. Viktor Lowenfeld’s theories from the 1960’s were similar in nature to TAB. Pedagogical ideas go through cycles. If you work as a teacher long enough, you will see old ideas get new names.

        If there were only one way to teach art, I imagine very few art teachers would be interested in teaching it.

        I have some students who work very independently and use my art room as an open studio. Others need the framework of an open-ended assignment to create. And of course there are some kids who have no interest in anything at all that has to do with school.

        There are benefits and drawbacks in every approach to teaching because there are so many different types of learners and teachers. TAB classrooms are not a panacea – that teaching style has its drawbacks too – raw material storage, art work storage, clean-up procedures, educating parents about the process, students who are not good at working independently etc. As a person, I do not like working in chaotic, cluttered spaces. Many art teachers I know are like pack rats and when I have had to take over rooms that they have left, the amount of materials they abandoned was overwhelming. A TAB stationed classroom would not work for me personally.

        TAB advocates can sometimes be off-putting because of the morally superior tone they take towards others who teach differently than them. I have a thick skin as I have been doing this a long time. I also know what works for my students and that no one can really tell what is happening in another teacher’s program without being in that classroom.

  • Mr. Post
  • Karen

    I teach high school. My Intermediate class is mostly choice based. I have provided a list of themes, mediums, and subject matter. They choose one of each. After they have chosen an item from the list, it can’t be used again. For each project they must complete thumbnail sketches, a test pattern, a rough draft, a finished artwork, and a rubric. For my classes, the test pattern is the area they use creative play. Before beginning their final piece, students are required to test the medium they have chosen. This may be practicing various techniques, color mixing, or even trying the material for the first time. Some of my students really take this seriously and learn a lot. Others just do enough to get credit. It is such a struggle for students to take initiative when they are unsure, push themselves to the next level and think creatively. There tends to be a lot of unproductive time because the students just don’t know what to do without step by step encouragement.

    • Wendy Utterback

      That sounds like a better way to do upper level classes, could you share your list?

    • Terry Howells

      Are your themes based on ‘Big Ideas’?
      To address the ‘unproductive times try the ‘Effective Use of the Gradual Release of Responsibility Model’ – https://www.mheonline.com/_treasures/pdf/douglas_fisher.pdf
      They don’t need ‘old school’ step-by-step instruction – that is an Industrial based model of learning from the ‘industrial revolution’ – todasy students need to engage in inquiry and self-directed learning, that focuses on developing thinking skills.

    • Karen

      My themes: Lost, Vintage, Inside Out, Paradox, Point of View, Childhood Fears, Openings, Daily Rituals, Transportation, The Seven Deadly Sins, Stories, Systems, Through a Window, Transformation, Zoom In

      I agree that Step-by-Step instruction is “old school” and it isn’t part of my instruction. It is what many of the kids want and sometimes need to move forward. New ways of teaching art work really well for some students, especially those who excel in art. They don’t work for all. Creativity in our society has tanked or maybe it is just laziness. Mostly students choose basic, common interpretations and then struggle with process. Struggle is actually important to the learning process, but struggle without growth is just struggle. I want the best for my kids independent of current trends in education. It is not so easy to decipher what that is. I am on trend with my curriculum and teaching style including using choice as part of developing thinking skills (which they desperately need). My principal is thrilled with my curriculum. I have well-behaved, great students so this is not a classroom management issue. My students love the idea of choice, but struggle in the reality of it. Trends come and go. Here are some of my questions. 1. Is the true problem step by step instruction? On paper it appears to be a poor option, but many successful artist came from that environment. Copying masters to learn basics is another frowned upon practice that led to the success of many famous artists. 2. Is this leading to true growth in developing thinking skills? 3. Do we need a more balance approach between the old and new? 4. Do kids need to be raised to a base level using other methods before they can be successful in self-directed learning? 5. If students produce work that is bad but learn a lot, is that enough? Will this discourage them from continuing in art? 6. If teachers buy into this concept, but students don’t, can it be successful? Students definitely express their opinion that teachers in academic subjects are no longer teaching. They complain that they aren’t getting what they need. I have seen it with my daughter, who graduated from high school last year. She was much more successful in the area of math with an old school teacher rather than the facilitator who used self-directed learning. Having said all of this, my classroom is a 21st century classroom. I am not saying this is not the way to go, but I don’t want to “throw the baby out with the bathwater”.

      • Karen

        Great article about the confusion in art ed today.

        “The Gap in Art Education”
        http://www.theepochtimes.com/n3/2230470-the-gap-in-art-education-in-schools/

        • Jeremy Creecy

          I have been an ARC member for almost five years now. I love the DI’s series on Barque drawings. I have yet to bring it to my drawing class, but I will, near the end of the term, I think.

          I’m also looking towards shifting my high school art room next year to a more thematic model, sort of like a TAB classroom. I think it will go over much better than what I have been doing.

  • I couldn’t agree with you more Melissa. If art educators are going to make the claim that art education experiences provide opportunities for “self expression,” yet exhibition evidence reveals that children are parroting teacher ideas and following rubric criteria in order to obtain a grade, it’s a hollow claim. Ultimately who owns the art experience in a teacher designed project? Children are more than capable of conceiving and implementing their own art ideas. Teacher designed projects should be a fall-back for children who lack conceptualization skills. The rest will absolutely thrive in democratically operated art education programs.

    • Clyde – you said it all! Thanks for reading, commenting and being such an advocate for student -centered learning!

    • Nimbuzz

      Uncle Clyde, I can’t believe you’re trying to get democratic ed principles into a blog for the dictators! More power to ya but these peeps thrive with, are indoctrinated to and proud of their power to require obedience. Perhaps in 50 years when the fact that this power is as illegitimate as the power men assumed over women a hundred years ago is known. (Oh no women don’t lambast me because there’s a long way to go–I know–I’m talking about before the vote)

      Have you read ‘Free to Learn’ by Peter Gray? You probably have as that’s where you seem to be coming from–not that that’s the only source. I wonder what would happen if these traditional school teachers ever managed to read it? It’s all foot noted and hard to disregard but so revolutionary to all the HUGE assumptions and prejudices woven into the massively unquestioned bureaucracy.

      But keep on trying Clyde–May the Force be with ya!! Also reading Daniel Greenberg’s latest = ‘A Place to Grow’ he discusses how difficult it is to get across the idea of respecting the individuality and rights of children to be free to learn.

      • Thanks…great comments Nimbuzz! I’m on to Greenberg right after I finish Herb Kohl!

        • Nimbuzz

          Did you read ‘Free to Learn’ by Peter Gray? Me thinks it’s the best ever!!

    • Anna

      HI. As an art teacher the biggest problem I face is administration wanting rubric and critiera to obtain a grade.

  • Nimbuzz

    It seems to me that this tittle is a very poor choice of words. it seems that you do not mean to eliminate projects at all but want to shift projects from adult/teacher designed and driven to student initiated and explored–they still seem to be projects and have the power of projects–much more power when the kids are working more independently seems to be the point. No?

    • I defined projects as anything with an aesthetic outcome planned in advance by the teacher. I do think it’s time for art education to move on from this type of teaching, hence the title. The point of the article I agree with you on!

      • Nimbuzz

        Yes, that’s how I understood it. However that seems to mean ‘Move on from Teacher Driven Projects’ not student designed projects–so it can look like you’re throwing those out too.

  • Ruth Post

    Try to remember that there isn’t just one way to teach others about art. Projects are neither “good” or “bad”.

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/ef12c22ab3ae42d42c9ab00b9a1e435b5b05f1db187e7edbaafe86a2712e813a.jpg

  • Lindsey Heinig

    Is anyone else feeling like a complete failure as an art teacher due to the excess of articles like this?

    • I think there are lots of good ways to teach and that every teach, class and school is different. Please know that you are not a failure!

  • Nancy Blasi

    Process over product wins every time. We know this from creating our own artwork. This is what makes the artistic process interesting- experimenting, exploring, testing and not knowing what is going to happen.

    • Yes – and what works for us should apply to students! Totally agree with you!

  • Korey Jones Averill

    Preach it. You said it yourself: if you’re teaching a concept like mixing colors and after the project is over the students aren’t retaining any information, then what’s the point? If the students didn’t actually learn anything (except to follow directions), then what is the value? Asking these kinds of questions completely changed my teaching.

  • Martha Butcher

    Bofus. In elementary school I think that there is a time and a place for the project based AND the open ended, experimental and choice based types of art learning. If I want to know that my students in elementary school can tie an overhand knot and a square knot, for instance, that is what I am looking for and nothing else will fit the objective. Knot tying is not a fine art in and of itself, of course, but it’s a task that is useful if the artist wants to use sewing or weaving media, and can be a segue “project” into an art experience that is open for more independence. Technical growth and practice is sometimes valuable for elementary students especially and I see nothing dangerous or backwards from a project based lesson which can be evaluated based on skill with use of media. Big ideas need to be presented for exploration with media choices selected carefully when certain skills and techniques are developed or mastered.

    Students who have have had time to practice and and experiment with media of different types are probably more creative in the end if they have learned certain skills that they were fortunate enough to be guided through. Students who are given free range of media choices only with little guidance will get valuable experiences but may be somewhat in danger in having lopsided knowledge/skill base as they mature.

    All children are different and come to us in public schools with a wide range of knowledge, experience, and abilities. Public schools help to level the playing field as we’d like to say, by giving all students experiences. We hope to find growth in those who lack the ability to achieve greatly while allowing for more independence for those who are moving at a faster pace.

    Some folks in this Disqus seem to have quite an air about their obvious passion for art teaching and that’s fine and well, but I have to say that am not personally inspired by those who would suggest in their comments that they are better than the rest. Peace and grace.

    • Pat HIll

      I just started using a TAB/Choice model in my 3rd-5th grade classes, and to my amazement, students pay more attention to skills now when they are presented in our 5 Minute Smart Starts than they ever did before, and will go on to study materials in depth when they are ready to learn more about it. Also, I only have to teach clean up routines once- then I just say “take care of this center or it will close”. That has been an amazing and unexpected benefit of the change to choice.
      Also- if you are interested in CBAE, I highly recommend the Art of Ed course- it really helped focus me and shortened my learning curve during this process.

    • Anna

      Martha B. Well said. Peace

  • Anna

    I would like to see this WOW project’s lesson plan and rubric. Could you please show me how this would look like? Thank you