How Does Calling Students Artists Impact Growth Mindset?

Is everyone an artist?

For some, the clear answer is yes; everyone who makes a mark is an artist. For others, it’s less clear. I started grappling with the question after hearing a lot of my colleagues refer to their students as artists. Was I an unsupportive teacher because I didn’t call my students artists? What was the impact of giving students this title?

Let’s dig into this question.

student creating artwork

In elementary school, it’s common for teachers to refer to their students as artists. However, it’s rare that you’ll hear a secondary teacher call all or any of their students artists.

Have we thought about how this transition impacts our students?

At first, they are receiving praise and the title of “artist” for putting marks on a page. They happily accept and embrace the title.

But, as students develop, they become more aware of their inability to draw what they see. At the same time, they progress to an environment where the teacher no longer calls them an artist. Does that mean their time as an artist has come to an end? Is their work no longer good?

Most students won’t take the time to reflect, but for the few who do, we leave them with some difficult questions to answer.

  • Did they lose the artistic talent they had as a child?
  • Was their art teacher lying when he or she called them an artist?
  • Should they even bother trying anymore?
    Being an artist used to be so fun and easy, now it seems to take hard work and practice.

Students may experience a similar transition as they head off to college. What happens to the highly-praised, rock star artists when they are surrounded by students with the same or better skill levels?

As we think about what we call our students, let’s look at other subjects. Are students also collecting the titles of writer, mathematician, historian, or scientist? Are we undermining the fields of art and art education by saying everyone is an artist? Is there a better alternative? Perhaps what we really should say is that everyone has the potential to creatively express themselves.

Another facet to consider is the effect of the title on a student’s growth mindset.

student creating artwork

If you’re not familiar with Growth Mindset, the concept comes from Carol Dweck. Dweck is a professor at Stanford University and the author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

Through researching failure, Dweck found there are two types of mindsets, those that are fixed and those that grow. Students with a fixed mindset believe their level of intelligence is pre-determined and they have little to no control to change it. On the flip side, students with a growth mindset believe intelligence is fluid and can grow and develop over time.

Teaching students to have a growth mindset is common practice in many schools. (We have a Growth Mindset in the Art Room PRO Learning Pack that gives tons of great art room-specific information if you’re interested.)

In short, for students to develop a growth mindset they need to understand how to fail well. They need to believe through hard work they can improve. If students are artists the moment they walk into the art room, how does that impact their growth mindset?

During a research study Dweck found, ability praise pushed students right into the fixed mindset, and they showed all the signs of it, too: When we gave them a choice, they rejected a challenging new task from which they could learn. They didn’t want to do anything that could expose their flaws and call into question their talent. […] In contrast, when students were praised for effort, 90 percent of them wanted the challenging new task from which they could learn.

Growth mindset also puts focus on process praise instead of talent praise. As a culture, we tend to look at artists as though they were simply born with the talent, ignoring the effort they’ve put into their work. When we call students artists, we’re praising talent, not process.

So, what if you’ve been calling your students artists, but now you’re thinking about the impact?

First, take a deep breath and give yourself a high five for taking the time to reflect. Next, if you’re feeling like you want to transition away from calling your students artists, talk to them.

Start by looking at artists and having students reflect on what they think an artist is. Ask students how they think people earn or are given titles. As you look at artists with your students, think about selecting artists that reflect your students.

Here are 3 contemporary artists to explore.

  • Nate Lewis
    Lewis creates powerful images filled with texture. His work is a combination of photography, drawing, and paper cutting that will blow your mind.
  • Jamea Richmond-Edwards
    Richmond-Edwards creates portraits using ink, graphite, and collage elements.
  • Lisa Congdon
    Congdon creates colorful illustrations, as well as exploring hand lettering and painting.

After looking at artists’ work, ask your students if they feel like they’re artists or not. If they answer yes, discuss how they could improve and set goals. If they answer no, discuss why they feel that way, and explore what might make them feel like an artist.

If you don’t call students artists, what do you call them?

students creating artwork

So, if you’re not going to call your students artists, what are some other words you could use?

Fortunately, there’s no right answer to this question. What you do in your classroom needs to fit with your personality and your students’ personalities.

In fact, why not ask them?

Create a powerful experience in which you have a conversation and explore together what words and titles mean to them. Ask your students what they want to be called.

Maybe you decide on art appreciates. (Admittedly, this doesn’t roll off the tongue as easily…) Or, you might decide to call them makers, creators, problem-solvers, or thinkers. Or maybe, you decide calling your students artists is the best thing for them. The beauty is that you and your students will have come up with the solution together.

What do you call your students and what led you that decision?

What’s something you’ll never forget that your art teacher told you?

Amber Kane

Amber Kane is a High School Art Teacher and textile designer in PA. Through questioning and a focus on the creative thought process, she strives to help her students uncover their personal voice and see how they can use art to create impact.

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  • Ann Steers

    I respectfully disagree. My artists (or elementary student artists) know that artists have a growth mindset. They use the studio habits including engage and persist, develop craft, and reflect to help them grow. They aren’t experts at everything YET. They know with hard work they can accomplish anything. They work hard to ask questions and solve problems in a creative way. They are inspired by their experiences, the world around them and other artists. Artists come at all levels including amateur. The definition of amateur is a person who engages in a study or other activity for pleasure. There is room for everyone on the path.

  • diane daivs

    Are you using the word Artist as a job title or for someone who has a message to say through their creation? Picasso said, every child is an artist. They have something to say, or to feel or to wonder about. Kids dance, they sing, they jump, they draw. The intent makes what they do artistic. As they get older, do they no longer have intent to express themselves? If so, perhaps they have lost their artist. But i don’t believe that they need to have a certain skill set to think of themselves as artists. Perhaps we should be talking to them about their skills, rather than deciding if their skills make them an artist or not.

  • Andrew Hobson

    Amber states herself “she strives to help her students uncover their personal voice and see how they can use art to create impact.” This is a very good explanation of exactly what an artist does to create a body of work. It’s an appropriate definition an artist as well. If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck it means you’re creating artist’s not just problem solvers. It’s an article to spark an intentional emotional response. Did you let your students read your article? What were their responses?

  • Katy Bernheim

    This gave me pause. I call my high school students “artists,” and when they push back and tell me that they are not artists, I tell them they are in art class, they are practicing art techniques, they are solving artistic problems, so they are artists. I have seen them cock there heads with that “huh…” expression on their faces, and go on to try things they hadn’t ever tried before. I feel like it’s a constant struggle against “I can’t, I’m no good, I could never do that,” so I latch onto anything that helps override their inner critic. But it warrants a discussion, I suppose, so I will ask them what they think.

  • Angie

    I had an artist-in-resident last year. Part of her introduction to my K-5 students was asking them to raise their hand if they were an artist. Every student in the school raised their hand. She said that out of all the places she has traveled, she has never had 100% of students calling themselves artists. I did attribute this to the fact that I call them artists everyday.

  • Michael McGaugh

    artist vs. Artist. Logically speaking, those who make art are art makers…or artists. This is the lower-case “a” version of the word. Likewise, if you speak, you’re a speaker; and if you write, you’re a writer…in the most basic usage of these words. After all, are we not as teachers encouraging our students to be better writers, speakers, communicators….artists?
    On the other hand, I differentiate (in a major way) between this usage of “artist” and being a professional, educated, qualified, and highly committed upper-case “A” Artist–an emphasized term reserved for the few who’ve earned it–something to which one aspires.
    I realize I may be trying to have my cake and eat it too by using one word in two ways, but words often have more than one meaning. This issue seems to be attributed to shortcomings in the English language. Perhaps it will evolve to clarify these connotative differences. For now, I’m sticking with artist vs. Artist. I also agree with Amber Kane that it’s important to ask students what they want to be called!
    As to what I call my students…I call them “art students,” because ultimately that is what they are in a school context; and I reserve “Artist” for the professional.
    Amber, thank you for sharing this topic and your helpful ideas! Teaching art has been a lonely road, and I am so happy to have recently found this amazing community of professional art teachers!

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