Sunday, May 4, 2008

Art Education: A look at learning

I recently took a course on improvement achievement and we discussed the types of lessons put forward by Fisher and Frey, how the hierarchy of lessons goes from teacher focused to independent learner focused. I'm going to post the short paper I wrote regarding that here and will discuss learning as an artist in a subsequent post.

Improving Student Achievement in the Art Classroom

M. Todd Muskopf
May 3, 2008

Improving Student Achievement in the Art Classroom

This paper will discuss classroom procedures and concepts, which will allow teachers to inspire students to become eager participants in their own learning about Art. I will lay out some general guidelines, based on the work of Fisher and Frey and apply them to an example lesson. In this lesson, my 8th grade students create life-size mixed-media sculptures made from plaster casts taken from their bodies and added with various other media to depict a student-chosen subject. In this one lesson, we actually go through the first three phases of teaching, Focus Lessons, Guided Instruction, and Collaborative Learning. The last phase, Independent Learning, is encouraged in my classes, but by definition is worked on during after-school sessions or at home.

Task 1: Inspire (Focus)

Morale is the spirit by which Huns submit their services to the tribe. It is not uncontrolled celebration and romping around the campfire (Roberts, 1987, p. 36)

In Theory: When beginning a lesson, it is vital to build interest and enthusiasm for the lesson to make sure the students are paying attention. This could result from a description of what they are going to do, showing them an example of what has been done before, and challenge them to exceed what has gone before. Establish the purpose and context of the task in the art historical and the cultural contexts. Discuss the media to be used and the methods for using it, and how this project is unique to their grade level and that it is their privilege to be given this task. Explain the benefits and difficulties of the activity. Keep challenging them and building excitement. Go through a sample project out loud, modeling the step-by-step thought process of how one past student’s project was begun and brought to fruition. Encourage metacognitive awareness, teaching the students to think through their problems by examining the core issues. Above all, keep challenging the students and building their excitement.

In Practice: I begin this lesson with a warning that I only trust the 8th graders to do this project because it is costly and is potentially dangerous if done incorrectly (not really dangerous, but I play that up to get them excited). I describe the representative sculptures from the Greeks through the Renaissance and into the modern sculptures of George Segal, showing them photos to set an art historical context.

I then show the students a short section of a video on making plaster gauze masks demonstrating the technique. When the video is done, I then continue the lecture reiterating the proper technique and actually begin wrapping my left hand with plaster while I’m speaking. This models the appropriate behavior while at the same time piquing their interest. I begin describing how the plaster portions are mounted on cardboard and paper mache and can be combined with real clothing or items. I describe the sculptures of swimmers and soccer players and superheroes that have been made in the past. I break them into pairs or trios to work together, and that for each of them to obtain the plaster casts of themselves for their project, they will be dependent on the labor of their colleagues to actually do the wrapping. I challenge them that they must be incredibly disciplined and make every minute count, because they will have roughly 25 minutes to come in, apply the release agent, and complete wrapping the body part, since it then takes about 10 minutes to dry and 10 minutes to clean up. They are encouraged to voluntarily stay after school on Mondays and Tuesdays for my “open studio” sessions in order to do larger and more complex sculptures than could be completed in our normal class (one 45 minute class period meeting once a week). By the time my talk is over, I have finished the plaster cast of my hand and take it off and show it to them as the period ends. Their homework is to design what they will create and bring their drawing to class with them next week. We begin with the end in mind.

Task 2: Getting Started (Guided Instruction)

Chieftains must inspect their Huns frequently in order to see that what is accomplished meets with what is expected (Roberts, 1987, p. 63)

In Theory: With guided instruction, it is important to see small groups of students working together with a common purpose. These groups can be changed from project to project to effectively forestall conflicts or jealousies among students. The teacher is an active participant in the activity, and there is continual dialogue between the teacher and groups of students as ideas and techniques are defined and learned. The teacher uses open-ended questioning to facilitate student identification of core problems and help the groups to work together in solving them.

In Practice: Students are broken into groups of two or three. One student will be the model to be wrapped and the others will do the wrapping. I will go from group to group, demonstrating proper techniques, asking questions to help the students problem-solve, being a timekeeper, and, above all, being a cheerleader. This is a complex, challenging project and the student’s self-motivation is critical to the project’s success.

Task 3: Synergy (Collaborative Thinking)

Leaders must encourage creativity, freedom of action and innovation among their subordinates, so long as these efforts are consistent with the goals of the tribe or nation. (Roberts, 1987, p. 62)

In Theory: Collaborative thinking occurs when the teacher has effectively removed himself from an active role and the student groups take charge of their own learning. The stage has been set, the action is in motion, and the teacher is now in the role of a consultant, observer, timekeeper, and, of course, cheerleader. The hard work of learning and problem solving at this point is done by the students with minimal teacher input. The students are working together in a synergistic manner, each contributing to the success of their partners as well as their own success.

There are times when neither the teacher nor the student knows for sure what’s going to happen. In the beginning, there’s a safe environment that enables people to be really open and to learn and to listen to each other’s ideas. Then comes brainstorming, where the spirit of evaluation is subordinated to the spirit of creativity, imagining, and intellectual networking. Then an absolutely unusual phenomenon begins to take place. The entire class is transformed with the excitement of a new thrust, a new idea, a new direction that’s hard to define, yet it’s almost palpable to the people involved. (Covey, 2004, p. 265)

In Practice: When the groups are experienced enough that they need little guidance, I step back and let them work things out for themselves. My job at that time is to maintain the materials, make sure the proper schedule is followed, etc. Questions from the students are fewer and it generally comes down to letting them bring their dreams into reality.

Task 4: Independent Learning

Wise chieftains grant both authority and responsibility to those they have delegated assignments. (Roberts, 1987, p. 74)

In Theory: Students who have been taught the procedures for doing tasks need to complete these independently. Independence fosters experimentation and allows for personal bias to direct learning. The teacher is available to conference concerning the independent work as well as evaluate it when applicable.

In Practice: My students are assigned a few drawing assignments per quarter which are to be done out of class. The students are given a topic, but the topic is very broad, so as to foster variation and independent thought. They are given a rubric which specifies that they will be graded on showing details (depict representational subject matter effectively), shading (the gradual shift from light to dark to show 3-dimensional form), composition (effectively arranging the items in the picture), creativity, and effort. The students are also encouraged to do and turn in unassigned drawings which will be discussed and will count as extra credit. Furthermore, I stay after school on Mondays and Tuesdays and students are free to stay and work independent projects.

Studying Fisher and Frey’s concept of teacher responsibility and student responsibility shifting has been of benefit to me to identify and clarify some of the things that I’ve already been doing in the classroom. In lower grades (K-2), my classes tend to focus on Focused Lesson and Guided Instruction, in middle grades (3-6), I tend to use Focused Lesson, Guided Instruction and Collaborative Learning, and in the upper grades (7-8), I use all four types of Focused Lesson, Guided instruction, Collaborative Learning, and Independent Learning. I hope in the future to apply more of the Collaborative and Independent models with younger students in the future.


Covey, S. (2004) The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Free Press, (Original work published 1989.

Fisher, D. and Frey, N. (2008) Better Learning Through Structured Teaching, A Framework for the Gradual Release of Responsibility. ASCD,

Fisher, D. (2006) Creating Literacy-Rich Schools for Adolescents, Available Online at

Roberts, W. (1987) Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun, Warner Books.


Kayla205 said...

Although I have not indulged into the world of art education to the same extent as you, I found your observation of Frey and Fisher, and your conclusion to be of familiar interest and intrigue.

I have recently completed my 2nd year of college. With this I have met many art educators and have begun to be acquainted with the vast world of art.

Regarding the work of Frey and Fisher, I think that their emphasis on collaboration and their teaching of art history into the curriculum is of particular interest. All to often, in art curriculums, art history is ignored and teamwork is deemphasized.

Because you are in the center of an art education program, based on personal experience do you think that showing examples is effective in getting creative energy started, or do you think that displaying previous works hinders individual thinking?

Todd Muskopf said...

Showing examples is imperative! The most important thing any teacher (not only in a strictly educational setting) can do is to INSPIRE. When the students see works that they are impressed by, they then will accept the challenge to learn the skills necessary to accomplish something similar. For instance, if a young athlete sees pros doing amazing things in basketball, football, skateboarding, etc., then they will put forth the effort and determination necessary to at least try to learn the skills necessary to play the game. If a kid had never seen a basketball game played by really good players, would he want to spend hours shooting baskets, lay-ups, etc.? We must show examples. We must inspire.

Now, we have to be careful about this, because a lot of the more conceptual modern art in the last 100 years is seen by kids as a lot of BS. If the kid can make a rendition of a Mark Rothko painting in 5 minutes, then the kid will not value it, and therefore this runs the risk of devaluing art in the eyes of the students. I do very little with minimal or conceptual work for this reason.