Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Facilitating Creative Thinking in the Art Room

Written by Graduate Student Jamie Sanchez


“How nice it must be to teach art,” and, “It must be so much fun to draw and paint all day!” As an art teacher, I have heard these statements or something to their effect from others at least once every school year. In a way, they are right. I love my job and it is a lot of fun. However, I don’t just teach students how to make art, draw, and paint. Being an art teacher is so much more than that for me. My lessons dabble in math, science, social studies, character building, and most of all creativity.

It is common for people to feel that art and creativity go hand-in-hand. I agree that, often to be artistic, you must have the skills to think creatively. This is not always the case, though. Not every student that enters my art room possesses equal proportions of both artistic and creative abilities. They may be strong in one and need growth in the other. Many times, someone who seems to be a very talented young artist who is able to manipulate art media and duplicate images ends up staring blankly at his/her paper, unless explicit directions are given or a picture is made visible by the teacher. Students often have difficulty creating an original or expressive idea on their own. I feel that part of my role as their teacher is to facilitate both skills. They can build off of each other. It is possible to teach creative thinking through teaching art. It is one of my teaching goals to facilitate creative thinking through my lessons.

Creative and Critical Thinking Skills

Like the term “art”, the true definition of what creativity is has been disputed for many years; however, there exists a consensus that creativity is the generation of new, useful, and original ideas. For more than 60 years, researchers have progressively become more interested in creative thinking and how schools are preparing their students for the world’s increasing demand for creative thinkers. Hurson (2008) defines creative thinking as being generative, nonjudgmental, and expansive. He states that in the process of creative thinking, partially formed ideas are generated, the ideas are not judged, and therefore many more ideas are created.

Time and time again, we have heard of the importance of critical thinking. Hurson (2008) stated that critical thinking is analytic, judgmental, and selective. Many schools instill critical thinking into their curriculums and build students’ abilities to dig deep into content. That is a great skill to have and will prove useful in the students’ futures, but what about taking the next step with creativity? We need the next generations to “one-up” us and to challenge what we have already established. It is important for them to build on old ideas and to generate new ones. Without their creativity, there will be no growth.

We can still teach students critical thinking skills, but we must not leave out creativity. Hurson (2008) stresses the importance of using both creative and critical thinking. He cites that we should alternate between the two. We can use critical thinking as a building block for creative thinking skills.

Using Visual Thinking Strategies to Strengthen Critical and Creative Thinking

There are various ways to strengthen students’ critical thinking skills, as well as an ever-increasing number of methods for fostering students’ creative thinking skills. One technique that I have found particularly successful with my students is the use of Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS).

Since the 1990s, VTS has been used in classrooms and museums around the United States and parts of Europe and Asia. It started as a program to increase aesthetic development in children. According to the Visual Thinking Strategies website (2011), VTS has become “a research-based teaching method that improves critical thinking and language skills through discussions of visual images”. It allows for students to create their own interpretations and dig deeper into the content of the artwork, through a question-and-answer process framed by the teacher. The interactions that take place in this process encourage students to analyze and evaluate the artwork in a way that they may not have done without prompting.

During the process of VTS, the teacher sits the students in front of an artwork or reproduction and asks a series of questions that are designed to spark their curiosity and strengthen their thinking skills. The teacher first asks, “What is going on in the picture?” This question prompts them to investigate the image. The second question, “What else can you find?” guides them to discover more than what they originally noticed. The second question, as well as the question: “What do you see that makes you say that?” are repeated as multiple students contribute. Students begin to build off of their peers’ answers. They are given the opportunity to formulate new perspectives.

In the beginning of the process, students take a critical thinking approach, in which they analyze the artwork and make connections with their own experiences. They then listen to the ideas of their peers while deferring judgment, and they build on those ideas by generating a variety of thoughts. This part of the procedure simulates the creative process during which many new ideas are produced. The learning process continues when students independently use VTS while viewing artwork and create conversations with their classmates. VTS cofounder Philip Yenawine (“Thinking Through Art”, n.d.) stated that VTS strengthens thinking skills of students that are considered necessary in the classroom such as observation, elaboration, drawing conclusions, making inferences, arguing evidence, and revision. According to the authors, “VTS is easy to learn and offers a proven strategy for educators to meet current learning objectives.”

VTS takes students beyond the interpretation of images (Housen, 2002). It allows them to seek new perspectives and view artwork in different ways. It also enhances students’ abilities to communicate, to formulate advanced questions, and therefore generate more meaningful answers. The process reinforces the students’ critical thinking skills and builds upon their creative thinking skills.

Currently in My Art Room: Empathy and Expressive Art

In collaboration with the lessons my students are learning with their classroom teachers, I have formed art lessons around empathy. This topic is from a character-building program called Second Step. Like with VTS, I begin by presenting visual images to the students. Using the questioning technique of VTS, I guide the students through photographs of people experiencing heightened emotions. The students identify the emotion(s) in the image and investigate the clues that tell them how the person feels. I have found that some students will begin to formulate creative stories behind the pictures. I then introduce various reproductions of artworks and repeat the process with the students. They are able to recognize the artist’s expression behind each artwork and identify which techniques they used to create the mood.

The students’ critical thinking is strengthened when they analyze the clues in the images and artworks. Subsequently, the students produce many thoughts and stories. They are urged not to be judgmental of others’ comments and especially not of their own. In this environment, the students feel free to express their opinions and are therefore able to continue the discussion for quite some time generating ideas. This is creative thinking. Their minds are flowing at this point, and they can now transfer this current into their art. I instruct them to create a piece of artwork that expresses an important emotion to them. I ask them, “What would that look like?” Their pencils move quickly and there aren’t any students staring blankly at their papers.


Art can be used as a tool to strengthen creative thinking skills. As an art teacher, I facilitate my students’ learning and create an environment to foster this. Critical thinking skills are important and should be taught in schools. However, further emphasis must be placed on teaching creative thinking skills; they are vital for the development of our future. We could use a few more innovators like Thomas Edison, Leonardo da Vinci, and Steve Jobs. VTS is only one tool that can build both critical and creative thinking, but there are many others. Skills gained through the use of techniques like VTS could easily be transferred into other subjects like creative writing, math, and science. “How nice it must be to teach art.” Let’s rephrase that: How nice it would be for all students to possess the creative thinking skills that can be taught through art.


Housen, A. C. (2002). Aesthetic thought: Critical thinking and transfer. Visual understanding education: 100 arts and learning research journal, 18(1), 99 – 132.

Hurson, T. (2008). Think better. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Visual thinking strategies. (2011). Retrieved from

Yenawine, P. (n.d.). Thinking through art [video file]. Retrieved from http://www. vtshome. org/what-is-vts