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February 1, 2008
Vol. 65
No. 5

Thinking Like an Artist

I'm sitting at a staff meeting while the principal works her way through yet another PowerPoint presentation. This one is gloriously titled "Every Teacher Is a Reading Teacher!!" All the teachers who teach non-text-based classes are reacting to the presentation. The physical education teachers are looking uncomfortable. The horticulture guy is squirming. The music teacher is pantomiming gagging. I'm a visual arts teacher at this middle school, and I'm sitting up straight and hanging on the principal's every word. OK, I'm not exactly hanging on every word, but I am paying close attention because I believe that every subject area has its own forms of literacy.
I didn't always see the value in teaching reading, writing, and thinking skills in art class. I used to teach a project-based art class where we spent all our time "making art." But when I reflected on my teaching, I realized that I wasn't helping my students meet the National Visual Arts Standards developed by the Consortium of National Arts Education Associations, such as the ability to "reflect upon and assess the characteristics and merits of their work and the work of others." My art learners needed to be thinking deeply, writing about art, and making connections between the features of high-quality art across genres and styles.

Prime Ground for Thinking

The visual arts classroom is prime ground for teaching thinking and literacy skills. I teach my 8th and 9th grade art classes how to interpret and understand artworks and compose art critiques. I do so not just to help students master standards, but also because students need to be able to look at a famous artwork and understand why it "works" and how the artist used certain elements and principles to make it work.
As I lay the groundwork for student writing and thinking, I hear protests of "Why do we have to write in art?" I counter this resistance by telling my students that this work is a quest that will help them unlock the secrets of famous artists. When we can decode any piece of art, we can discover why some artworks are famous and others are not.
I use a process I call d-coding that incorporates Barrett's (1997) model of art critique and directs learners through four questions: (1) describe (What do you see?); (2) decide (What's this artwork about and how do you know?); (3) defend (What makes this work famous?); and (4) destruct (What might you change and why?) I set aside time one day each week all year for d-coding.

Modeling D-Coding

I introduce students to d-coding by guiding them as a group through the techniques for four weeks, helping them become confident enough to proceed solo. Adapting a comprehension strategy recommended by Harvey and Goudvis (2007), I give students four sticky notes on which to record their thinking: one note for describing, one for deciding, and so on. During our first d-code activity, I model how to approach each question.

Describe (What do you see?)

I project the masterwork we'll be analyzing on a screen and direct students to consider the title, which often gives them clues about the work. We talk a bit about when the work was created and the work's medium or style. For example, when students look at Salvador Dali's painting The Persistence of Memory, they usually comment on the odd style, and I use this teachable moment to introduce surrealism. Thinking out loud, I describe some of the identifiable objects or elements I see in the work. With the Dali painting, I usually point out that this is a landscape painting with a peninsula jutting out in the background and a mostly barren landscape in the foreground filled with objects that include a shiny table and melting clocks.
I invite students to write what they see in the work on their first sticky note. These descriptions can be very simple: One student wrote, "I see three melting clocks, one closed watch with ants on it, a dead man's head, and a box with a tree." When students have generated ideas, they share their observations with a partner.

Decide (What's it about and how do you know?)

I wonder out loud what the work might be about, supporting my guesses with evidence from the work itself, such as color, subject, and patterns. With The Persistence of Memory, we usually discuss what the melting timepieces might mean and how they might relate to the title. I invite students to draw their own conclusions, write them on their second sticky note, and share with a partner. One student thought the painting's message was that "when a man dies, time still goes on and people move on, since there is a dead man on the ground with bugs and a coffin beside him."

Defend (What makes this work famous?)

I give a few reasons why I think the work has become famous, perhaps because it represents a whole new style or keeps raising questions for viewers. I ask students to think of reasons of their own and write them on their third note. The thinking is often deeper with the older students: "Salvador Dali's piece is still famous because it has so much symbolism that doesn't just apply to one time period. Also, it was done very intricately in a difficult era in history."

Destruct (What might you change and why?)

Students love this opportunity, but they can only suggest changing something if they explain how their change would make the artwork better. With the Dali painting, I usually suggest putting something in the blank right lower corner to balance the painting better. Students discuss what they would change on their last sticky note. They arrange all four notes on a paper labeled with the title of the artwork in question and keep these papers in their learning logs.
I have students d-code late in the week because each Monday, I introduce a new principle and element (such as the principle of balance in a composition and the element of line). Students work with these principles in their own artwork during the week and consider them as part of their d-code analysis later in the week.

Stepping Out on Their Own

During our second d-coding week, we discuss as a class how the first activity helped us understand the artwork better. I repeat the process with a new masterpiece, giving fewer of my own ideas this time. I also encourage students to write more on their sticky notes as they hear others sharing their thoughts. In the third d-code week, students do even more of the work. I project a masterwork on the screen, show them the caption, allow them time to write answers to the four questions on their sticky notes, and direct them to pair and share. This time, I ask students to use the notes they have written to write a short paragraph about each of the questions. Students then trade papers and write a fifth paragraph identifying one thing that their partner explained especially well. They craft these paragraphs into a five-paragraph essay on this piece of art.
The fourth week of this introductory process, I give each student his or her own masterwork to analyze. Each learner completes the same five-step notation process and writes another five-paragraph paper to share with a partner. By this time, students have gained confidence, and most are doing a pretty nice job including the elements and principles that we are learning each week in their written work. At this point, I begin reviewing the papers so I can help students who are struggling before we do the next d-code.
After this introductory process, students independently d-code a new work of art each week. They begin to look forward to which masterpiece they will analyze next. Students learn to evaluate and interpret works from many genres, from cave art to contemporary sculpture.

Depth and Confidence

As the year progresses, students begin to d-code their own artwork and that of their peers, applying the new arts vocabulary they gain each week. I have each student d-code one work (other than their own) from the school's Spring Art Show and grade these analyses as a summative assessment.
Visual literacy adds depth to the art curriculum. This discovery-oriented approach gets students talking, thinking, and writing about many genres of art, and hooks even reluctant students. My students now have the confidence to share their ideas with their parents and other adults. While visiting the Seattle Art Museum, one student led her parents through the exhibits discussing the works. A small group formed around them to listen to this student talk. Her parents were stunned to hear their formerly shy daughter expound on art.
Just because I don't use a textbook doesn't excuse me from teaching writing and thinking skills. And when I teach my art students skills that translate across the curriculum, I'm teaching the whole student.

Barrett, T. (1997). Talking about student art. Worcester, MA: Davis.

Harvey, S., & Goudvis, A. (2007). Strategies that work (2nd ed.). Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

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