Teaching for Artistic Behaviors and Walden’s Approach to Teaching Art

Several years ago, while working at a school on the west side, I noticed a disturbing phenomenon: kids who were self proclaimed “bad artists.” At this school, kids who finished their homework were encouraged to draw, use art materials, and be creative. But a disturbing number of them told me they “couldn’t do art.”

Many as young as 2nd and 3rd grade explained they were bad at drawing or painting, that they didn’t know how to make anything, and that everything they attempted turned out wrong. This surprised me, and I pushed back. As far as I was concerned, the only way to be bad at art was to not do it. Yet I knew these kids weren’t being difficult. They had authentic performance anxiety about their artistic abilities. What should have been a joy and a way to explore became a reminder of their perceived failings.

While this is a very sad story, I am happy to say I’ve experienced the opposite in my work with kids at Walden. There are several reasons for this. We emphasize the importance of multiple perspectives, we teach the value of each person’s contribution, and we avoid comparative language like “better” or “best”, focusing instead on each child’s growth and progress. But with particular regards to art, there is another reason Walden students don’t share the anxieties I mentioned above and that is an Art Education Philosophy called TAB.

Portia Hein. Photo courtesy Walden School

Teaching for Artistic Behaviors (TAB) is a nationally recognized approach to teaching art that gives students choices. It was developed in collaboration with Project Zero, a project within Harvard’s graduate school of education that studies the cognitive benefits of arts education. Since 1967, TAB has been practiced in Massachusetts schools and has been researched by the Massachusetts College of Art. The basic idea being that the mind habits art teaches are of more value than pre-scripted art projects. For more information on TAB, I sat down with Walden’s Art Teacher, Portia Hein.

“When you look back in time and you look at history, you’re looking at art; that is, artifacts that reflect the culture in which they were made. At TAB’s core is a belief that art is a reflection of the maker and not a predetermined idea. My culture is different than a seven-year-old’s, and their art making should reflect their own culture, not mine,” Hein said.

TAB teaches students to regard themselves as artists and allows their own interests and ideas to guide their art making. (For those inclined to research further, the terms “Choice-based,” “Teaching for Artistic Behavior,” “Tab,” and “Centers approach” are often used interchangeably)

What does this look like in layman’s terms? Well for one thing, TAB art studios are arranged in in “Centers.”

The room is organized into zones focused on separate art mediums such as Drawing, Painting, Sculpture, etc. Students move at their own pace to various areas where they use tools and materials specific to their art making. Each center functions as its own mini art studio.

In a more traditional class model, a teacher would assign an art project such as still life painting, with everyone working on the same task. While valuable at honing particular craft skills, this approach does little to encourage creativity or outside-the-box thinking, which are among the biggest values of art education. According to a report by Americans for the Arts, “Art education strengthens problem-solving and critical-thinking skills. The experience of making decisions and choices in the course of creating art carries over into other parts of life.”

Arranging the classroom into Centers is a way to facilitate this.

(For a great article on the many benefits of art education in child development click here)

The role of the teacher is also somewhat different in a TAB model. The teacher introduces new art concepts and projects in short mini lessons before every class. Students may choose to incorporate this new information into their art making or not. The advantage, however, is that they are exposed to a wide variety of techniques and ideas both from their teacher and their classmates. Furthermore, by keeping the teaching section short (a five minute demonstration) it allows more time for student work, giving the teacher freedom to move around the classroom, ask questions, and engage each student in their own process.

Perhaps most importantly, however, TAB is distinct in that it fosters independent thinking, persistence and risk taking-in short, all the qualities that artists value.

The effects of this educational theory are easy to see. At the close of the school year last June, Walden’s Art Studio was transformed into a gallery for our end of year open house. The variety and inventiveness of the student work was nothing short of triumphant! (See pictures below) The show reflected the school’s core values of empowerment and inquiry.

It still saddens me to think about my kids on the west side who thought they were “bad” at art. But I am excited for generation of artists who will grow up thinking differently thanks to education philosophies like TAB.

Walden School, 74 S. San Gabriel Blvd., Pasadena, (626) 792-6166 or visit www.waldenschool.net.





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