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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Why Does All My Student's Artwork Look The Same? Part 2

This is part two of a week long series on choice in the art room...

By Ian Sands

 "I spent some time questioning concerns I had in my own art program and was surprised to learn the culprit."

While looking over my student’s art some time ago, I noticed that all their work looked the same. Their art was more than similar, it was unrecognizable as individual pieces. When I placed all the art on the table, I couldn’t tell which work belonged to which student. I had to turn the papers over to see their name written on the back. On more than one occasion a student would forget to sign their work. I would hold up the art and ask the class who had created it.

Not only are the above works by two different students, the are from different classes

Another thing I noticed was that all their work looked like it was made by high school students.  Of course they were high school students, but it wasn’t their skill level that made their work look this way. It was the way they handled the elements and principles. Their worked looked more like exercises in line variation and color theory than it did art.

I started questioning what it was that gave their work these two qualities. The more I thought about it, the more I realized it had nothing to do with them at all. It was my lessons that gave their work these attributes. I wanted to correct these issues but I wasn’t sure how to accomplish the task.

Not long after I had come to this realization, I saw a tweet on Twitter that read, “If you get 25 of the same thing from students, it's not a project, it's a recipe.”

At first I let my ego get in the way and thought this was harsh. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized it was a true statement. I was giving them all the same project with the same materials, the same size paper and the same desired outcomes. It should have been little wonder that their work all looked similar. By my doings, they weren’t making art. They were following my recipe.

Recently, I began giving my students theme-based assignments and allowing them to decide what materials they will use to create their art. I replaced the step by step instructions with open-ended questions that challenge them to respond with creative solutions.

The results have been outstanding. Where before I couldn’t tell two works apart, now each project is created in a style that is unique to each student. Their works no longer resemble exercises in the elements and principles, but rather true art that is personal and meaningful to them.

"I'm no longer interested in teaching art but rather making artists." ~ @iansands


  1. Interesting! What are some of your project themes?

  2. Great post! Question for you? Are you the only teacher at your school or do you share courses with other art educators?

    1. There are a total of 4 art teachers at Apex High School.
      Art 1 is taught by both Purtee and Sudkamp
      Art 2 & Art 3 by both Sands and Rossi
      Other courses taught by individual teachers.

  3. I don't know if I can accurately explain how much I love this post. So honest & raw, I know this will affect art teachers who need a change ~ I know I'm still figuring it out as well, and it's nice to see the process you've gone through to help you identify what you needed to do.
    I think this is one of the biggest steps we can make as art educators, but it helps to model so many of the changes that are currently affecting education as a whole... or are beginning to affect it, at least. We often want change, but it's difficult because it makes us uncomfortable. The thing is, we need to grab hold of our curiosity & constantly wonder "what would happen if I just...", because if we're stuck in the rut of traditional teaching, we need a bit of a boost to gain a new momentum. Articles like this help other people (including myself) to have the inspiration needed to make some of those small steps in a new direction.
    Great work, Ian!

  4. Because of your amazing selflessness, I am going choice base next semester with my adv photo course. I would love to know how you handle choice in the intro photo class or an intro class before they have the skills needed. I think your next step is a series of webinars :) Thank you again for bringing back the fun and life in my art room when district initiatives are trying to kill the creativity!


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