5 ways to develop more independent learners in Art

‘Needy’ art students?

Do you ever look across a sea of waving hands in your classroom and despair? Some classes are worse than others, but the slide toward helplessness, giving up or not even trying in the first place seems to be a problem that Art teachers frequently have to tackle. Developing independent learners is a unique challenge for Art teachers.

In an attempt to build confidence and resilience in a few of my classes, I decided to face the problem head-on and try out some solutions. I’m pleased to say that, to my surprise, I did begin to see change. I found myself with time to be able to support where needed as I was not in such constant demand…

So, here are my top five tips – I hope they are useful for you too!

Independent learners in Art

  1. Green and red paper cups

    I introduced a new ‘cup’ system for signalling the need for help. Rather than ‘hands up’, calling out and halting work, I employed a new approach to signalling the need for help. It’s pretty simple: each double desk has a green and a red paper cup on it. Initially, all the desks have the red cup slotted inside the green one and this is placed upside down. During the lesson, students swap the red cup to the outside if they feel they need some support. Once they have received the help they need, the green cup goes back on top. Of course, it took a couple of lessons to get students used to working in this way, but they initially like the novelty, and then seemed to recognise the benefit to the way we worked as a class. The idea here is that whilst waiting for teacher support, students keep plugging away, and very often they have already overcome the little hurdle they had experienced by the time I get to them.

  2. Resilience stickers stickers

    It’s surprising how many students respond to a lovely shiny sticker, isn’t it? This is nothing new in the teachers’ toolkit, I know, but I felt that the stickers I had did not specifically recognise the attributes that I wanted to see in my students, so I created some for myself. You can do this using A4 printable stickers and print from your own computer (I have an example here), or – for a little more money – get some swanky ones printed online (I used www.moo.com and they do make lovely stickers!). I was inspired by Building Learning Power in coming up with learning dispositions that I wanted to see developed in my classroom. Apart from motivating the students, the stickers remind me to talk about these qualities in my classroom practice. Which brings me to…

  3. Learning objectives

    In addition to the usual skills or knowledge based learning objectives I planned for lessons, I have also started specifically giving learning objectives around the attributes I want the students to practice. This means, for example, learning how to improve focus by avoiding distractions. Or becoming good at persisting even when there are challenges in the work. By talking about these aims and reviewing them in plenary discussions, students see their own progress… Bit by bit we are seeing fewer students waiting for help, and more who are motivated to make progress themselves.

    Art learning dispositions
  4. Modelling

    The mindset amongst students (and teachers sometimes) that you can either do something or you can’t is often pretty strong. I found this was one of the chief causes of students giving up on practical tasks and then causing disruption. To tackle this, I aim to be a better example; showing that I make mistakes and often don’t know how to do things. I am attempting to model a good process of learning, rather than being an infallible teacher. I have even offered one of my particularly disengaged students the opportunity to teach me basketball (which she is really good at) to highlight our varied – but equally valuable – skills. She didn’t take me up on the offer, but has started working well in art and recognising her own improvements.

  5. Rewarding the right things

    Finally, it is an unavoidable truth that we all like rewards for doing well. Whether it is a postcard home recognising effort or a piece of work being put display, I have taken a good look at the criteria I apply for selecting the work that gets rewarded. I am looking for the students who turn their own cups from red back to green (see point one above). And I am recognising students who manage to keep focused despite distractions. By emphasising the learning process rather than focusing on the outcome, I am hoping to reward the behaviour that I want to see in the class, and this then has a positive effect on the outcomes themselves – win, win!

What are your tips for building resilience and independence in your art room?

Check out the resources in my web-shop for worksheets, schemes of work and lessons to support independent learners in art.