As an art teacher, conversing with parents about art class can be an adventure. Parents can have some odd misconceptions about art and their child’s growth potential in the arts. If you’re an art teacher you may have heard some of the following questions and comments from parents. “I can’t draw a straight line.” “I hope you go easy with Jonny’s grades, no one has art talent in our family!” “Sarah doesn’t like your current project, can you substitute a different one?” It’s not limited to parents either; these misconceptions can be held by students, colleagues, and even the administration. It may be frustrating to hear these comments but it’s what some call, “a teachable moment.”  Today I am going to tackle TWO common misconceptions of art class, what the current research shows on the topics, and how you can both counter the misconception and educate in one fell swoop.

Art is for the talented few

The belief that only a few students are born talented is probably the most common misconception. Too often students are labeled “gifted” or “talented” early on and the rest of us just plod along and hopefully can at least have some fun. This misconception is so strong, that we even need to combat it within art educators. What I have found, and I believe every subject could echo this, is that some students have a higher aptitude for art. This may be because they had more opportunities to develop skills. My own children had access to a wide array of media and exposure to the arts. Play dough, markers, colored pencils, glue, etc were in abundance in my house and an art table in the corner was utilized frequently and often a mess. In contrast, my niece grew up in a neat home with parents who had less tolerance for messes. Occasionally her mom would set my niece up with a bingo marker and some paper for a very controlled art-making opportunity. This is just to say that nature and nurture will create diversity in our classroom.

What the research shows. According to research by psychologist Carol Dweck, a fixed mindset forms when someone believes that their intelligence is inherent. For students labeled “gifted,” It becomes harder for them to form a growth mindset.  Students labeled “gifted” aren’t taught to overcome academic obstacles.  Dweck writes, “People do differ in intelligence, talent, and ability. And yet research is converging on the conclusion that great accomplishment, and even what we call genius, is typically the result of years of passion and dedication and not something that flows naturally from a gift.”

How you can respond? In the art studio, we believe all students are artists and encourage a growth mindset. Students will come to the art room with varying life experiences and skills. It is my job as a teacher to build on the skill sets all students show up with. We look for all students to reach or exceed skills appropriate for their age. In art, we develop physical skills, like fine motor development as well as executive function skills like the ability to plan an idea for an art project and persist through to the finished artwork. Both those skills are needed for art making but are not limited to the art room by any stretch of the imagination.

You can fail art?

Oh yes, my friend, it is possible to fail in art. In my opinion, you have to work pretty darn hard at failing too. Every subject has its unique attributes but art, my friend, still has a discipline to it. The image of the artist waiting for inspiration in front of a blank canvas is not how art or the art classroom works. We have curricula, textbooks, state and national standards, and a myriad of assessment methods. Gosh, that sounds pretty academic, right? If that doesn’t sound creative to you, I assure you it is. Artist Chuck Close said it well, “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself.”

Failure can take many forms. There is a student who fails a year, a quarter, or a project. But there are other forms of failing. Some students who excel at most academic subjects may struggle with art making and feel like they fail (by their own standards or the standards of parents) when they don’t get an A. Failure for some students means they are frustrated with a project and want to give up. For others, failure is simply not feeling confident. We all want the feeling of a subject being easy but the truth is we learn when things become challenging.

What does failure in the 5-12 grade art look like? It may look like a student who has difficulty with organization. The student often loses artwork, forgets to finish an incomplete project, and fails to do homework. The student may bring an artwork home to work on and lose it or does not take care of it in the journey and it never returns to be graded. Failure may look like a child who has a difficult time with the physical studio structure. Students often share space and supplies. There is often more socializing during art and that can be a distraction. I have seen students paint on another student’s art or even body. They may not be responsible when they move about the classroom and interact with others. Autonomy and responsibility with materials and space are age-appropriate skills to expect but can still be developing or be unmotivated to display. Failure can often look like hostility and refusal to work. It’s sad when it happens, but I have had students who refuse to participate in class.

Many parents and students don’t see work ethic as a skill that can be evaluated but Sateja Joshi makes a strong case in her paper Assessment of Work Ethic – Possible and Necessary. In Joshi’s study, students were measured for handing in assignments, preparedness, responsibility, and attitude. In art, I know I evaluate students in timely completion of assignments, preparation for assignments, class participation, and studio skills (cleaning up after themselves, maintaining their workspace, handling equipment properly and safely, etc.) in addition to the aesthetic issues. I always have high buy-in from parents on curriculum night when I mention that the same child who may need to be reminded of house chores doesn’t need to be reminded to clean their workspace when it impacts their grade.

What the research shows. Parents may not take failing art seriously. They should.  A  2018 report titled Hidden Risk found, that “failure in a non-core course (such as art and physical education) was as detrimental as failure in a core course (English, math, science, and social studies) to students’ likelihood of graduating from high school. Art teaches a lot of valuable skills. Merryl Goldberg writes for Americans for the Arts, “…the arts have the intrinsic potential to teach lessons of persistence and perseverance. I’m not advocating that everyone turn into an artist to learn these lessons. I do believe, however,  that if kids engage seriously in the arts, they will learn these important skills.”

We don’t have to be talking about failing art for a semester or a whole year either. It could be failing a project, an exercise, or simply not having a project turn out in a way the student envisioned. While that may not equal an “F” grade-wise, it can mean a student’s enjoyment of the arts may waiver. I have been contacted by parents to say a project was creating stress for a child and, well, couldn’t I just see my way clear to excuse their child from the project? I always suggest ways the student can alter their work or the process but I do not wholesale excuse a student from a project because they are struggling. Many educational studies suggest we understand things better in the long run when we can learn from our mistakes (visit Waterford’s Why Failure Is Good for Learning, and How It Applies to Your Struggling Students to read more on this topic). That uncomfortable feeling a child is experiencing? That’s a type of learning!

How you can respond? When a student is struggling it is very easy for a student, a parent, and even the teacher to make it personal. “The teacher is mean” or “The student doesn’t listen.” A better tact is to ask what behaviors are interfering with success and how can the team of students, teachers, and parents work cooperatively to create a positive change. I recommend at the middle and high school levels that a student participate in at least a portion of a conversation about class concerns. When work is subpar, I find it helpful for a teacher to use old student samples to show craftsmanship expectations in contrast to what the student is turning in. When I sit down with parents I have students find their portfolio and spread the contents on the table. When the concerns are behavior-related, I try to write down what behaviors I observe after class and direct quotes students use. This will not solve all your discipline problems but are good habit and helps others have a clear understanding of what the problem is without getting emotional.

I had a student complain that I failed him on an important test and insinuated that it was because I didn’t like him. The student and parent came in and sat down. I made copies of the test and highlighted areas that displayed illegible penmanship and other areas where the information was written incoherently. The student, a very bright child who generally excelled in school, didn’t see the value in art and had been phoning it in all year. He rushed through the exam and then slept. After reviewing the test, the parent thanked me for my time and said she felt quite comfortable that the student received the grade he deserved. Other parents might have advocated for the opportunity for a student to clarify some of the illegible content or even retake the exam. This parent and I were of the same mind that her son was going to learn an important life lesson that day.

I hope the information above will help you educate both students and parents. Stay tuned for future installments of misconceptions on art education.