Every month we publish two articles on “Shady Oak Best Practices,” our favorite approaches to education and why they work. If friends ask why you send your kids to Shady Oak instead of a “regular” school, refer them to this series—and the science backing us up—for starters.

Education emphasizing “the arts” has suffered in our practical-minded age. Most schools, most of the time, stress some form of “science,” whether it’s human-oriented (history, government, sociology) or production-oriented (technology, engineering, math). Lesson planners save just enough room for literature to ensure students learn to read and can understand what worldviews shape society; “finer” arts are dismissed as irrelevant time-wasters.

That’s a shame, because art is invaluable for helping children develop as individuals, hone their fine motor skills, appreciate their own emotions, take initiative, and make choices about what works best in various situations. If we want to produce a generation of thoughtful, empathetic people who see the rest of the world as having value beyond “useful to me and mine,” it’s time to give TAB (Teaching for Artistic Behavior) its rightful place alongside STEM.

It needs emphasizing that well-managed TAB classes are choice-based—they encourage students to decide for themselves what materials to work with, what to make, and what the final result should look like. Just setting aside a period for “art” won’t do it if you:

• stand in front of the room and guide students as one unit through every “how to make it” process (and give A’s to the results that look most like yours);
• hand everyone the same picture to color with an emphasis on staying inside the lines;
• tell kids not to be silly, you can’t have a purple cow or a blue sun;
• hold up certain projects as “better done” than others.

That’s teaching not for artistic behavior, but for “order” and conformity. Kids get plenty of that in the rest of life.

Additional hints to help kids get the most from TAB:

• Use an “art studio” approach: set up a room of multiple stations furnished with various art materials.
• Provide opportunities in a variety of media. Don’t banish modeling clay, paints, or papier-mâché just because they’re messier than origami and colored pencils; trying too hard to keep everything “neat” only stifles creativity. Just set out drop cloths and smocks, and have everyone help clean up after the art period.
• Keep parameters as broad as possible. Demonstrate the basics of working with unfamiliar materials and tools; set time limits; ask if there are any questions; but otherwise, turn the kids loose to create as they wish.
• Don’t say anything about which piece is prettiest, best put together, or most realistic-looking. What counts is having fun and discovering new horizons.

At Shady Oak, we emphasize Teaching for Artistic Behavior because it helps children cultivate creative skills and develop new insights into their own selves.

Science Backs Us Up! Further Resources on the Topic

Smoke and Mirrors: Art Teacher as Magician
What Is Creativity?
Visit to a Choice-Based Art Classroom