Teaching Critical Thinking Through Art History In High School

Arts education is not arts and crafts. Arts and crafts may have a benefit for many–very useful for social/emotional wellness and special education, and fun too. Arts education is not learning lines or music by rote and performing it totally detached from what you are doing. It’s not tracing or copying a drawing or making things out of pipe cleaners. Draw what you see. Paint the vase of flowers. Copy my picture. Sing this. Repeat after me. Let’s make a macaroni picture. Play it like this. Don’t ask why, it goes that way. Arts education is not being a robot.

Arts education, according to Wikipedia( I know, not the most scholarly, but OK for this purpose), encompasses all the visual and performing arts delivered in a standards-based, sequential approach by a qualified instructor as part of the core curriculum. Its core is the study of inseparable artistic and aesthetic experience and learning. It can include music, dance, drama, theatre, culinary arts and visual art such as painting, sculpture, printmaking, pottery, design, clothing,  photography, computer graphics, and film making.

So where am I going with this? Arts education is often about performance; it is to do something or to make something, and perhaps interpret the works of others and express their feelings. Using critical thinking techniques and questions may have no immediate relationship to the subject matter as performance. Opportunities for enhancing critical thinking can be used in addition to performing and visual arts. I can ask a chorus inquiry questions about the meaning of the music, its history, the culture of the world when it was written. I want them to be thinking people who wish to express themselves, not robots who wish to reflect the expressions of others.

Let’s define what critical thinking is.  It is a an approach to student centered learning that allows the students to relate information to their own life and already existing knowledge. They can analyze new information, evaluate and  process it,  and then apply it to something new, or their ownlife situation.    

An example is to take a well-known quote: I  have used this one:

   All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up. –Pablo Picasso

I ask: (and allow for every answer to stimulate another possible question)

  • What does it mean?
  • What does it mean to you?
  • How does this apply to your life?
  • What do you think Picasso was talking about?
  • Can you give me an example of this?
  • How were you artistic when you were younger that you aren’t now?
  • All of the answers will relate to the student and their knowledge and experience directly.

Another example:

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too. President John F. Kennedy, Houston, TX 1962

This quote stimulates many questions:

  • What was President Kennedy talking about?
  • Why do you think he said that?
  • What does that mean to you and how can you apply it to your life?
  • How can we apply that to our society?
  • How do you think those words affected the history that we now know and understand?
  • Will those words affect the future?
  • Does it affect your future?
  • Does it affect the future of anyone that you know?
  • How does this affect your ability to understand your own goals and artistic expression?


~ Ask questions and lots of them.

~Let the answers stimulate more questions.
~ Ask a knowledge based question and the expand from there to questions that ask students to use what they have learned and apply knowledge or make inferences.

~ Good Questions:

  • Are Age appropriate.
  • Have no right or wrong answer and may prompt other avenues of discussion.
  • Ask to synthesize information and APPLY WHAT YOU KNOW to a new scenario.
  • Demonstrate an understanding of how multiple pieces fit together.
  • May have a deeper meaning.
  • Relevant to the students’ lives in the future.

~ Give them some introductory phrases that will help them direct their thoughts.  “I agree with you because…” I disagree because…”

~ Discuss how the subject may be relevant at home or in other aspects of their lives.

~ Discuss how this subject relates to other academic subjects and how it is used in other subjects.

~ Step back and let the student be responsible for his own learning. Don’t be a knowledge fountain. Teachers must use their words selectively – don’t talk too much.

~ Critical thinking can relate to high stakes standardized testing. Take the content knowledge and have students evaluate and analyze it. DO research.

~ Model what you want them to do and HOW TO THINK.

~ Allow for differences of opinion and encourage discussion. Students will learn from each other and get to know each other.

~ Be sure to have students validate their information. Use research tools and Socratic discussions. Challenge each other.

~ Use writing as a tool for evaluation to assess what students have learned.

~ Use self-evaluation and peer evaluation (through teacher provided rubric) as learning tools.

~ Use the New Version of Bloom’s Taxonomy

A few more words about Tests. . .

The  standardized tests themselves ask straight forward questions for the most part. Currently, there is little use of critical thinking. It is good for students to be able to reason. If they cannot remember a fact, perhaps they can use reasoning abilities and get the right answer. Tests will evolve to something better, I believe they have to.

Students must understand that critical thinking and lifelong learning is not just memorizing a bunch of facts. The facts must relate to a deeper meaning. They must use the facts to do something larger.  Why do we have three branches of government? What are their purpose? What would it be like if we didn’t? What is successful about this type of government? What does not work so well?

I know the Arts do not have high stakes testing. If we ask critical thinking questions about things such as the meaning or style of Mozart’s music, the expression in a Van Gogh Painting, and how past culture relates to life today, students can learn to make these associations.  In art class, they can build, design and question why to do things a certain way. It expands the mind and the realm of possibilities. Critical thinking stimulates the imagination. Not only should students learn to imagine, but also they should learn to follow through. Dreaming the ridiculous has no purpose. Dreaming with the intention of making reality does. Creativity is only real if it can be realized.

From the National Art Education Association: 10 Lesson the Arts Teach:


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Categories: 21st Century Education, arts and business, Arts Integrated Education, creativity, critical thinking, Education reform, effort, extrinsic reward, foster workforce readiness, grades, Innovation, intrinsic reward, mastery, math, Mathematics eduction, mentors, motivation, self-esteem, social/emotional wellness, STEAM, STEM education, technology, technology in the classroom, Uncategorized, web 2.0 for classroomTags: 21st century education, 21st century learning, arts integrated curriculum, Arts Integrated Education, collaboration, communication, deliberate practice, differentiated learning, education and technology, educational reform, excellence, express yourself, imagination, innovation, mentors, STEAM, write with imagination

We all know that Critical Thinking is a vital 21st Century Skill for our students. However, sometimes it’s difficult to think about presenting the concept to very young students. The good news is that with a little imagination, anything is possible. Today I’m sharing a simple activity you can use with your youngest students to begin to develop their critical thinkings skills.

The activity is called Art Detective and is super simple to pull off.

It would be perfect for an introduction to a project or theme, or an excellent option to pull out when you have 15 extra minutes of class. Here’s how to do it.

Help your students become art detectives.


1. Get into costume.


This step is optional, but it makes for a more dramatic experience for the students. If you already own a trench coat, great! If not, head to your nearest thrift store to pick one up for a few bucks. While the trench is the key piece, there’s no one stopping you from going all out with a hat, sunglasses, and a magnifying glass.

2. Choose a piece of art for students to “investigate.”

If you’re using this as an introduction to a project or theme, you may want to use a specific piece of art. Most likely, your choice will only be available in poster form. However, if you’re doing this activity outside of a specific project, why not bring in a real, physical piece of art? This could be a painting you’ve done (don’t tell them!), a piece of work done by a high school student in your district, or something you have hanging in your home. There is something about a real piece of art that truly engages students. In addition, don’t feel as though you have to limit your choices to 2D works. Ceramic pieces, sculptures, weavings, and artifacts also all work well. In fact, if you don’t know anything about the piece yourself, it can lead to a much more authentic discussion.

3. Set the stage.

Explain the premise of the activity: You have just discovered the piece of art you are holding (or showing) and you have no idea what it is or what it’s about. You need the students help to figure it out!

4. Guide the discussion without judgment.

As art teachers, part of our job is to know a lot about art. However, take a minute to think of this activity from the students’ perspective. They may have never seen anything like what you’re showing them. They may be looking at a real piece of pottery for the first time ever. This is a magical experience! Using the questions from the handout below, guide the students through an organic discussion led by their ideas and reactions.

If students are coming to different conclusions than the artist or different conclusions than you, it’s OK! Ask follow-up questions to reveal their thought processes. “What makes you think the person feels angry?” or “What about the picture makes you think it was made with fabric?” are two examples of these types of questions. I guarantee you will be blown away by their ideas and insights.

The beauty of this activity is that just by participating, students are developing critical thinking skills. The NEA has a helpful document available for download called “An Educator’s Guide to the ‘Four Cs’” which details how part of critical thinking is making judgments and decisions. Specifically, students should develop skills to “Effectively analyze and evaluate evidence, arguments, claims, and beliefs,” and, “Interpret information and draw conclusions based on the best analysis,” and finally, “Identify and ask significant questions that clarify various points of view and lead to better solutions.”

Over time, providing your students with opportunities like playing Art Detectives will do just that! For even more insight into helping students analyze art, check out the following articles and lesson plan.


How do you get young students to begin to think about artwork in a critical way?

Do you have any favorite art pieces for them to analyze?



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