Recognizing and Using Higher Order Approaches to Teaching Art

Article excerpt

Helen Murray and Barbara Andrews' teach elementary art in the same district. Following district guidelines, they will each teach a fourth grade unit on portraits this year. Although their subject is the same, they approach the topic in contrasting ways. Consequently, what their students learn about art will be quite different.

Ms. Andrews's students will study facial proportions and have the opportunity to draw their own self-portraits. They will not be asked to make judgments or form interpretations about art. They will learn that anyone can make a portrait if the correct steps are followed.

In contrast, Ms. Murray's students will be intrigued by a mystery surrounding a stolen portrait from a famous museum. They will need to search through records to figure out who the person was and why their portrait was painted. The students will uncover who painted it and what people thought of it when it was completed. They will speculate on why the work was stolen and who could have done it. While Ms. Murray's students will learn about facial proportions and create their own portraits, they will also learn that artworks can tell stories and reveal information about people, times, and places.

Although Helen Murray and Barbara Andrews are competent art teachers, it's likely that their students will develop quite different understandings about art. Their students will learn to recognize and draw portraits with some skill. However, what will their students implicitly learn about art and, in the process, how engaged will they be?

Ms. Andrews's students will probably learn that art is predictable and easy. They will conclude that successful artmaking is based on following a series of simple steps. By failing to fink artworks, skills, or ideas to other areas or subjects, it's likely her students will not come to place art within a larger context or understand it in a substantial way.

In contrast, Ms. Murray's students will learn to interpret, speculate, investigate, and wonder about art. By engaging students in activities of this kind, Ms. Murray is providing opportunities for higher order learning. And, her students are building the kind of significant art understandings needed to create a life-long disposition for art learning.

The National Visual Arts Standards are challenging teachers to develop more than basic skills in art programs by focusing attention on the core of instruction and the depth of what students ultimately learn about art. One way of addressing this issue is by examining and modifying curriculum and pedagogical strategies to teach for higher order understanding. With this approach, students are encouraged to make better use of what they learn both inside and outside the artroom. In the process, art teachers are engaged in learning new ideas and expanding their instructional methods, thus making teaching more meaningful and exciting for both teacher and students.

This article reviews the components of teaching for higher order understanding and provides suggestions for including it in the art program by using aesthetic ideas and generative topics found in the community and local news sources. By giving students an understanding of the big picture, aesthetic ideas can provide students with the foundation necessary for constructing an in-depth understanding of the nature of art and culture.


Several terms have been used to describe the act of developing in-depth understandings in an educational context. At times, higher order learning has been linked to critical thinking and problem solving (Ennis, 1985) as well as to reflective thinking and logical reasoning (Lewis & Smith, 1993). Some discussions of higher order understanding emphasize the qualities of instruction leading to student engagement and others focus on learning outcomes. Although differences exist between these terms and approaches, each conception distinguishes between the quality of thinking and the processes that go into learning. …