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Principles and techniques that underpin art teaching

Written by: Katie Jump
8 min read

Why teach art?

In recent years, time pressures and focus on core subjects in the primary classroom have meant that art – and other foundation subjects – have been allocated less and less time. However, schools are still aiming to prepare students with skills beyond those that can be measured by tests and, together with a new Ofsted framework (DfE, 2019a) focusing on a ‘broad and balanced’ curriculum, this is an ideal opportunity to capitalise on all that art has to offer. The Fabian Society produced a report (Cooper, 2018) on the demise of the arts in primary schools, which includes many suggestions for action that could and should be taken at both school and governmental level to redress the decline of the arts. The NSEAD too have monitored the decline of art teaching attributed to governmental policy (2016) as part of their work to promote and protect art in schools. Whilst these bodies are able to lobby at a national level for change, there is plenty that a class teacher can do to enrich the experience of the arts encountered by children in the primary classroom.

Class-based techniques

Eisner (2002) argues that there are five cognitive functions that the arts afford us: the opportunity to really notice the world around us; the chance to engage our imagination by ‘liberating us from the literal’ (p. 10); an ability to ‘tolerate ambiguity’ (p. 10) and promote subjectivity; a chance to inspect our own ideas as art is created; and the opportunity to ‘discover our emotional selves’ (p. 11). Viewing the purpose of art education through this lens, it is clear that the opportunities for development transcend the practical activities and artwork subsequently created. Beyond the ‘busyness’ of creating art in a classroom, taking time to stop and appreciate artworks can address all five of these functions in turn.

Classroom teachers, though, can become focused on the end product – the Greek pot or the painting for display in the hall. This may be due to time constraints, pressure from above or a lack of confidence. Art appreciation can seem a daunting prospect to a non-specialist teacher. Finding the middle ground between letting students take their own meaning from famous artwork and imparting useful historical knowledge can be a difficult choice. Combine that dilemma with insecurity about one’s own subject knowledge, and it is easy to see why art appreciation may be avoided in favour of practical tasks instead. Careful observation of one part of a painting or choosing one of the eight elements of art (point, line, shape, form, colour, space, texture or value) is a good starting point. An appreciation of the world around us, taking time to observe carefully and concentrate for extended periods is a skill that can be utilised across curriculum areas. Whilst Weare (2013) draws our attention to the infancy of studies looking at mindfulness in children, she does note that it fits into a wide range of contexts and, at the very least, does no harm.

It may be tempting to choose well-known or realistic pictures to show pupils, but then students would miss out on the excitement of seeing something that they have never seen before, or that which has been created from the imagination of another. If we are to use Eisner’s five functions, then students need to see artwork that doesn’t make immediate sense. After all, not everything they see in the world around them is going to make sense, and the skills of questioning and making connections to what is already known are important, even they are not the direct intention of the lesson.

Including ambiguity within a lesson is not something that teachers often plan to achieve. Imparting knowledge, finding solutions and drawing conclusions may feel much more comfortable. Barbe-Gall (2018) provides an excellent starting point to support teachers in making the leap from the definite to the ambiguous. She suggests that being aware of audience, or letting the students lead, is crucial. Building on what they notice – and their reality – provides the opportunity for students to engage with the subjectivity that Eisner described. As with teaching all subjects, a teacher modelling their own internal thoughts consolidates for students what they are aspiring to in their reflection; this can be led from a teacher’s own interests (a mathematical, social or geographical perspective) and could be where facts about the piece and artist can be brought into discussion. Barbe-Gall warns to avoid clichés and anecdotes. Tempting as it is to put artwork into neat boxes for students, developing an ability to truly appreciate art involves feeling comfortable with unanswered questions.

Using artwork as a vehicle to discuss emotions can be challenging but also gives a new perspective to inference, which can impact across all curriculum areas. Whilst neuroaesthetics is still a relatively new field, research such as that undertaken by Chatterjee and Vartanian (2014) points to the emotional effects that viewing artwork can have on the brain. Capitalising on this in a time of rising mental health concerns for young people seems like an opportunity too good to be missed. Damian Hinds announced the government’s involvement in a joint venture with the Anna Freud Centre in July 2019 to support the training of specialised teachers in schools to support mental health (DfE, 2019b), and it will be interesting to note how the arts are incorporated into the provision subsequently being provided for students. This in turn can impact on the quality of lessons when children return to the task of creating art for themselves, giving them the vocabulary needed to describe the emotions they demonstrate in their own work.

Whole-school perspectives

Ofsted’s latest framework (2019) has drawn attention to the intent, implementation and impact of the education that schools have to offer, and most schools are questioning whether their curriculum is truly purposeful. Eisner (2002) identifies eight visions that underpin the principles of art education, noting that most schools and curriculums will have a hybrid of some or many of these. Deciding on which of these align most closely with the vision of the school in other areas seems a pertinent starting point.

The first of these is discipline-based education, which seeks to get students to talk about art, understand its historical context, be able to question art and think like artists. Whilst this may seem to be the domain of art A-level and beyond, elements of these skills brought into primary school topics add a depth and context to any artwork created in the classroom.

Visual culture – the second of Eisner’s principles – aims to provide students with the chance to view a culture or political statement through the artwork created. In the current climate, where there is a discussion around how much we censor the education we give primary school children – in relation to learning about diversity or drugs education, for example – discussing artwork seems a possible ‘in road’ for these discussions to begin.

Art education as an opportunity for creative problem-solving is the third principle. For schools who have embraced Dweck’s mindset approach (2017), art can be an opportunity for problem-solving independently and creatively. Similar to the work of the Bauhaus artists, tasks could be framed for children, with a brief that they have to fulfil with a final piece of their choosing. The opportunity for inclusivity is most evident here – the accessibility of tasks from this perspective means that teachers can easily adapt tasks to ensure that language barriers, physical differences and cognitive challenge are all catered for.

If the curriculum of a school is also addressing the mental health and wellbeing of pupils, then the fourth principle of creative expression may be the purpose of art in the curriculum. Seen as self-expression, and with little teacher intervention, this perspective uses art lessons as a tool for students to engage with their emotional side. Whilst it may seem a difficult prospect to resource such student-led learning, this principle seems the one that would promote the mental health of students most strongly.

Preparing students for work, developing cognition and improving academic performance are three further principles that Eisner suggests could drive a curriculum. Both the practical skills that may be applied in many workplaces and the ability to question and probe are aspirations that align with the philosophies of many schools. Interestingly, in Eisner’s earlier writings on the subject of arts education, he did not make this connection – as noted by Catterall (1998). Rather, he felt that the connection between academic achievement and arts teaching was spurious. His 2002 work does, however, include them as principles. And large-scale studies, such as those by Catterall (2009), provide significant evidence of a correlation between the disciplines.

One final principle that Eisner suggests is art as part of an integrated curriculum. Many primary schools choose to adopt topic-based or integrated planning, whereby a theme is built upon across English, science and foundation subjects. Art from this perspective could be used, for example, to add cultural context to a historical topic, for experiential opportunities in creating art from a geographical place or as a visual representation of a story that has been written. This final principle also fits well with an increasing idea of ‘concept’ webs. For example, a theme of ‘spirituality’, picked up in Year 3 work on angels, in Year 5 looking at the dissolution of the monarchy or Year 6 investigating Chinese superstitions, linking within and across year groups.

Eisner has provided us with purpose and principle from which to view – and teach – the art curriculum. The way to make sure that it is taught effectively, with relevance, and that space is made for it in the timetable, is to have a clear and shared vision that starts with the individual lesson and extrapolates up to whole-school level.


Barbe-Gall F (2018) How To Talk To Children About Art. London: Frances Lincoln/Quarto.

Catterall J (1998) Does experience in the arts boost academic achievement? A response to Eisne. Art Education 51(4): 6–11.

Catterall J (2009) Doing Well and Doing Good by Doing Art: The Effects of Education in the Visual and Performing Arts on the Achievements and Values of Young Adults. Los Angeles/London: Imagination Group/IGroup Books.

Chatterjee A and Vartanian O (2014) Neuroaesthetics. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 18(7): 370–375.

Cooper B (2018) Primary colours – the decline of arts education in primary schools and how it can be reversed. Available at: (accessed 13 July 2019).

Department for Education (DfE) (2019a) School Inspection Handbook. London: HMRC.

Department for Education (DfE) (2019b) National Mental Health Programme between schools and the NHS. Available at: (accessed 13 July 2019).

Dweck C (2017) Mindset – Updated Edition: Changing The Way You Think To Fulfil Your Potential. New York: Ballantine Books.

Eisner EW (2002) The Arts and the Creation of Mind. New Haven: Yale University Press.

NSEAD (2016) The National Society for Education in Art and Design survey report 2015–16. Available at: (accessed 13 July 2019).

Weare K (2013) Developing mindfulness with children and young people: A review of the evidence and policy context.  Journal of Children’s Services 8(2): 141–153.

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