Expectations in Arts Education

Updated: Mar 16, 2020

(originally posted 9/5/2018 on inkyspace)

In this collections of posts, I ramble on about my own philosophies, and then top it off with some practical advice for arts educators and arts learners to enhance an artistic practice.

Through all the years I’ve been in education, I’ve mostly learned how little I really know. But, I do know one thing for certain: people got expectations of art. Especially adults/ parents – we have these ideas of what art SHOULD BE. As if we know. And we think we know… or at least some people do… because we think we know when we’ve done it wrong… because it fails to meet our expectations. And those expectations are often based on a very limited awareness of the whole possibilities of artistic experiences.

If a person thinks that art is only about painting masterpieces that look like old European masters, that not only narrows the scope of what they will consider as art, but also narrows the scope of what they might consider of their own creative attempts to be valuable and artistic. They may not even try to do something interesting or new.

Art is creative, and creativity is NOT about expectations. I’m making the argument that creativity is essentially defying expectations entirely, and that creative practice and work are about finding or making something that’s totally unexpected. I think it’s because of this, creativity can seem like magic for a lot of people.

Maybe it is magic, but it’s not necessarily magic we can’t understand. Other than the skills building which takes practice, the magic of creativity might just be as simple as letting go of expectations. I’m not saying that’s not hard! It really, really is. But this practice of letting go of what one thinks something should be and embracing instead all the different things something can be is an incredibly important skill in all kinds of ways, not just in art. It’s also a skill that art education is uniquely positioned to teach.

Expectations certainly have a place in education: those especially about keeping people safe and well, and anticipating healthy collaborative cultures in learning environments… “I expect us all in this class to treat everyone with respect.”

What I take issue with is the expectations of how people should learn and how they will learn. Expectations can be guiding, but they can also be restrictive, confining, and suffocating. They can be distracting, too! And what they distract from can sometimes be those organic, serendipitous moments of learning and discovery.


How do we create good educational conditions for appropriately violating expectations? I think as often as we can, we should find a way to subvert “rules”. Its seems that educators often interchange “rules” and “expectations” and this can send the message to learners that anything other than meeting expectations is not only rule-breaking, but also discouraged, judged poorly, and wrong.

I like to think about the times when I’ve set out with an objective of what I would be teaching in a class. Maybe it was something like texture techniques in watercolor. So while I have the salt, the rubbing alcohol, and the wax crayons out, I’m thinking– expecting — that the learners will try each one at a time, and maybe layer the effects to make something I think is cool. In the kids’ classes, almost without fail there will be at least one learner who wants to break the rules. They ask, can I pour the alcohol into the salt? (If they ask at all, usually they just do it and I notice it when the smell is overwhelming.) The choice here is obvious: I can say NO, that’s not how we’re using those materials today… or I can say YES, see what happens!

What would be the point of saying NO? Would it be because this is a waste of materials? Salt and rubbing alcohol are cheap. Would I say NO because it’s messy? Messes can be cleaned up, and windows can be opened. Would I say NO because that’s not how I imagined the materials would be used and I want to control the way this learner engages with them based on some hubristic sense that I know how people should be learning to create art? Probably. And that’s wrong of me as an educator.

Saying YES means that I am letting go of this false sense of control… like anyone could control anyone else’s self-expression anyway. Saying YES shows that I’m more interested in what the learner might discover… hell, might LEARN… than having it my way for some arbitrary, narcissistic reason. Saying YES means that the learner’s experience is the most important. Not the salt, or the alcohol, or the rules or even the (literally) stinking painting.

That is the work of the educator; to have the sense and decency to recognize actual learning moments when they happen, and to nurture them fully for the benefit of learners. Say YES to discovery, and NO to arbitrary expectations.

Apparently, Oregon once had a law against fishing with canned corn. That's just mean to canned corn!


“Break One Rule”

This is a sketchbook practice project that can help learners and educators find the boundaries for rule-breaking and how to use rule-breaking to benefit creative thinking and making.

Before the project, and without learner input, create 3 - 5 rules. These should be rules that make sense for the type of project; i.e., for a clay project, a rule could be something like “use the awl to carve thin and thick lines into your clay.” Include “break one rule” as a rule.

I usually use this with drawing practice, and here are rules I typically include:

  • Draw an object as if it were a person

  • Use all the different colors of markers we have on the tables

  • Use at least 4 different shapes in the drawing

  • Draw with your non-dominant hand

  • Draw with your eyes closed

  • Draw on a non-flat surface

  • Break one rule

Present these rules with little more instruction to learners, and give them a reasonable amount of time to create their sketch (I usually do like 5 minutes).

Do your own drawing in this exercise. See what happens! Ask learners to share and discuss.

What rules did learners break? Why did they chose those rules and keep others? What was challenging?

See if anyone finds the inherent paradox in the exercise… they could break the “break one rule” rule… they could break no rules or all the rules! Use discussion time to talk about rules, why we have them, why we follow them, why we break some and not others.

The sketches they make can be cool or they can be meh. That isn’t what matters here. What matters is the process of thinking, problem-solving, pushing boundaries, and finding acceptance.