Teaching Artistic Behaviors = Authentic Learning

Schepker-Mueller, K. Pasley, P

first published in
Missouri Association of Elementary School Principals Magazine Winter, 2021-2022

Authentic Learning in the Art Studio

How do we create an authentic environment for children where they are wholly engaged, making deep connections to learning in a variety of subject areas and having fun? If you ask Kari Schepker-Mueller, visual art education studio teacher at Maplewood-Richmond Heights Early Childhood Center in Maplewood, Missouri, the answer becomes clear. Student Choice. Students in her art studio are engaged in a pedagogical approach called “Teaching Artistic Behaviors” or TAB. In a recent interview by Phyllis Pasley, executive director of the Missouri Alliance for Arts Education, Ms. Schepker-Mueller shared her insights.

Q: Can you outline the differences between “Teaching Artistic Behaviors” also known as TAB or “choice-based art” and a more traditional Discipline Based Arts Program?

A: Teaching for Artistic Behavior or TAB is a research-based pedagogy and aligned with national standards where the creative process is entirely student driven. Students walk themselves through the creative process as individual artists with teacher guidance. They generate ideas, gather materials, create, and reflect on their work.

In a traditional Discipline-Based Art Education (DBAE) classroom, art pieces are completed via step-by step instruction. Ideas are provided by the teacher, the materials are prepared by the teacher, children follow the instructed steps, and then the teacher provides thoughts on assessment. This recipe-like approach to teaching art often yields results that are not age appropriate for the learner and do not require the student to use higher order thinking skills to make creative decisions that are typically required of an artist.

If we are trying to develop artists, those who appreciate the arts, and creative thinkers through our fine arts programs, shouldn't we be offering opportunities for children to experience those ways of working and learning?

Q: What are these “artistic behaviors” that you are teaching?

A:TAB teachers encourage students to work through the Studio Habits of mind. These are from the Project Zero research out of the Harvard School of Education, about how to aid children in thinking like artists.

They are Envision, Stretch and Explore, Reflect, Engage and Persist, Understand Art Worlds, Develop Craft, Express, Observe. These behaviors are not taught in a linear manner, but learning opportunities are weaved throughout parallel to the visual arts curriculum designed by the teacher. While many other artistic behaviors also emerge during the creative process, these documented, research based, 8 dispositions are just where most teachers begin.

Q: What does a TAB art lesson look like?

A: In the art studio, children need to be allowed to experiment and explore freely in both material and thought. When a child begins to understand that they can manipulate a medium they begin to make creative choices and foster independent thinking. Engaging in regular hands-on creative exploration is imperative to cognitive, social, and physical development for all children. A typical day in a TAB classroom consists of a mini-lesson given by the teacher, studio work time for students, and time for peer and teacher reflection.

TAB work is student-driven, the learning is authentic, and guided by their interests. Artists create work about how they feel, memories, observation, and current events. Learning in other content areas can also influence what happens in the art studio, and what students learn in the art studio can benefit their work in other classes. For example, I often have kids inspired by literature they are reading in their homeroom class, and making projects and connections to characters in a story, or posters which relate to learning in a history. These connections make the arts experience richer and more connected to other learning. The studio teacher is able to seamlessly integrate classroom learning, engage through interest, and continue with their own content.

Q: This sounds a little like Arts Integration. Is that the same thing?

A: There are natural connections to Arts Integration, but it is not the same thing. Arts Integration is an approach to teaching and learning where teachers and arts specialists design student learning experiences which incorporate standards from both arts and non-arts subjects. This allows students to deepen their understanding in both content areas.

A TAB teacher would still use Missouri Fine Arts Learning Standards to drive lessons but students would not have to exhibit mastery of non-art content. Artistic Behavior skills such as observation, expression, craftsmanship, perseverance, and reflection are all a result of a classroom designed with student agency in mind. Like arts integration,

TAB makes learning more relevant, and meaningful and can deepen understanding and improve performance in both arts and the core conent areas. These skills are also taken out of the art studio and into the general education setting, such as “observing” for science, patterns in Math, or developing a story for Language Arts. TAB is also an effective vehicle for meeting learners with distinctive needs. Students who receive occupational therapy services can receive them during their art time. Because it is student-driven, TAB naturally differentiates for neurodiverse learners. Therapists often find the art studio a great place to sit alongside and support students.

Q: Tell me more about the “Studios” in a TAB classroom.

A: “Studios” are an area of the space in the classroom that provides an opportunity for students to explore a specific medium. These can include painting, drawing, sculpture, dramatic arts, architecture with blocks, fibers, digital, jewelry making or any other medium a teacher would like to introduce. Often, the best “studio” mediums come from being responsive to student needs, listening to studio groups for ideas to introduce upcoming learning opportunities is key. Well organized and stocked studios become the environment's third teacher. Children can use references displayed in that space and learn from peers who are exploring the same medium. Children naturally share ideas and teach one another as they work side-by-side.

Q: It seems that with so many different things going on in the classroom at one time, it would be difficult to manage and monitor all that is happening. How do you manage?

A: Classroom routines and skills are front loaded in the TAB studio and then constantly reviewed throughout the school year. The space is designed in a way that students can care for the materials and how to use them and maintain the studio’s organization. Expectations are in place before kids begin their work around the room. In the studio, children know the creative cycle. They become self driven. They will cultivate an idea, select materials, pace themselves while creating their work, overcome obstacles, clean up and return materials, store their work and share their process with the class. Daily “sharing time” builds verbal expression skills as well as training in how to give and take feedback. Engaging a child in a conversation about their work is one of the most powerful ways to foster creative skills and expressive thought. It builds a child's aesthetic awareness and strengthens their connection to the outside world and other cultures.

Q: Does TAB help with a student’s cognitive and social development?

A: Yes, as well as aiding their physical development. When they control a pencil or mold a ball of clay they have the ability to tell stories using their hands. They may not have much expressive language at younger stages of development so art acts as that voice. As their abilities to communicate grow, their critical thinking abilities stretch, they gain self-esteem, fine motor skills are developing, they are expressing themselves, all the while complex cognitive maturation is taking place. These skills, developed in the art studio, transfer into other content areas and life. Children need time and space to create, not recreate. Children need to be able to have time to make mistakes, be coached through mistakes, and have fun with materials. Children need to be able to have time to make mistakes, be coached through mistakes, and have fun with materials and engage in creative discovery. Creative perseverance and stamina are built through the trial and error process and failure with a medium becomes a way to switch modalities. Through both studio and “play,” students build self-confidence and learning autonomy, and how to express how they are feeling. Ephemeral work, such as blocks or dramatic arts, allows them to make without fear.

Q: Would you agree that roles of teacher and student change in a TAB studio setting?

A: Yes. The teacher-student dynamic shifts in the TAB studio. If the teacher is designing the projects, the resulting works of art are a reflection of the child’s ability to copy an example, not to create. Using TAB pedagogy, the teacher becomes a facilitator of the studio not the keeper and provider of the content information. If a teacher determines the size of the paper, the medium with which to create, and the subject of the work, and then lays out the steps to completion, what about that makes it “that child’s” art? Children’s art should look like children’s art, not like adult work that children have tried to recreate. Understanding this shows respect for the child and values their creative independence and ideas. It honors their personal aesthetic.

A TAB teacher may demonstrate new mediums and techniques for small groups, help students generate ideas, replenish supplies, assess student process and progress, infuse art history and indulge in teachable moments. The teacher is able to move about the classroom addressing all students' needs and coaching them individually. Discipline challenges often subside when a teacher moves from a direct instruction approach to a TAB studio. Children who were once disengaged can now apply themselves to work that they are interested in, not what a teacher is requiring them to make per a project objective.

Students come to the TAB studios with their own knowledge and skills to offer to their class. Students often have ideas and abilities they can share with their classmates. Students are capable of generating ideas, making creative decisions, executing art and self-evaluation, at all levels.

Q: Do you think TAB is for everyone?

A: A choice-based art program like TAB is differentiated for the adults as well as the children. It can be facilitated in low-income or schools with abundant funding. It can function on a cart or in a beautiful modern studio. One of the beauties of TAB is that it can assume the form that the teacher, students and school need it to take, for all age levels.

Q: So what would it take for an art teacher to get started with a TAB approach?

A: Reach out to the TAB community, online and in your area, read the publications and blogs. Making the transition to a TAB pedagogy takes a lot of reflection, research and rethinking about an individual teacher’s current practice, a willingness to let go of previously held ideas, and to embrace the child’s aesthetic.

A conversation with your administrator is critical, so that everyone is on the same page about what the new approach looks like. Hallway exhibition spaces will look very different. There will no longer be 20 paintings of birch trees in a row, each work of art will be different and representative of each child. An evaluator walking into a new choice-based classroom would be looking for age-appropriate lessons, high levels of student engagement, and most significantly, seeking evidence of the child’s visual voice.

Kari Schepker-Mueller has attended the TAB Institute in Boston, Massachusetts and has hosted numerous conferences for other St. Louis art teachers on the pedagogy. She has also spoken at the National Art Educators Association Conference and the Missouri Art Education Association the topic. She is a leader on the STL Regional TAB Choice team as recognized by TAB Inc. Kari currently serves as the studio teacher at MRH Early Childhood Center in Maplewood, Missouri.

Interviewer: Phyllis Pasley, executive director, Missouri Alliance for Arts Education -


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