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Independent learning & thinking skills in art

A lot has been written about independent learning, some of it good and some of it awful. What independent learning isn't, is giving the students a task then asking them to go off and complete it on their own! Nor is it demanding that they do more, or harder, work. What it is about is asking pertinent, interesting open questions that can't easily be answered, then scaffolding learning so that your students are able to make personal responses, albeit with your support. This is much harder than it sounds and writing good questions is incredibly difficult. In fact I would go so far as to say that the art of asking questions is the key to real learning and teachers should spend most of their planning time devising good questions. It is something that I passionately believe can transform classrooms.

Read this quote from the AQA Art & Design Exam Moderators Report 2015:

"Course practice during Unit 1 had a profound effect on many student submissions seen, where those that had experienced opportunities to develop as independent thinkers were more able to respond effectively and make informed choices when reacting to the challenges and opportunities provided in Unit 2."

What many educators do not seem to understand, when they criticise student-led, independent learning techniques, is that they aren't an optional bolt-on for our subject. We cannot choose to teach solely in more traditional, teacher-led ways and leave out autonomous approaches because, not only does the GCSE syllabus prescribe them as being an essential prerequisite of the course, but they are the very epitome of being a thinking, practising, professional artist. If you aren't teaching this stuff, then your students will struggle later down the line, either educationally or professionally, in whatever vocation they choose.

Student-led teaching and learning techniques in art & design

In creative subjects, students must learn how to produce independent, original outcomes, and find solutions to problems, tasks or starting points. Students therefore need to learn how to problem solve, develop their own thoughts & ideas, or answer complex tasks independently such as the art & design Externally Set Assignment. 

Facilitator-style teaching should be a regular feature of an art & design curriculum. It teaches students how to utilise and apply the knowledge and skills they have been developing elsewhere. Teach facilitator-style techniques early in your curriculum, in smaller doses, then gradually increase their frequency so that student-led learning is developed for the majority over time. 


Preparing students

In order to work effectively in this way, students need to learn some key techniques: to first seek their own solutions independently, to ask appropriate questions when required, to collaborate with peers, and to work respectfully, in order to effectively participate. 



To enable facilitator-style teaching, the teacher creates conditions for structured, open-ended learning to thrive. Facilitator-style learning requires expert planning. Essential knowledge is provided in various ways. Lessons and activities are planned through scaffolded tasks, in appropriate, supported stages. The use of essential and foundation questions is helpful. 

The types of facilitator tasks teachers design should be; appropriate for their age and ability. They should be such that the highest-attaining students might be challenged and the lowest-attaining students be supported. Open-ended tasks provide for unlimited student development and often, the teacher's role is to give students the confidence to be daring, brave and take risks. 



To facilitate the learning, the teacher anticipates the learner's needs in advance and prepares for them. They provide necessary equipment, materials, resources, and books in advance of the lesson and signpost them to enable the students to find and use them independently as required. They may even distribute them at strategic points in the lesson. 



Throughout the lesson, the teacher acts as a shepherd, nudging, steering and guiding the students into solutions, but not directly answering questions or providing explicit outcomes to problems. They sit back, monitoring what is happening and ensuring learning is taking place. 

In the facilitator model, the teacher acts as an adviser, not an instructor. Students learn they can ask the teacher for advice on how to proceed, but that the solution or proposal is theirs and theirs alone. In instances where students are floundering, they learn how to use peer support or collaborative working methods, rather than simply relying on the teacher. 



Students learn that all equipment is prepared in advance and so learn that they cannot shout out for things as and when they need them. Where students are doubtful or their own ability, or too reliant on the teacher, they can be given additional support to teach them how to trust themselves or find their own solutions. 

For some students, this kind of task is daunting and intimidating. If the lesson is designed correctly however, there should be structured support available for when it is required. It’s ok to hold off with providing additional support materials however, until such a time as it is needed. Providing too much support, too early, defeats the purpose of facilitator-style learning. 



The teacher should incorporate regular feedback sessions. These can be done as either individual tutorials, small or large group critiques. The feedback should build confidence. It should highlight where the strengths of the student's work are, and how they might best proceed. 

Scaffolding Support for Independent Learning

One of the first things you notice when you switch to a Self Directed Learning model in art are the tumbleweeds. They come flying through your classroom on a regular basis, so much so that you'd be forgiven for panicking and switching to more traditional teaching methods. The thing is, most children have never worked in this way before and so to be plunged into the icy pool of challenge is daunting for them. This is where your skill as a teacher comes in. You simply have to have a good scaffolding support system in place before you begin. My method is a tried and tested one. This is:

1. Provide the problem by means of deep, essential questions that are hard to answer.

2. Wait for the tumbleweeds, the long pauses and the blank faces.

3. Provide Foundation questions to support the big question. These might lead the students into a particular avenue or provide alternative means of answering the question.

3. Begin to organise the class to answer the questions, either in groups or individually.

4. Have a bank of resources that will lead them to find answers, such as books, DVDs, Internet pages, or the library.

5. Give them a clear indication of what their answer should contain in order to be successful.

6. Monitor progress and provide intervention where needed. For less able, have some supporting material that they can use to find a more simple solution, or provide more clues and support. Note; you should only give this support AFTER they have struggled, not before. For more able, extend the range of evidence required or make the questions more challenging.


For example:

You provide a big question for the class;

"What is the media and how does it affect us in the 21st century?"


Then, after a short discussion period (of complete confusion), you provide Foundation questions;

  • "What is fake news?"

  • "Does watching graphic movies or playing blood-thirsty computer games make us violent too?"

  • "Are pop videos too sexual for children to watch?"


This leads your students into specific areas of research. Note that these questions cannot be answered with a simple Google search! You of course will have some sites in reserve that answer these questions at judicious times, discreetly and when they are most needed. When they are beginning to unravel the answers to the problem, you provide a set of criteria that makes it explicit what they need to produce in order to answer the question. For example:


Produce your answer to this question in any of the following formats you find most suitable:

• Sketchbook

• Digital presentation

• Large, single sheet


You should show evidence in both written and pictorial formats, some of which should be hand rendered. Please use your own words; do not copy and paste text, or print out internet pictures. All of your sources must be clearly verified. 

Essential questions in art and design education

Generating Ideas

 How do you teach young people to be able to create interesting, original artwork? What are your strategies for developing your pupil's imagination? Well you can't expect your students to be able to create fantastic artwork if you haven't taught them how to think, imagine and create. Often we set tasks to 'develop ideas' but this is a really difficult skill. It has to be more than brainstorming or thought bubbles or mind maps because these types of exercises often depend on people having some ideas in the first place. Make thinking a regular part of your lessons. Your pupils should know how to use visual metaphors and symbolism in their work. They do this in Primary school in their English lessons so it is very familiar to them. There is no reason why they shouldn't be talking about their use of metaphor in their artwork as early as year 4 or 5.  This implies that it has to be taught and investigating the use of symbolism in art is a rich topic that will bring huge rewards. But you can't just do it once in year 9 and expect everyone to do it consistently. It has to be done repeatedly and often!

Other things you should be doing often is working from imagination on a frequent basis. Have a range of imagination exercises as starters, plenaries and homework's.

You should also create problem solving lessons as stand alone exercises, teach quick, snappy thinking or longer term idea development but above all make it fun!

There is a lot more about this topic in the Art of Questions section of the Art Teacher's Handbook.

Art of questions, questionning in art

The Art of Questions

Raise attainment, open the door to pupil-centred teaching and ditch the teacher-led model. The art of questions is a guide to developing a question-based curriculum.


Idea Mining by Paul Carney

Idea Mining

One of my favourite resources! A PDF handout that can be printed as a poster too. It focusses thinking of ideas into different strands from surface, immediate ideas into deep thinking. This principle of making your students think of different strategies for ideas, tasks and projects is a really important one.

Free to Download

Pointless art game


The original ideas game turned into a classroom activity to develop original thinking. Use this as a starter before an ideas session to show pupils how to come up with great ideas for art. Edit it for your own use.

Free to Download

Paper Clip game

The Paper Clip Game

This isn't my idea, but a translation of a psychometric test developed in the 1960's. It's a very challenging task, but one that really uncovers who has a good imagination. Can be used as a good group starter.

Free to Download

Where do ideas come from?

Where do ideas come from?

This presentation looks at a wide range of ways that we can develop an idea and more importantly, where ideas come from. You can cherry-pick individual slides to highlight a point you want to make about idea development. Add your own ideas to it!

Free to Download

Symbolism in art lesson plan


Obviously symbolism has been around as long as mankind has, and there are many good examples out there, but this attempts to make symbolism a succinct lesson that informs idea creation. This can be adapted and developed further into more complex study.

Free to Download


Paul Carney Paul is a nationally recognised art & design consultant having delivered specialist art CPD in schools, colleges, galleries, and Universities across the UK and for the UK’s leading training providers. He is a former Council member for the NSEAD, which means he is involved in national art education policy issues.Paul is a published author of two books: Drawing for Science, Invention and Discovery and his latest book Drawing to learn anything. He is also a practicing professional artist and designer. Paul runs his highly successful art website: that provides high quality teaching resources and advice to teachers around the world. He has over twenty years teaching experience at Primary, Secondary and post-16 levels of education, is an Advanced Skills Teacher, ex-Subject Leader for Art and was a member of the DfE Expert Advisory Group for Art and Design. In addition to this he was a member of the NSEAD Curriculum Writing Group that wrote the 'Framework for Progression, Planning for Learning, Assessment, Recording and Reporting 2014.’ 

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