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Critical Thinking In Art

We all know that Critical Thinking is a vital 21st Century Skill for our students. However, sometimes it’s difficult to think about presenting the concept to very young students. The good news is that with a little imagination, anything is possible. Today I’m sharing a simple activity you can use with your youngest students to begin to develop their critical thinkings skills.

The activity is called Art Detective and is super simple to pull off.

It would be perfect for an introduction to a project or theme, or an excellent option to pull out when you have 15 extra minutes of class. Here’s how to do it.

Help your students become art detectives.


1. Get into costume.


This step is optional, but it makes for a more dramatic experience for the students. If you already own a trench coat, great! If not, head to your nearest thrift store to pick one up for a few bucks. While the trench is the key piece, there’s no one stopping you from going all out with a hat, sunglasses, and a magnifying glass.

2. Choose a piece of art for students to “investigate.”

If you’re using this as an introduction to a project or theme, you may want to use a specific piece of art. Most likely, your choice will only be available in poster form. However, if you’re doing this activity outside of a specific project, why not bring in a real, physical piece of art? This could be a painting you’ve done (don’t tell them!), a piece of work done by a high school student in your district, or something you have hanging in your home. There is something about a real piece of art that truly engages students. In addition, don’t feel as though you have to limit your choices to 2D works. Ceramic pieces, sculptures, weavings, and artifacts also all work well. In fact, if you don’t know anything about the piece yourself, it can lead to a much more authentic discussion.

3. Set the stage.

Explain the premise of the activity: You have just discovered the piece of art you are holding (or showing) and you have no idea what it is or what it’s about. You need the students help to figure it out!

4. Guide the discussion without judgment.

As art teachers, part of our job is to know a lot about art. However, take a minute to think of this activity from the students’ perspective. They may have never seen anything like what you’re showing them. They may be looking at a real piece of pottery for the first time ever. This is a magical experience! Using the questions from the handout below, guide the students through an organic discussion led by their ideas and reactions.

If students are coming to different conclusions than the artist or different conclusions than you, it’s OK! Ask follow-up questions to reveal their thought processes. “What makes you think the person feels angry?” or “What about the picture makes you think it was made with fabric?” are two examples of these types of questions. I guarantee you will be blown away by their ideas and insights.

The beauty of this activity is that just by participating, students are developing critical thinking skills. The NEA has a helpful document available for download called “An Educator’s Guide to the ‘Four Cs’” which details how part of critical thinking is making judgments and decisions. Specifically, students should develop skills to “Effectively analyze and evaluate evidence, arguments, claims, and beliefs,” and, “Interpret information and draw conclusions based on the best analysis,” and finally, “Identify and ask significant questions that clarify various points of view and lead to better solutions.”

Over time, providing your students with opportunities like playing Art Detectives will do just that! For even more insight into helping students analyze art, check out the following articles and lesson plan.


How do you get young students to begin to think about artwork in a critical way?

Do you have any favorite art pieces for them to analyze?


Each school year, it seems like our students are testing more and more and creative problem-solving less and less. In an effort to stimulate my students to think on a much deeper level, I embarked on a conceptual sculpture/earthwork assignment with my Sculpture II and III students. For some of them, this lesson was a struggle; while for others, it turned out to be their best sculpture to date.

As an introduction to conceptual art, the class and I had an interactive discussion about conceptual sculpture. I showed students the artwork of Christo, Janine Antoni, Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Patrick Caire.

We talked about the meaning and how traditional aesthetics don’t play as big of a role in conceptual art. We read artist’s statements for students to better understand the role of the idea. We also discussed earthworks. We looked at the artwork of Dennis Oppenheim, Robert Smithson and Andy Goldsworthy.

In addition, there is a wonderful YouTube video that combines both conceptual art and earthwork created by Paul “Moose” Curtis, called “The Reverse Graffiti Project.” Students really identified with this idea and the fact that it is street art. I then presented to students their new sculpture assignment: to assemble a sculpture with significant meaning using found materials from nearby Lake Ray Hubbard, thus making it an earthwork as well.

In order to take the next step in our artistic process, I had to reach out to the Parks and Recreation Department of Rowlett, Texas, the city where I teach. We have the benefit  of having Lake Ray Hubbard 15 minutes walking distance away from our school. The Parks Division Manager gave me permission to take my students out to the lake to collect the materials that they would use for their own conceptual sculpture/earthwork.

If you have a park or other natural area, be sure to take a pilot run prior to bringing students to make sure you know where you’re going, as well as what needs to be worn. I took photographs prior to our field trip to the lake so students could see ahead of time what possible materials they could find to give them a better idea of what to look for.

I was able get permission to take my advanced sculpture students out for about 3 hours to collect materials from the lake. Students wore long pants and sunscreen, and brought water, gloves and cloth bags to store materials. Cloth bags are preferable to plastic, which tear easily. As a precaution, remember to ask students if any of them have any allergies that may require an Epi-Pen® or inhaler.

With one of my colleagues, we escorted about 40 students down to the lake. Be sure to advise students not to bring back anything still living or recently dead, as these would be a health hazard in the classroom and to work with. On the walk, the students were drawn to different things: some gathered fish bones; others gathered driftwood; some wanted to use trash for their sculpture.

Back in the classroom, they spent time cleaning the found objects. For some, keeping the dirt on the trash was essential for the idea to come across; those students didn’t clean anything. Be cautious and inspect materials for health hazards. For example: one of my students collected a bottle that still had wine in it! Others found old, rusty lures with hooks still attached.

After cleanup, I asked students to generate a list in their sketchbooks of issues that they feel passionate about. Some of them were stumped, so I put it another way: What would they argue about if they were given the chance; what would they stand up for? After writing their lists, students began to draw symbols that could convey each message.

Students then chose to create a sculpture using the best message with the strongest symbols. Some wanted to collaborate with another student in class, which turned out to be helpful for those students that seemed to struggle with the idea of a conceptual sculpture. Plus, those who found a limited amount of materials had more to choose from when paired with another student. At the end of the project, if students worked with a partner, I had them peer-grade each other to ensure one partner didn’t work more than another.

Next, students began construction of their conceptual sculptures, which were completed in about eight studio hours. Some students chose to add classroom materials to their found objects, such as wire, fishing line, cardboard, paint, etc.

Finally, I asked students to each write a formal artist’s statement explaining his or her piece. I stressed how important it is to write and clearly communicate about their art so its value is understood. I put the sculptures and the statements on display in a case at the front of the school. I have also entered them in competitions. The students who created the conceptual sculptures are so proud of their work!

Schoolmates who viewed them have a lot of questions, but once they read the statement or talk to the student artist, they are very impressed. All around, it turned out to be a productive and educational assignment for all. Some students really identified with conceptual sculpture and have continued assembling found objects to convey a deeper meaning. I definitely achieved my goal: To inspire my students to think critically! 



Students walking down to Lake Ray Hubbard.


LEFT: Students Hannah and Kangwa searching for found objects for their sculpture assignment. RIGHT: Students Hannah, Kangwa, Brooke and Ben looking for found objects for their sculpture assignment.


Jackie’s sculpture is all about perspective. What one viewer deems trash, another sees as beauty. In this case, an assembled forest made of garbage.


Jehoaida’s sculpture explores the increasing problem of obesity in the U.S. He found the bottle on our field trip down to the lake. He then chewed up and spit junk food to fill the bottle, symbolizing how many young people fill their bodies up with unhealthy food.


Emily’s sculpture is based on the pollution that we as humans create in the natural world.


Michelle uncovered an old record player at the lake. She decided to turn the object into a piece about Pearl Harbor Day, which happens to be her birthday. She visited an army and navy store where she found an artillery box and empty sandbags, and screen printed newspaper headlines from Dec. 7, 1941 on the sandbags. She researched what music was on the top 40 list that day and chose the album, “Green Eyes.” She took a photo of her own green eye and made it the album label. In essence, she personalized a historical day because the anniversary of it falls on her birthday.


High-school students will …
• develop an understanding of conceptual art and earthworks.
• identify issues that are personally meaningful.
• create symbols that represent ideas.
• plan and assemble a sculpture whose meaning is more important than traditional aesthetics.
• gather and organize found objects to create an interesting composition.

• Creating: Conceiving and developing new artistic ideas and work.
• Presenting: Interpreting and sharing artistic work.
• Responding: Understanding and evaluating how the arts convey meaning.
• Connecting: Relating artistic ideas and work with personal meaning and external context.

• Natural and manmade found objects
• Adhesives, scissors, craft knives

Kristine Winters Hamidou teaches art at John Paul II High School in Plano, Texas. This lesson took place while she was teaching at Rowlett High School.










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