Art Pacing Guides

I was recently asked if I had art pacing guides I could share. The short answer was ‘no’ but the person who asked was persistent enough that I really had to think about why this is. Pacing guides serve other disciplines very well. So, what’s different about art? What are the beliefs and attitudes behind the absence of this common instructional planning tool in my district? I want to share some of the reasons I believe we do not have pacing guides, and then sincerely ask you to push back. Maybe we are doing the wrong thing here.

Point of Mistakes by Frank Ballato, III

Point of Mistakes by Frank Ballato, III, art teacher

Let’s start by listing just some of the things an artist considers in the process of artmaking (Please note: This is not intended as an all inclusive list, just a list to serve our discussion.):

  • Concept: What is my artwork about? What am I trying to say?
  • Art form: What form will my artwork take? Performance, video, digital media, installation, design, or will this be a traditional 2D or 3D artwork?
  • Subject matter: What subject matter will I choose to express my ideas in this work?
  • Methods of representation: Will I address the subject in a conceptual, nonobjective, abstract, or realistic way?
  • Media Skills: What materials and media techniques will I use to achieve my goals?
  • Composition: How will I arrange all of the elements of the artwork in space and time? What compositional constructs will I employ to engage the viewer in the work?

Each one of these topics of consideration involves knowledge and skills that the art student is learning and developing. The student may need to do research or develop specific skills to more effectively communicate an idea, but the crazy part is, any student, at any skill level can apply the skills and knowledge they currently have to create a product. (The challenge for the student and the teacher is to continue to develop those skills and grow the knowledge.)  I propose, then, that the primary problem with establishing pacing guides is that art and artmaking are very holistic by nature. How does an art teacher best sequence content and skills when the student artists are applying all of them, to the degree they are developed, at every artmaking experience?

Don’t get me wrong. Art pacing guides do exist. So what do they look like where they are being used? Lets consider some common models.

Sequencing by Media and/or Artform

I bet you’re familiar with this one: Our first lesson will be drawing, then painting, then we will do printmaking, then collage. We will transition from 2D to 3D arts through mixed media, then we can address sculpture, and hopefully we will have time to do a ceramics lesson before the school year is over.

This type of sequence is very common, but why? What makes 2D artmaking so stinking important that we must address it thoroughly before considering 3D approaches? I will tell you one thing this type of sequencing is sure to do, especially at the middle and high school level: it will discourage students who are not confident in their drawing abilities, and may push them away from art classes entirely. Fairly recently, my school district changed one of our standard course offerings at the middle school level to 3D Artmaking. The reactions of teachers have been very telling. Many have reported that especially male students feel more comfortable with 3D artmaking techniques and are much more excited about art classes as a result. Starting a “general” art class with 3D methods can have the same result.

Sequencing by Elements of Art

In a very recent interview, an art teacher candidate told me that she always teaches line first. Then she teaches about shape, then color, then value, then form. I’m sure she has a continuation of her sequence to include, balance, and repetition, etc.

When I hear about instruction sequenced by (and based on) the elements and principles, I have to conclude one of two things. Either this person is not an artist and therefore doesn’t know what it means to be an artist, or she has never considered that there is a significant disconnect between what an artist does, and what she is teaching. The elements and principles of art may be tools that students and artists can use to make decisions in the artmaking process, but they are only that. They must be applied in the context of the real purpose for artmaking: to communicate an idea. (I will attempt to withhold some of my ire for the elements and principles of art for another post, and move on.)

Sequencing by Subject Matter

Still life, and portraits, and landscapes, oh my! If I elaborate on this model, I would have to tell you what I think about still life and I just don’t think I can stand to talk about that today. Suffice to say, subject matter can be the basis for an art lesson sequence.

Sequencing by Concept

How about a conceptual sequence that starts with how I see myself, followed by how others perceive me… my identity within different social and community groups, then exploring the concepts of social groups and cliques in a broader context. This could then expand to an exploration of culture, how cultures interact and change over time, and how individuals can effect change. (That’s not bad if I do say so myself.)

This is the type of sequence I could get into! But it still has one major failing true of all of the possibilities listed above. The sequence is only addressing one area of focus. We have already agreed that artmaking is holistic, so while each of these could provide some foundation of a sequence, it is assumed that all of the other topics are going to be mixed in somehow, but in what order?

Wait, wait, wait! We’ve just solved it… We will develop a sequence for each topic in the list at the top and then jam them all together! So our first assignment is going to be a still life drawing, with an emphasis on line, about how I see myself! Since I already expressed my contempt for still life and elements of art (when they are over emphasized), I hope you know I’m joking with this specific example, but let’s set my opinions aside and take the concept seriously for a moment.

If you were to develop a multi-layered sequence that addresses this range of artistic considerations (media skills, subject matter, formal qualities, content, etc.) what you are really doing is designing a sequence of very specific lessons and determining the lesson outcomes. I don’t mean the learning outcomes, but rather the products themselves. If all of the content for these categories are predetermined in the lesson, the artist’s choice is taken away, the artmaking challenges become teacher-solved, we lose what it means to be an artist, and we have taken away the opportunity for students to be critical and creative thinkers.

This approach also removes all choice and flexibility from the teachers. It’s one thing to ask teachers to do some long term planning and develop a sequence — even collaboratively with their team — that will work for them and for their students, but it is an entirely different thing to have a pacing guide forced on them by some outside entity. In a holistic discipline like art, I believe the teachers who are delivering the content are the only ones who could be asked to develop a sequence they will use to reach their students.

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5 thoughts on “Art Pacing Guides”

  1. This is an interesting topic. I teach in a university fine art program that offers BFA, BA Major and Minor studio degrees, and I teach a first year course called Elements of Art I (2D) in the first semester and Elements of Art II (3D) in the second semester. This is a course and format that I inherited, and I have been grappling with the question of pacing and the isolation of “elements” ever since. My own training had a “design” course that followed these principles, which are essentially Bauhaus ideas that are deeply entwined with modernist ideas of abstraction and rational progress. This had its strong points (a formal vocabulary for analysis) but it was completely removed from the things I was learning in other courses.

    My answer, thus far, has been to construct projects that have the broadest guidelines possible, so that the students can learn to think about the “elements” in expressive ways, and not as the application of rules. I have also widened the scope of what I count as “elements” to include visual culture, and basic theory around the function of art, how artistic practice functions in the real world, and critical analysis of their own and their peers’ work. This has met with some success, but I am always trying to peel this course away from the underlying assumptions that call for its existence in the first place. The sequence of the courses has as much to do with the rest of the degree curriculum as with any particular hierarchy of 2D or 3D, but I do find that in general, students at this level seem to have more experience with drawing than they do with sculpture, so we begin with something familiar.

    Having said this, the context is very different from the elementary / secondary school system, since it is one studio course among several (including Art History) that the students are immersed in. Pacing does have its uses when studying a subject systematically, but again as the instructor I have complete autonomy over how this takes place. I shiver at the thought of the department, the university or the government imposing this kind of thing from above.

    1. Thanks so much for sharing these ideas. You are absolutely right that the K-12 context is quite distinct from a university setting. One distinction that I try to remind myself of regularly is that in K-12 the students we get are not always there because they want to be, so providing a deep, systematic, and segmented art education is not practical. And since the livelihood of our secondary teachers depend on enrollment, it is important for them to offer artmaking experiences that will be enjoyable and accessible to all. Reading your comments reminded me of a presentation by Olivia Gude (University of Illinois, Spiral Workshop) in which she shared some of the work of her students who were really cut loose to explore the elements of art. Most memorable to me was a short film about repetition in which a student repeatedly banged his head against a wall.

  2. I just wrote a post on the problems with “closed” lessons and am crafting another on the benifits of open lessons. I beleive we have a similar mindset. I have just entered blogging after I presented at NAEA this year. I am enjoying playing catch up reading all your posts.

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