Tag Archives: Mindset

Art and Our New Superintendent

A Leadership Conference marks the beginning of each new school year for the school and central office administrators in our school system. This year’s conference was our first real opportunity to hear from our new superintendent, Dr. Scott Brabrand

One of the prominent ideas he spoke about was mindset, which he illustrated with a personal art example. Dr. Brabrand shared his efforts to challenge his own mindset regarding his drawing ability. Any artist or art teacher has probably had to listen politely to hundreds of people explaining that they can’t draw. (Read a related post HERE.) Dr. Brabrand recognized his own mindset on his ability and set out to challenge it. 

First, he spent 15 minutes drawing a cat, with unimpressive results. Then he asked an art teacher to help him for one hour, and drew another cat. This time, the results were quite impressive. With only an hour of instruction, he was able to grow from a child-like line drawing, to a well-defined, natural form of a cat including value, shading, and texture. Well done, sir!

So what’s the point?! 

As educators we must consider our own mindset around teaching and learning. That means we must, first, recognize our mindset, and second, be willing to challenge and change that mindset. We cannot expect to be successful, as educators, if we don’t believe in the human ability to learn. And we won’t meet our mandate to reach every child if we have anything less than this growth mindset for each and everyone of our students. 

If you’re interested in reading more about mindset, check out these posts:

What is your purpose here?

I hope when you read, “What is your purpose here?” You can fully envision the scene from Pirates of the Caribbean, Dead Man’s Chest. If not I think the image, below, is linked to a gif. (Hit me with a comment if you know the response to the question from the movie.)

I suppose it’s fair if you are wondering what this has to do with art education…

I met with art collaborative team leads recently and posed a question about the purpose of art CTs. Some quick answers included “to collaborate,” “to share ideas,” and “to share best practices.”  Yes, these are reasons we get together, but why do we do these things? Why do we collaborate? Why do we share ideas?


I am surrounded by this language all the time in the instructional services department. If a similar question were asked of a group of my central office colleagues we would probably all respond in unison. 

This interaction with my art instructional leaders helped me realize that this is a message that I should work harder to promote. It’s a mindset that can impact how we interact with our work. Everything we do should be with the goal of improving student learning. 


Bonsai is an art form I have referenced at least once before on WhatItMeansForArt. It is not an art form practiced in K-12 classrooms, but it provides an interesting perspective for that very reason. Because bonsai is not an integrated part of the western art tradition, is stands as a sort of different-but-parallel art culture which art educators can analyze from the outside.

This recently released Bonsai Empire interview with bonsai master Masahiko Kimura highlighted two aspects of the tradition of bonsai teaching and learning that stand in stark contrast to modern educational practice and theory. These are the apprenticeship structure, and a distinct mindset around artistry.

The first is found in the very language used to refer to teacher and student. Translated, it is master and disciple. These words have significant connotations in English which may differ somewhat from those of the native Japanese language and culture, but if you read from the perspective of a bonsai apprentice like peterteabonsai, you will see it is not so different after all. He describes his initial understanding of the word Oyakata, or master, as somewhere between “boss and god.”

A bonsai apprenticeship is designed to prepare the apprentice for a career as a bonsai professional. This makes college level learning a more appropriate comparison than K-12 classrooms. Even so, Mr. Kimura says he was in training for 11 years, and through the apprenticeship “came to like bonsai gradually.” Can you imagine going to college for 11 years to prepare for a career you didn’t particularly like in the beginning?

More for consideration of K-12 art teachers is the methods employed in this learning environment. Kimura says, “My Oyakata rarely directly showed me how to do a bonsai task, he just gave me some good advice whenever he saw my work.” He expands on this by explaining that a master teaches the basics of the art, and the apprentice “must learn these basics very, very well to be able to come up with his own style after apprenticeship.”

Today’s educators know we must design instruction for specific learning outcomes in an established length of time. That is the nature of a course, is it not? But I fear too many art educators hold onto a lingering thread of this philosophy believing they should just respond to what the student is doing or just teach the foundations. All of the educational research would suggest these methods are not effective.

Layered on top of these ideas about the nature of the master and apprentice relationship is a distinct mindset that has persisted throughout Kimura’s life, and has no doubt influenced his students.

Hints of this mindset are revealed when he shares something of his own skill saying, “I get inspired right after I see a tree” and describes this as a “gift” he believes he got from his parents. We begin to form a more thorough understanding of his mindset when he describes the “most important qualities a bonsai artist should have.”

  1. Sensibility, the ability to react and evaluate intuitively
  2. Natural inner talent
  3. Inspiration, [you] can’t make a good bonsai without proper inspiration
  4. Creative power, a tireless force that makes an artist great, and…
  5. You must be brought up with these qualities.

Watch it yourself to double check, but I believe he actually shared that last one as number five… as a separate quality. He elaborates on this with a Japanese Proverb

“what is learned in the cradle is carried to the grave”

Now, I believe deeply in the power of early childhood education. It’s absolutely true that parents have a huge opportunity and obligation to begin teaching their children early, but as an educator I will not concede to an idea that what children have when they come to us at age five is going to determine their success or failure in school and in life.

Our mindset about our students ability to learn is one of the major factors I see that influence the success of teachers and schools. We must believe that our students are able to learn, and likewise, we must not believe that certain abilities are some sort of divine gift. Skills are learned and practiced, even if not in a traditional learning environment. If you want to read more about mindset and my feelings about talent read  any of these:

Before any bonsai people get upset with me, let me state clearly that I associate this mindset with master Kimura, not with the bonsai tradition at large or all bonsai professionals.

It is no longer the norm, but the master and disciple, or master and apprentice relationship has existed as an important part of the history of western art (not only in bonsai). Listening to this interview, I wonder if the art world hasn’t inadvertently held onto some of that culture and mindset. Art is not an activity for the wealthy and the privileged. The arts are an inherent part of human culture and therefore the birthright of every human (if you want my opinion). In public schools most of all, we must avoid taking any stance that suggests a student doesn’t have what it takes, or that the abilities they need to succeed are somehow innate rather than learned.

Art teachers, look hard at your own thoughts, words, and actions and ask yourself, is there any remnant of the master and apprentice system in my classroom? And if so, is it serving my students? All of them?

Questioning for Mindset

Questioning is  a valuable skill teachers can develop with practice. This is not just asking any-old question, of course, but the ability to ask questions that promote students growth and learning. In an art setting, questioning is often applied to develop creative and critical thinking about the problem at hand.

Unlucky Ducky by Frank Ballato, III, art teacher
Unlucky Ducky by Frank Ballato, III, art teacher

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Stop Teaching Art

Early last summer, I was feeling rather ornery when I proposed a conference presentation called “Stop Teaching Art.” While my proposal did represent legitimate concerns I wanted to bring to bear, I really didn’t expect an organization dedicated to promoting art education to accept such a proposal. Imagine my surprise when it was accepted for both the state and national conference.

Mars by Kate Patsch, art teacher
Mars by Kate Patsch, art teacher

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Mindset in Art

We have a mindset problem in art, and part of the problem is that we are only talking about mindset from a general “student learning” perspective. Mindset is a sneaky, underlying state, and if we don’t talk about it relative to individual settings it will continue to hide there, causing damage. Mindset has significant implications in the arts, not only for arts programs, but for our schools and for our students.

Inner Strength by Robert Christie, art teacher
Inner Strength by Robert Christie, art teacher

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Art as a Path to Rigor

Maybe I’m missing something! The research about the benefits of exposure to rigorous course work is abundantly clear. Everyone in education knows about different learning styles. And yet, we are not looking for different “styles” of rigorous courses and doing everything we can to provide advanced coursework opportunities to as many students as possible.

Contemplating Race by Rachel Albert, art teacher
Contemplating Race by Rachel Albert, art teacher

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