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Helping Every Student Become an Artist

The principles of Universal Design for Learning can help lower barriers and build agency in the visual arts
Paint on an easel

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an inclusive approach to instruction that eliminates learning barriers and provides students with many ways to engage with curriculum and show what they know. The principles of UDL can also be used to help students tap into their creativity and agency as artists, even if they have formed an impression of themselves as “not an artist.”

In her recent book, Art for All: Planning for Variability in the Visual Arts Classroom, Boston Public Schools visual arts instructor Liz Byron offers practical tips and guidelines to help art teachers transform their approach to lesson design. The goal, she says, is to help students understand the material at a deeper level — to help them become “expert learners by giving them opportunities to be goal-directed, resourceful, purposeful.”

Usable Knowledge sat down with Byron to talk about how to identify barriers, balance student agency and artistic expression with goal setting, and how to assess student work.

When you’re planning a lesson for your students, where do you start? How does having a specific goal help organize your planning without inhibiting student creativity?

I start by looking at the standards and then think about what I want my students to know and do around that standard. From there, I compose a goal. I always need to make sure there are options to achieve that goal. For example, in middle school students may be creating a collage that represents a social issue they care about. Collage is somewhat rigid — it’s a very specific media. But there are options around how they create their collage and what it’s about. It gives them some empowerment to make choices, but it’s also not a free-for-all. It’s still connected to a standard.

How do you balance artistic freedom and choice with a goal-oriented, rigorous lesson plan?

Earlier in my career, kids had a totally choice-based classroom, and I had a lot of kids floundering. The way to become an expert art learner is to have an understanding of art and what it is, have some skills, understand the materials in the room and how to use them, and know how and where you get inspiration, what you do when you get stuck. These are all things you learn over time. Kids can initiate choice but can get stuck. Then, I can’t meet all their needs [because their needs are so different]. You have to give kids options for action and expression, but it doesn’t have to mean you have 25 totally different projects happening. There’s a balance.

    "The way to become an expert art learner is to have an understanding of art and what it is, have some skills, understand the materials in the room and how to use them, and know how and where you get inspiration, what you do when you get stuck."

    Once you’ve established that balance, how do you make sure students are making choices that are challenging and that push them to develop their skills and meet the lesson goals? How do you keep them growing as artists?

    We do have to check our means [how students can reach a goal] and ask if they’re rigorous. I want my students to be empowered to say that they think there’s a better way to learn or show what they know. But sometimes, the answer has to be no. In math, using a calculator is an option, but if we’re working on math fluency, then it can’t be, because it’s not connected to that goal.

    If students are given choice and flexibility in their projects but are all working toward the same goal, how can you as a teacher assess the work, when projects may vary?

    Students know they’re being assessed on these goals. I use a lot of rubrics. I have different rubrics students can choose from. But the content of the rubric is the same. The goal is listed, and you choose how well you met the goal as you reflect on it. Students get their rubrics at the beginning of the quarter so they know ahead of time what to expect. Kids can start seeing how their grade is going to play out and they can ask questions about it. At the end of the quarter, I sit down with them and have a conference. We go over everything before they leave to get their report card, knowing what their grade is and why they got it. And that clarity is really important in a subject like art that can be subjective. I want them to understand that their voice is important, and I want to know what they’re thinking. I can give them my opinion and then we can come up with a really valid, reliable grade.

    You mentioned that part of UDL is figuring out what barriers get in the way of student learning. What’s one barrier you commonly encounter and how do you figure out ways around it?

    One barrier is that middle schoolers can’t necessarily match what they see in reality on paper. I want to deepen those skills, but I try to shape their understanding of what art is, so they don’t give up right away. I [focus on a] few specific artists that connect to everything we’re doing that quarter and who don’t necessarily represent realistic work. My middle schoolers look at Basquiat. And it looks nothing like what they expect art to look like. It’s messy. They say it looks like a five-year-old did it. When you start talking about the value, the cost of his art, and the deeper meaning of his art, they start valuing their work so much more. They can find value in their work when I purposefully choose an artist who represents my student body and doesn’t show that he has the most perfect skill set.

    Where to start:

    For beginners:

    • Professional development can help clear up misconceptions and provide a framework for implementation
    • Start small — don’t try to overhaul an entire curriculum or classroom, because it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Find one aspect to change — reflect on one barrier to learning — and refine as needed.

    For those who are already using UDL:

    • Find a thought partner. Having another teacher in the building or in your network who also uses UDL can help you identify barriers and places to improve.

    Key Takeaways

    • Barriers to learning aren’t within students — they’re obstacles in curriculum or environment that a teacher can remove with careful planning.
    • Having a clear goal connected to a standard helps ensure that students can work with purpose. Giving them flexible means to achieve that goal allows them to express themselves and find agency.
    • It’s OK to say no if a particular means to a goal isn’t rigorous. Redirect students to reformulate their ideas and connect them back to the goal.

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