Critical Thinking Questions In Art

Effective Questioning in The Arts

It’s back-to-school time! If you’re anything like me, this is always a time of New School Year’s Resolutions. What do I want to do differently this year? How can I increase student engagement? Am I doing everything I can to give my students the music education they deserve?

One of my biggest struggles in the music classroom was accomplishing everything I wanted to in a limited amount of time.  As well as, trying to do so in a way that encouraged deep thinking. One of my constant New Year’s Resolutions has always been to provide more opportunity for higher order thinking skills. However, this can be a challenge when you have a 20-minute class period. The types of questions we ask in the classroom, and the opportunities we allow for our students to come to the answers of those questions can make or break our effectiveness at achieving that goal. So today, let’s look at some tips for effective questioning in the arts classroom.

Identify your essential question

First, we must identify the “big idea.” What is the larger question around the piece of art your students are engaging with? It’s time to think beyond your lesson plan! Is the true, essential objective of your lesson that students demonstrate that they know that Georges Seurat painted “A Sunday on La Grande Jette” using a technique called pointillism through identification and the development of a matching product. Or, is there something bigger? The essential questions for National Core Visual Arts Standard 1.2 read:

“How does knowing the context histories, and traditions of art forms help us create works of art and design? Why do artists follow or break from established tradition? How do artists determine what resources are needed to formulate artistic investigation?”

Outline some big ideas and essential questions for your content area that encourage creative, artful thinking can serve to guide you this year.

Build a questioning toolkit.

This is a great time to look at the essential questions built right into the National Core Arts Standards. And, begin developing some lines of questioning helping students meet those standards. What kinds of questions will you ask to encourage inquiry around a piece of art, music, theatre, or dance? How will you guide students to the big idea with smaller questions? Check out this article on question starters for each level of Bloom’s taxonomy, and develop some guiding questions for your content area.

Give wait time.

When time is at a premium, it’s easy to forget to do this. However, giving students moments of thoughtful silence to formulate their own observation, ideas, hypotheses, and opinions is crucial to developing artistic minds. Every student should have time to think individually before discussion, so that they all have something to share. Challenge yourself to give your students just a little bit longer this year!

Allow opportunities for all students to engage.

This might mean giving students time to turn and talk with a partner. It might mean instituting a “no hands up” policy allowing you to choose, who will respond. This gives students the opportunity to continue thinking while responses are made. Encouraging discussion among all students is difficult to do within time constraints, but it is vitally important to ensure that every child is thinking critically and artfully.

Dig deeper.

Follow up to student responses in a way that encourages deeper thinking. Ask students to explain their thinking using support and evidence from the piece of art. This is a standard and a skill that crosses all curricular lines, so encouraging this, we are achieving standards in every content area. What better use of time is there than this?

Share your favorite questioning tips and strategies below!

Brianne is a former music educator from Chicago and current graduate class instructor with EdCloset’s Learning Studios. She earned her Masters degree in Music Education from VanderCook College of Music and has over a decade of experience in the elementary general music classroom. With her experience in the performing arts, Brianne is dedicated to building connections between the arts and Common Core Standards, 21st century learning skills, inquiry and project-based learning. In addition to her work with EducationCloset, Brianne is a yoga instructor in the Chicagoland area. You can also find Brianne here:

Teaching Creative Thinkingwith
Awareness and Discovery Questions
(Inquiry Learning)

by Marvin Bartel © 2004
updated August, 2013
biography of author
also see: Questions to ask a Second Grade Painter or Museum Visitor



What kind of questions prod creative responses?

How will my students' thinking habits differ if I designed my questions to have more than one correct answer?

What if I would try to stop asking yes/no questions and try to stop asking questions that simply review factual information?

How will my students' thinking habits differ if I routinely ask for viable alternatives to standard ways of solving problems?

How would this effect world peace and living conditions in the future? How would it effect a their ability to lead a productive life? How might my teaching habits effect the way they get along with members of their future families? How and why would it impact there creative abilities?

teach creative thinking
Example Questions
Apprentice Teachers do SECRET SURVEY


In a global information environment, the old pattern of education in answer-finding is one of no avail: one is surrounded by answers, millions of them, moving and mutating at electric speed.  Survival and control will depend on the ability to probe and to question in the proper way and place. -- M. McLuhan (probably written 30 or 40 years ago)

This quotation is found in Marshall McLuhan: Cosmic Media By Janine Marchessault. page 224

Understanding . . . grows from questioning oneself or from being questioned by others, such as teachers. -- Sizer, T. Horace's Compromise: The Dilemma of the American High School. 1984. Boston. Houghton Mifflin. page 117.

What happens to the mind of  the learner when a teacher or a parent begins by asking instead of telling?

What happens to motivation?

How do students learn to formulate good questions?

How do students learn critical thinking? How can creative thinking be taught or learned? How can students be engaged in their own learning? How do some students become better at forming their own questions?

We all see that some students are more creative. Many educators assume that creative thinking is an enigma and a gift (or a curse). They believe that by luck or by chance some people are naturally creative. Some colleagues tell me that creative thinking cannot be taught. While I am thankful for all good gifts, I do not depend on gifts alone. I find that new thinking habits can be nurtured and developed in myself and in others. I find that a change in student thinking habits and thinking modes is most apt to happen if appropriate teaching habits are cultivated and learned.

One approach is to change my questioning style. To encourage divergent thinking, I avoid questions that have only one acceptable answer. Imagination neurons are diminished by "Drill and kill" questions. They do not prod divergent thinking. Most questions with only one answer are too easy or too hard. The student is either bored or frustrated. The imagination and the desire to learn both die. Scafolding so that the questions are just hard enough is feasible when you have only one student, but as soon as you have a class of diverse abilities, some students are likely to be discouraged while others are likely to be bored when single-answer questions are used.

Effective questions are asked when we sense the edge of student thinking ability. I have to achieve empathy to sense what a student needs. Open and relevant questions stretch and add flexibility to the mind. My teaching disposition has to be ready and able to affirm and recognize original and innovative responses.

One of my most amazing discoveries was when I noticed that my students were actually imitating my questioning methods. This was a mind blowing event for me. I see both creative and critical thinking emerge as the students themselves imitate my questioning model. If they imitate my good open questions, what else are they imitating. It challenges me to prethink how I teach.

If I use questions merely to confirm that students have been accepting my thinking, I am not motivating autonomous thinking. Simple testing questions do not help students become thinkers, discoverers, innovators, and leaders. When I use these kinds of questions, I am merely preparing them to join worker-ant colonies, but they will have lost much of their potential to make better lives and/or a better world. They become part of the masses of dulled down parrots who know the "material," who believe unsubstantiated propaganda, and give up their rights to think because drill and rote learning has conditioned them to believe in self-proclaimed experts.

As learners, we have instinctive "monkey see monkey do" mirror neurons in our brains. However, we also have an opposite, but essential survival instinct. Learners who have lost their instinct to be skeptical and to imagine multiple scenarios are a threat to themselves and to our basic precepts of democracy and freedom. We have to question, to wonder, to experiment, be curious, love discovery, enjoy new experience, and tolerate ambiguities to remain free and creative.

Teaching for a test that merely verifies a set of predetermined knowledge and standards is bound to be a very stilted self-defeating education because it deceives the learner into believing that they are successful if they learn to conform to others' wishes and answers. To become a creative contributor to society, I have to learn to wonder if their is a better answer to a better question. Our teaching and learning has to include skills in asking open questions.

How can my testing be changed so that it asks students to add their own best questions, even if these questions call into question my assumptions of truth? Life-long learning does not happen unless I have learned how much want to learn that I do not yet know. The major problems in the world may not be solved by using only old solutions.

Beginning with open questions

How does a class respond differently when I begin with some open questions about a topic to learn? Can I activate a different part of students' brains with questions than with announcements of intention? Will students be more or less apt to pay attention when they expect to be called on or when they are told to pay attention? Why do they seem to be unwilling to share an opinion? Is their something about how they I respond? Is there something about their socialization with their peers that keeps them from thinking and responding creatively in class setting? When should I allow written responses and respect their privacy? How do I promote a culture of affirmative, emphatic, and active questioning and thinking out loud in my classroom?

How would students' minds be affected if I invited and gave extra credit to alternative problem solving methods during my opening pop quiz that I use to check to see if assigned reading has been competed? How would their homework study habits change if I gave double credit when they proposed alternatives to what the authors in assigned reading had suggested? For example, the reading assignment may have been the historical account of the Boston Tea Party. What if students were given double credit for describing a viable alternative response to solve the problem of taxation without representation?

What would happen if I began every class with a few provocative questions about the topic being studied? Might my students minds be influenced to imitate my inquiry methods?

Posting thinking questions

We can spend a lot of time with one or a few students while the remainder of the class is not involved.  Noticing ceases when curiosity dies. Teachers who consciously try to teach creative thinking will soon realize the value of asking the right kind of open-ended questions. By posting good questions at strategic locations in the classroom, a virtual cafeteria of thoughts can motivate thinking and awareness. Posted questions that open up new approaches can be changed as needs, topics, abilities, and interests change. I have often found that when one student is stuck or experiencing a block, others may also be having similar problems. Awareness is one of essential components of creative inspiration and problem solving. If the motivational and inspirational questions are posted, I may be more efficient by reminding students to check the posted questions for inspiration.

Question difficulty

Teachers all know that difficulty level is a key factor in good motivation. When we see frustration, it is too hard. When we see boredom, it is too easy or resignation because of difficulty. When we ask a stupid question with a self-evident answer, students feel we are wasting time. Sometimes we need to ask redundant questions to remind kids of discipline issues or to reinforce some idea, but we need to realize that redundancy risks being dismissed as irrelevant.

When posting questions we can vary the difficulty. When making lists, we can begin with some easier questions and end with some questions that would challenge the teacher. Verbal spontaneous questions can be tailored to the student. We inspire learning when we manage to make the hard stuff easier and the easy stuff challenging. I need to remember that art of teaching creative thinking is not to profess the known, but to inspire curiosity and thinking by teasing out new thinking with unexpected questions.


Student questions often present teachable moments that catch us off guard.  We tend to develop habits of response.  It is amazing to me how variable different art teachers are in this regard. I was observing a student teacher who was teaching a painting lesson to a first grade class. I child asked, "How do I make pink?" Without a moment of reflection the student teacher said, "Put a littlered in some white." This was a correct answer, but the wrong way to respond. I admit to doing it often, but regretting that I did it.This child was not taught how to imagine, hypothesize, and experiment. This first grader was encouraged on the unfortunate path to "learned helplessness." At least we can ask the child to make a guess, and then do a quick experiment. If the child finds that the guess is wrong, could we affirm the child for learning how to experiment, but then ask for another idea to try?

When a child experiments and gets an unexpected result, it is especially important to give affirmation and explain that we are affirming the courage to take a chance of learning from a mistake. I recently heard Sara Blakely, a very successful young women explain how she had learned to think creatively. Her invention had made her wealthy. In explaining her own creativity and success, she explained that "Her father used to ask a weekly question of his children: What did you fail at this week? He was almost disappointed if they didn't have an answer. She was not afraid to fail."
(from: "Who is Sara Blakely and Spanx" Squidwho - accessed on March 11, 2011 - "Blakely was encouraged while growing up to work hard and take chances.  She says, 'My attitude to failure is not attached to outcome, but in not trying.'  She is also glad she trusted her instincts. “Our gut is a real guide,” she says, and should be heeded." 
(from: Suzanne Ridgway. "Profiles of Success: Sarah Blakely and Spanz" Working World - accessed on March 11, 2012 -

Do I satisfy my EGO or my student's brain?
As a teacher, I know how good it feels to be a content expert and be admired by our students for how smart we are. But knowing the answer to a student's question does not make one a teacher for today's world. Giving the answer does not produce a learning mind; it disables the mind, making it dependent and uncritical. Such education is more appropriate for a slave culture. When I give an answer, I miss an opportunity to teach thinking and problem solving.

The derivative of the word "Educate" means to draw out
What if my student teacher had first encouraged the student by saying, What a good question you ask? Next she might have turned it into to a teachable moment by asking the child to think about pink? "How dark or how light is the pink you want?" "When you look at your paints, which ones seem sort of like pink?" As the child makes guesses, the teacher encourages the child to test out the ideas on a piece of paper to watch what happens. The child has been drawn out and is now learning to be a self-learner; she is learning the science of experimentation, and the art of choice making. An important thing is happening to the child. Without saying it, the teacher is giving the child permission to be the creator, to be the scientist, and to be the artist. The child is given permission to use art making as a time to learn how to learn instead simply a time to produce an art object. When we draw out the student, a slave of ignorance is liberated to learn.

A part of the brain that was alive and well two years earlier, before the child started formal education, is once again being vitalized with new neurons. If we refrain from giving answers, and teach children how to question, they soon learn to exercise their imaginations and ask these kinds of questions of their own minds. In time and with practice they become skilled in creative thinking, setting up their own experiments, and enjoying independent learning again.

Even the creative habits of imagining, experimenting, questioning, and considering various options are learned by imitation. Good teaching provides good models to imitate. When teachers and parents model good questioning they nurture students that become habitually good questioners. It becomes part of their personalities. When teachers and parents give quick answers and dogmatic solutions they model minds that jump to unconsidered and unverified conclusions. Frequently this leads to bad choices, not only in mixing pink, but in many off color behavioral scenarios as well.

Does our "quick easy answer" habits of teaching have something to do with why so many people in today's world believe the quick and easy catch phases of talk radio personalities and political campaign ads? Might this be encouraging thinking habits that buy into all kinds of conspiracy theories about what causes bad things to happen in the world?

Changing habits of teaching
When visiting art classes, I witnessed many missed opportunities. Art students are always coming to the teacher for approval and with questions. They are being conditioned to check everything with the teacher in order to get a good grade. They soon loose their courage to trust their own ideas. They stop trying to figure things out themselves. As a way of building awareness of this issue, I decided to have my apprentice teachers study this problem.

The Hawthorne Effect may produce bad research, but the change it produces is real and can be very beneficial. My students, by being involved in the study, became more aware of thier own habits.

On a recent trip to London (March of 2006), I saw security cameras everywhere.  What if I put a camera in my classroom? If an educational spy would observe in my art class, what would she observe about my responses to student art questions and requests for help? What would the camera reveal to me about my responses to questions?

A few years ago I tried a new assignment in my class in how to teach art (for art majors). When teaching their practice lessons, I could see that they had not internalized much of what they studied in our course. When they started teaching, they used the same methods their teachers had used on them rather than the methods we had studied in my class. It is hard to learn new material and put it into practice without seeing others do it first and without experiencing it yourself.

I needed a better way to make apprentice teachers more aware of learning and teaching styles that we discuss in theory class. I decided that they first needed to learn to notice and become aware of other methods. I had them do Secret Tally observation research.

Now whenever they observe in an art class they are assigned to unobtrusively do research by keeping a secret TALLY of how the art teacher responds to student questions and requests for assistance. Many teachers tend to be art experts and answer nearly every question in a fairly knowing way. However, some teachers ask the student an open question that reassures the questioning student that the artwork is based on the student's choices.  Still other teachers are especially good at getting students to experiment to find their own solutions. Some teachers use all of these approaches, depending on the situation and on how busy they were.

It is neither my intention nor my goal to change the teachers that are being observed. I have made a few attempts at this, but who am I to ask experienced teachers to change what is working fine for them?

I have my students do this tally, not because I expect to change what the teachers are doing, but because I find that this SPY MISSION ASSIGNMENT is an effective way to get prospective teachers to rethink their own roles as educators--not just people who pass on expert facts and art skills. Maybe education really is to draw out rather then to pour in. This assignment is a way to get them to think about why these teachers do what they do. We all tend to teach in the same ways we were taught. This is a way to try to change this. It challenges them to rethink what they experienced as students.

These students become student teachers the following fall. In some cases student teachers still revert to the habit of being an expert who wants to answer every student question. After a visit to one such student teacher, I asked her what she remembered about the previous year when she had kept a tally of the teacher she was observing. Two weeks later, at my second visit, she had completely retrained herself and was doing a beautiful job of fostering creative thinking.

Even though this college student had studied uncreative and creative coaching of students who asked for advise, when she started teaching, she automatically reverted to the way her teachers had taught her. Fortunately when asked if she remembered our study of teacher response to student questions, she was became aware of her own automatic habits and found ways to modify her own teaching habits. Transfer of learning is not automatic, but requires considerable nurture, coaching, and encouragement before it become habitual.

Studies show that highly creative people (in various fields of expertise) have minds that have evolved and developed to be more fluent and flexible. Fluency allows them to think of many ideas very quickly. Flexibility allows them to think of unusual, unique, original, and even opposite ideas that never occur to the average person. Our typical tests do little to reward these abilities.

Many teachers and testing companies assume that tests, in order to be scored reliably, have to ask questions with only one correct answer. Not so. Of course essay tests can ask open questions, but they require more time to read and evaluate. Computer scoring is difficult. What if our tests would be written to expect multiple correct answers? What if we gave more credit for those who answered with the most innovative and unique correct answers? What if our tests would ask for the opposites of the correct answers? How would education change if we tested in ways that draw out many and original answers rather then certain single expected answers?

Also see: Writing tests for art class and tests to foster learning how to think better.

The examples below are open questions intended to encourage creative thinking for an art room. Other classroom teachers can post similar appropriate questions in their classrooms. Age appropriate open questions written by the teacher should be posted and frequently updated. Questions help students and teachers overcome the boredom of routine inertia of activities and habits of work that disappoint the teacher and no longer challenge the students. Including the same questions on a test will emphasize the importance of the questions.

These examples are only a start. No yes/no questions are used. There are no questions in these examples that have only one correct answer.

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