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#1: When you begin using art-based inquiry in your classroom, it is helpful to start with a teacher-directed approach, called directed inquiry.

#2: After both students and teachers are comfortable with the key elements of this approach, they can move into a teacher-guided approach - guided inquiry - which encourages more autonomy and choice. 

#3: Students will then be ready for independent inquiry, wherein they each choose a topic of inquiry to follow down a self-directed path of research and art-making. 

Jump to Step-by-Step Guides: 


Submit an Inquiry Trail: 

Directed Inquiry Anchor


2. Choose a lesson or project that is most meaningful to you and your students—something you would like to begin your term with. Take a look at some projects here.


3. Examine the lesson critically. Is there a big idea or concept at the heart of it? Locate and articulate that. A big idea/concept is a significant idea or issue. It is not an art skill, technique or design strategy.

Directed Inquiry.tiff

Shift your perspective on curriculum and art from object-making to inquiry.


If you want to do directed inquiry based on projects you have done before, follow these guidelines:

1. Map out your existing curriculum to see how the projects connect and what skills and ideas you are teaching. Think critically about your curriculum. Do the projects have hands-on, minds-on activities that require thinking? Do they entail imagination, invention or personal interpretation? Do they explore a big idea or concept (have conceptual content)? Do they build on each other? Is there a logical flow or cohesion? What is the throughline — the underlying thread that connects all the projects?

A visual representation of an inquiry trail.


4. Examine and articulate your understanding goals for your project. What do you want your students to explore  and understand about the big idea? 

5. Develop a generative question or questions about the big idea. Generative questions are open-ended and have no right or wrong answers.

6. Develop a set of guiding questions that you can use to help students explore tangible, useable imagery and ideas.  These questions should prompt students to think more expansively, deeply and specifically. These questions you can      ask at the beginning of the project and during it. As the project goes on, you will develop more questions.

7. Include an assignment in which students research the big idea and art (or science, social science, math or literature)   related to it.

8. Develop a reflection question that focus on your understanding goals, what students learned and how they learned it.

9. Think of ways to extend or expand on this project. Follow the most promising/generative project idea or connect the project to next project. This connection can be conceptual (following the big idea in a different way) or skill-based (building on the inquiry and art skills from one lesson to explore a different big idea or developing new skills). Here you can return to your curriculum map and rearrange your projects, eliminate some and add in new ones.

Note: We emphasize grounding projects in big ideas and concepts because they are “generative” (as well as important). That means they have lots of possibilities for thinking, creative exploration and art making. Technique, materials, formal qualities and design strategies are far less generative. Therefore, they should not be the focus of the project but a support for interpreting and conveying ideas.  

Guided inquiry will orient them toward the inquiry approach and give them the skills and dispositions they need to do their own inquiry later. 


​1. Develop understanding goals. What do you want your students to know about and understand? One understanding goal could be knowing how art-based inquiry works and how to do it. Another could be understanding that common objects have meaning—and ideas and associations in them. One goal could be understanding how one thing leads to another.

2. Develop generative questions. These could be the understanding goals in question form.

3. Choose an object that everyone can investigate together. A simple common object that has lots of associations works best. 

Guided Inquiry.tiff

A visual representation of a guided inquiry trail.

​4. Set up ways to investigate the object/idea (concept finding) such as concept-mapping the object, interviewing it, doing research on it, gathering images related to it, and digging deeply into its social, cultural and physical associations/meanings. 

5. Develop a set of three or four steps using “creative strategies” or ways of interpreting the object (concept- representing). These can include juxtaposing the object to other objects to make connections and contrast; morphing it into something else; adapting it to different uses or contexts; mapping its biography; diagraming its “anatomy”; redesigning it; embellishing it; personifying it etc. 

6. Develop guiding questions for the steps/creative strategies.


7. Develop reflection questions that focus on the understanding.

Guided Inquiry Anchor


Curriculum for independent inquiry is emergent, particularly for each student as they follows their inquiry trail.


It is also divergent; it is different at times for different students. That does not mean the curriculum has no structure.


Its structure is strong (with established activities, protocols, prompts, teaching strategies and assessment criteria) and flexible (open to adaptation and supportive of individual play). 

Independent Inquiry.tiff

A visual representation of an independent inquiry trail.


General Strategies and Guidelines: 

  • Be sure to be clear about expectations and assignments.


  • Practice protocols and research strategies together as a class.


  • Show students how to concept map and map their processes.


  • Require that students do outside research (find information from outside the art class and their personal life experiences) and inside research (inquiry into how they think about the topic and its relationship to their experiences).


  • Encourage each student to start where they are and expand and extend upon that; push them to explore ideas, connections and options; give them conceptual tools to make meaning and express their ideas (these can be the “creative strategies” found in contemporary art). You can practice these strategies together as a group or show them art works that use them.


  • Guide them toward resources and ideas; provide opportunities for group critiques and brainstorming, Practice brainstorming and other creative strategies with the entire class and in groups.


  • Call attention to what they are doing and learning. Explain to them why they are doing what they are doing, Ask them to critique and contribute to the curriculum. 


  • Give students research workbook/journals and guidelines for using them. 


  • Display the documentation (books and/or wall) with the artworks as interrelated artworks.

Independent inquiry anchor
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