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Utilizing the Project Zero Frameworks

Art-based inquiry relies on structures and tools to make and keep it rich, meaningful and generative. Harvard University’s Project Zero (PZ) provides those structures and tools. These frameworks stem from Project Zero’s theories of and research into understanding and thinking. They provide practical tools for developing inquiry curriculum and supporting students in their creative inquiry.

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Middle school art students make concept maps, then create an artistic response to the question: What do my hands do? What do they look like? What would I like to teach them to do? 

A middle school art student creates an artwork that represents ideas flowing from her mind.

Teaching for Understanding Framework 

Teaching for Understanding rests on four key questions:

  1. What topics are worth understanding?

  2. What about these topics must learners understand?

  3. How can teachers foster understanding?

  4. How can teachers know what students understand? 

TfU aligns with creative art-based inquiry because it asks those questions and provides a strong, flexible structure on which to explore them. Furthermore, TfU focuses learners’ and teachers’ attention on what matters. It requires that all learning activities connect to significant overarching generative themes and related goals. In this way, it helps teachers be more intentional in their curriculum and pedagogy. It also leads teachers to develop curriculum that explores themes of consequence to both learners and teachers, and to think through and organize their lessons according to their goals in investigating those themes. TfU also contributes a common vocabulary for educators to use in their teaching and, when used schoolwide, a language for collaborating with their peers.

While TfU helps teachers, it also benefits learners because TfU provides learners with a vocabulary to articulate and communicate their thinking and learning. It also makes explicit the goals of the curriculum and their relationship to overarching themes and other significant ideas. 

Basic Tenets of TfU 

The following are the basic tenets of the Teaching for Understanding Framework. 

Generative Themes


Broad topics (also referred to as Big Ideas) or generative themes are central to the domain or discipline. They are accessible and interesting to students, interesting to the teacher, linked to students’ experiences and important across the disciplines.



Throughlines are complex themes that can be explored in many ways. They provide the conceptual thread that connects all the learning experiences in the curriculum, and, therefore, bring continuity to a curriculum.

Understanding Goals


Specific ideas, concepts and the thinking your students will come to understand through participating in a particular lesson, series of lessons or a project, understanding goals fit within the throughline. Also, they pertain to significant issues and concepts, not to technical skills or discipline-specific “principles”. In art, understanding goals, therefore, are about grasping concepts and making meaning, and not about formal concerns or craftsmanship. Those goals are “procedural” in nature and can be listed as procedural goals under a separate category.

Generative Questions


A TfU lesson begins with a generative question or two. Generative questions are directly linked to the understanding goals of the lesson. They are, therefore, questions about significant concepts and ideas. Being questions and not answers, these questions initiate the inquiry, and since they are generative, they are open-ended, thought-provoking and have no easy yes or no answers. 


Performances of Understanding 


The learning activities in a lesson, “performances of understanding” may seem like an arcane term for activities, but there is a reason for this. TfU and other PZ frameworks are grounded in the Performance Theory of Understanding (Perkins, 1988)—the notion that learning experiences should be ways learners build understanding and also demonstrate understanding at the same time. As hands-on, minds-on endeavors, performances are not merely activities or exercises, but are activities that spur and require thinking. These activities must directly connect to the understanding goals.

Guiding Questions


Far more focused and concrete than generative questions, guiding questions are intended to help learners enter into an inquiry and then guide them toward more complex abstract thinking. Think of guiding questions as a ladder of questions. On the bottom rung are simple concrete questions learners can answer easily. The questions become more and more abstract, thought-provoking and open-ended as they progress up the ladder. Because these questions tap into learner’s knowledge or experience in very specific tangible ways, they help learners take what they know from their lives or from school, expand upon it and transform it into artworks. Guiding questions also help learners build a variety of ideas on which to base their artwork. 



Reflection activities are performances of understanding in which learners observe, analyze and synthesize what they have learned and how they have learned it. They are performances of understanding because learners do them to learn as well as demonstrate their understanding. As John Dewey argued, learning occurs not in just doing something, but in doing and then reflecting on the experience. Reflection is where the learning surfaces and realized.

Reflection Questions


These are questions that guide the reflection and make it more probing and meaningful. With these questions, the learner’s attention is drawn back to the understanding goals. Attention is also drawn toward the process learners went through to reach understanding—the thinking they did, the decisions they made, the connections they constructed and the knowledge they employed. That is to say, reflection questions go beyond simple questions—Do you like what you made? What do you like about it? How would you change it? Reflection questions are more meaningful; they reveal understanding and process: 

  • What ideas are conveyed in your artwork? 

  • Where did those ideas come from? 

  • What forms, images, colors, etc. did you use to convey your ideas?

  • How did your ideas grow and change as your inquiry progressed and your artwork materialized? 

  • What did you learn about your topic, yourself as an artist and the nature of art or art-based inquiry? 

  • How did you learn it?

Ongoing Assessment


The Teaching for Understanding approach places a great deal of emphasis on ongoing assessment as opposed to stand-alone, one-time summative assessment. Here assessment becomes a crucial part of the scaffolding in the lesson/project, and therefore, of benefit to the learning process.


Ongoing assessment supports students in their learning; it helps learners learn and progress throughout the inquiry. This is in stark contrast to summative assessment, which, as a final isolated judgement on a learner’s work or understanding, does not promote learning as much as judge it. This makes assessment a form of performance of understanding; it builds understanding as it assesses it.  Assessment also connects directly to the understanding goals. This gives the lesson or project cohesion and reinforces what and why the lesson exists in the first place. 


Thorough ongoing documentation tracks the learning process and the kinds of thinking and creation that take place in it.


Documentation is critical to teachers and students alike because it reveals what students understand and how they came to understand. It, therefore, helps learners to become metacognitive. Documentation also makes visible the interaction between pedagogy and learning. It, therefore, helps teachers assess their curriculum and teaching.


Beyond that, documentation can be an advocacy tool; it demonstrates to others the richness and depth or learning that takes place in creative art-based inquiry and learning. Documentation, therefore, is a scaffolding tool for learning, an assessment tool for teachers, and a powerful way to communicate to parents and administrators how vital, rich and effective creative inquiry is.


Documentation is best when it includes descriptions of activities and scaffolding; generative, guiding and reflection questions; quotes from learners and teachers; photographs of learners exploring and creating; and other visual imagery, such as artworks and concept maps.


Documentation can be displayed on learning walls and in research workbooks.



Creative Inquiry and Integration

How does Teaching for Understanding promote creative inquiry? How can establishing understanding goals or final outcomes align with the open-ended quality of creative inquiry? How does TfU promote curriculum integration? The answers to these questions are really quite simple. 

  • Creative inquiry-based learning requires structure, focus and guidance. Without them, students get lost and learning does not progress. TfU and the other Project Zero frameworks provide these necessities. 


  • Reconciling intentionality (understanding goals or outcomes) with the open-ended, improvisational nature of creative inquiry is easily done when understanding creative inquiry through practicing it is built into the understanding goals. 


  • TfU aligns with creative inquiry in its emphasis on questions. TfU discourages providing answers and instead promotes asking questions, particularly questions that are thought-provoking and push the inquiry forward. 


  • In regard to integration, TfU stresses addressing themes and topics that are significant and related to the world of students. These themes naturally transcend disciplinary boundaries. A thorough creative investigation into them is inherently integrative.




Blythe, T. (1998). The teaching for understanding guide. Jossey-Bass.

Teaching for Understanding
Making Learning Visible

Making Learning Visible 


 The purpose of Making Learning Visible is to build metacognition. That is, to show learners what they have learned and how they have learned it so they can take control their learning. This happens through documentation that highlights the learning and the thinking that goes into it. Documentation often occurs in learning walls—mural-like maps of ideas, thinking, creation and reflection. In these displays, learning becomes visible through graphic displays of evidence and artifacts. 

These walls are group projects. As such, they not only show how students learn from each other, students also learn together while they make these walls. The walls are a collaborative equivalent to research journals or workbooks, which students create on their own.



Juno, S,V, (2010). Seeing is believing: Making our learning through the arts visible. In D. Donahue & J, Stuart. Artful teaching. Teachers College Press.


Middle School art students make concept maps, then choose creative strategies such as personification and transformation to imagine different ways to artistically represent shoes.  
Studio Thinking

The Studio Thinking Framework: Studio Habits of Mind

The Studio Thinking Framework is useful to the creative inquiry-based approach because it draws attention toward how and what students learn in an art classroom.

Art classrooms are studios; they are places where learners think and learn as they create art.


There are eight Studio Habits of Mind (SHoM) learners perform in an art class:

1) Observe

2) Envision

3) Express

4) Reflect

5) Stretch and explore

6) Engage and persist

7) Understand the art world

8) Develop craft 

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Art-based inquiry embraces the studio habits because: 

  • They shift the focus away from the products of art making toward the process of art making. 


  • They draw attention to the distinctive behaviors inherent in studio-based learning. 


  • They give explicit names to these behaviors. 


  • Everyone can excel at one or more habits. 


  • Two habits ‘stretch and explore’, and ‘engage and persist’ promote risk taking, learning from mistakes and venturing into unknown territory. These habits, in particular, are crucial to creativity and creative inquiry-based learning. 


The studio habits delineate behaviors that are not exclusive to the art class. The habits are cross-disciplinary, a point of integration

The habits connect classroom learning to the “real” work of the disciplines by reflecting what happens in professional research environments. 


Hetland, L.  Winner, E., Veneema, S. & Sheridan, K. (2009). Studio thinking: The real benefits of visual art education. Teachers College Press.

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