Essential Questioning Strategies and Question Formulation Technique

Learning about the Question Formulation Technique in my graduate studies at Texas Woman’s University has been one of the most valuable additions to my teaching toolkit.  This presentation has links to one of the developer’s TEDx talk as well as a video that was made in my classroom at the beginning of the year’s Sculpture I class.  You can find out how I have the students return to the essential questions they generated for themselves throughout their creative process, from initial design to their end of project reflection.  QFT is a powerful, easy and meaningful way to help our students be more engaged and in charge of their learning.

2013 TAEA Presentation – Essential Questioning Strategies

colorful_question_mark_vector_set_148455The Question Formulation Technique is my favorite new strategy to help my art students develop their own essential questions that guide their art making.

Click the “QFT Presentation” blue link below to download the presentation from the conference.  The PowerPoint contains video content and will take some time to download, so be patient!  Go grap a cup or better yet, work on some art while downloading.  Feel free to share and please contact me with comments or questions.  I would love to hear how other art teachers use QFT in their classroom!

QFT Presentation

Artist of the Day Video Student Reflection

Video photo

I’ve been using Artist of the Day videos as an opening activity in my high school art classes for several years now.  I have noticed changes in the quality of the videos as well as trends, such as artists using more technology in developing their artwork.  Everything about our lives change constantly and rapidly, so I felt a need to check in with my students to see what they think about the Artist of the Day videos I show them.  I asked 120 students four questions and will list some of their short answer responses here.

The thing I like most about Artist of the Day is:

  • You get to see different types of art and new creations (47 students wrote answers that were very similar to this.  This is definitely one of the goals I have with the videos.)  The rest of the responses have varying numbers of responses.
  • It’s unique
  • I like the people and their personality
  • Expands your imagination and brings out new ideas
  • It’s a good way to escape
  • Getting inspired before every class
  • It inspires me
  • I get to relax at the beginning of the class
  • You don’t know what you are going to see next (As the instructor, I select the videos I show, but I do show videos the students find as well.)
  • I notice more artsy stuff!

Artist of the Day helps me:

  • Get ideas and inspire me
  • With creativity
  • Learn
  • Understand artists’ point of view about their work
  • Discover new artists and types of art
  • Think outside the box
  • Relax and let my brain move away from all of the academics
  • Forget about bad things throughout my day (that’s a nice side benefit!)
  • Get into the mood of art
  • Get through the hump of my day and get the creative part of my brain going
  • See things differently

Artist of the Day is Fun because:

  • I get to see different forms of art
  • It shows imagination and ideas I never thought of
  • The videos we watch are really cool
  • It’s cool and interesting
  • It’s different from the things I do in my other classes
  • It isn’t focused on educating us/more about exploring a new world of art
  • It makes you feel happy for some apparent reason ( 🙂 I love this – it makes me happy!  I get to see the video 6 times a day!!!)
  • You see real life, current applications of art
  • It shows that people enjoy art
  • I get to see things I wouldn’t normally see
  • We get a break before we start learning
  • It’s something I look forward to

I wish Artist of the Day was:

  • It’s fine as it is (a lot of students responded this way.  The videos are usually between 2-5 minutes long.)
  • Longer (as many said they wished it was longer!  A few wished it was shorter, but I think they are about the right length so they don’t cut into too much studio time.)
  • ME!
  • More about music and dance
  • More about technology
  • More about the artist and how they work
  • Something teens would like more (need to drill down to get specific information about this.)
  • On the school website so we could see them whenever.  (This is something I need to work on – putting them up on my class pages.)
  • All class long because they have cool information
  • Something to try to gain new experiences (Also something to get more information about.)

I have an article that is going to be published in an art education journal next month about how to use these videos.  If the reader wants to get more in depth information about the Artist of the Day Videos, email me and I’ll send the article to you when it comes out.  In the meantime, I asked my student teacher, Melissa Backus from Texas Woman’s University what she thought about the Artist of the Day Videos.  Here’s what she said…

AoD Videos are kind of magical – at a basic level, they get students to focus and get settled into class.  On another level, they expose students to a variety of formal and self-taught contemporary artists, and a variety of mediums and styles of art.  These videos also help create dialogue in the classroom, separate from the main project or topic, about contemporary art and artists.  Ultimately, the videos give students the chance to see art they probably won’t see anywhere else (unless they actively searched for it!).

Playing with the videos to help connect my students to making and appreciating art brings me a great deal of pleasure.  Though a small fraction had some complaint about the videos, the vast majority wrote positive things about our daily art exploration.  We all discover the wonders of the art world in our classroom and are transported by their beauty and genius – every day!

Aesthetic Inquiry – Is Nature Art?


Watch the Vimeo video – Adrift

Last Friday the Artist of the Day video was a beautiful video, Adrift, which shows the movement of fog in San Francisco.  It was a wonderful, calm way to end the week.  I realized that until seeing this video, I did not fully understand the expression “the fog rolled in”.  Seeing this aspect of nature in motion is truly captivating.

I decided that morning to ask my high school students what they thought about the question, “Is Nature Art?”.  I also asked them how they would define art.  We had not done any preparatory discussion about these questions, but after 5 weeks of seeing various Artist of the Day videos, I thought it would be interesting to get a spontaneous response from them in regard to both questions.

The overwhelming majority of them loved the video, as did I.  Their reasons were that it’s beautiful and they enjoyed the ability to see a weather phenomenon not usually witnessed in our part of the world.

I wondered how they might define art.  I know that my own idea about art that’s developed over time is something I’ve heard other artists say – that it has hand, head and heart.  That seems like a very succinct definition.  I found my student’s responses were really lovely ideas about something that is so hard to define.

What is art?  How would you define what it is?

  • Art is a form of life.
  • Art is something that inspires you, connects with you, is something you make, see, imagine…pretty much anything is art.
  • Art is freedom of the mind and emotions.
  • Art is a way of creation and exploration with colors and imagination.  There is no limit to art.
  • Art is something that captures expression.
  • Art is something that can come from within the mind but also the heart.
  • Art is the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.  (Hmmmm – perhaps this was looked up on a smart phone?)
  • Art is anything that inspires, something that teleports you.
  • Art is what you want it to be of your own piece of life and freedom.
  • Art is anything you want it to be.
  • Art is finding meaning in things; art can be anything the maker finds meaningful.
  • Art is a way of expressing yourself while reaching others on a personal level.
  • Art is anything that is worth noticing, and a lot of things are!
  • Art is an idea, mood and character put into form, whether it’s the way someone smiles, or the way someone paints a smile.  ( I love this one….)

The next question, “Is Nature Art?” was answered in the affirmative overwhelmingly by my students!  122 responses said “yes” and only 5 said “no”.  Here is their thinking about it and why..

Is Nature Art?  Why or Why not?

  • Yes, because it has a significance of it’s own and contains basically all elements of art.  I believe art may have been started from nature.
  • Yes, nature is the origin of man made arts, the artistic creation of God.
  • Yes, nature is art.  Events like thunderstorms contain abstract events and inexplicable colors.
  • Yes, nature is God’s masterpiece.  He created it and it is like his art.
  • Yes, it’s the best work of art because it was created so well that no one else can create or copy it.
  • Yes, because some people think flowers can be art.
  • Yes, art can be anything we want it to be.
  • Yes, nature is the art of life, before all of the inventions and innovations.
  • No, but I do see it as inspiration.  Artists can see natural objects and get inspired to try and make their own art.
  • No, art revolves around nature; nature is only a part of art.
  • No, it isn’t a way of expressing anything.  It’s natural and art is not.
  • (and this in depth response…)Nature is many things.  It is beautiful.  It is serene.  It is magical.  But it is not art.  Art is an applied action – a doingness, while nature just happens.  It’s not trying to create – rocks are thrown around by the wind and the water isn’t able to convey the beauty of life, nor the pain of death.  However, when humans are brought into the mix, we can take the randomness and turn it into meaning.  The video that was shown today was very calming and beautiful; it was art whose aspect is nature.  It would be in no way as powerful if you just had been looking at the fog.  He had to record it, edit it, add music and so on.  Raw nature isn’t art, humans are needed to transform it into something others can connect to.

Bravo my young friends!  It’s wonderful to hear you ponder these big questions of life and it warms my heart to know that you recognize the power and majesty of both nature and art.  How you you, dear reader, define art?  What are your own thoughts about the question “Is Nature Art?”.  I would love to include your ideas in this post as well….

Creativity Exercise – Story Telling from Art Postcards and the Surprising Results

Wow!  My students blew me away today, but not really in a good way.  One of my goals this year is to have more creativity exercises interspersed throughout the year to help stretch their creativity muscle.  I have a very large art postcard collection, so last night I had this idea of selecting postcards that had some sort of narrative aspect to the work, staying away from obvious narratives like religious scenes.  I selected quite a variety, including the work of Frederic Edwin Church, Edward Hopper, Duane Hanson, Gustav Klimt and Sandro Botticelli.  I had 30 cards selected; some cards were famous paintings, others not.

I conducted this exercise with my sophomore Honors class, both Honors Art II and Sculpture II students.  I started the activity by passing out one sheet of computer paper to each student and had each of them select a card (the backside of the postcard was all that was visible to them so they couldn’t see what they were getting) from the fan of cards I held in my hands.  Next, they wrote the title of the artwork at the top of their paper.  I gave them one minute to begin a story about the image they had – I asked them to write their name and the word “beginning” on the paper, and when I said “Go!”, they would start their story.  When the minute was up, all papers and their image postcards were passed to another person who would write the middle of the story – they also had one minute.  When that time period was up, the paper and postcard was passed to the last person who would write the end of the story.

They had a great time doing this, and after we finished, asked if we could do this every week!  Wonderful!  So happy to have my students excited and engaged!  I gathered up all of the stories and postcards and took them to the Elmo to project for all to see, and to read their quick stories.  Each group called out which postcard I should read next!  They were so excited, and happily, we had enough time in class to read all of the stories.

But, when I started reading the stories, I became dismayed and puzzled.  Out of 25 postcard stories:

  • 4 stories centered around boredom
  • 13 stories centered around death (by shark, by bombing, by dragons, or other mysterious causes)
  • 1 story centered around tyranny
  • 3 stories included drinking in the scenario (and not lemonade like the story below)
  • 1 story alluded to a 16 year old girl’s rape

Really?!?  These are the stories our children are coming up with?  I can assure you that the postcards I gave them were not of bloody battle scenes but more of the bucolic pastorale narrative type.  I am truly dismayed about these tales.  One story, which showed 2 small children with water balloons in the kitchen was a gruesome tale of killing their oldest sister with a gun while she was doing homework and pushing her out the kitchen window into the small blow up pool below.  They also killed their father, who met the same fate, then dumped the water balloons on the bodies.  This is crazy stuff.  I did read the stories, as I wasn’t sure where they were headed, and of course, they knew what they had written. They howled at their tales.  As each story came along with these terrible themes, my heart fell.  What is informing our children’s imagination?  Death?  Killing?  Boredom?

I imagined I would write a post about this and include a postcard and the story that goes with it, but I have to say, there is hardly one I care to share with my reader.  There are a couple I will post here:

Frederic_Edwin_Church_The_IcebergsFrederic Edwin Church’s, The Icebergs, 1861, oil on canvas, Dallas Museum of Art

  • (Beginning) Hook finally opened his salt-crusted eyes.  He vaguely took in the scenic ambiance around him, and then saw his ship.  It was a wreck.
  • (Middle) He decided to go back to sleep because he was that kind of guy.  After sleeping what seemed like 3 hours, he climbed down and decided to ride out on seals to look for his comrades.
  • (End) Plot twist!  He slept for 70 years instead.  Everyone he loved was dead, now he had only the seals for company.  His tears plopped into the ocean, salt mixing with salt.


Henri Manguin, Femme à l’ombrelle, 1905, oil on canvas, 24 in. x 19 5/8 in.

  • (Beginning) In the flower beds overlooking a river in Rome, Lucille sat under the shade of a tree and her orange umbrella.  Her sister,
  • (Middle) was a clown in the circus downtown and orange was her favorite color.  As she sat enjoying the sun, a man walked towards her.
  • (End) Lucille was very scared.  This man, a shady figure approaching her, who could this be?  The man jumps at Lucille.  Lucille is frightened to see that it was her sister disguised as a man.


Edward Hopper, Rooms by the Sea, 1951, oil on canvas, 29″ x 40 1/2″

  • (Beginning) We were just sitting down to eat dinner hearing the nice ocean waves outside the door.  This was the first time I’ve been on a cruise.
  • (Middle) They looked outside for a good view and saw sharks trying to eat people.  They wanted to help…
  • (End) Being a fan of shark week, I decided not to help because sharks are dangerous so we closed the door and listened to ‘Summer Breeze’ while drinking an ice cold lemonade.  That was the best summer I ever had.


Paul Cézanne, Peasant in a Blue Smock, oil on canvas, 31 3/8″ x 25″, Kimbell Art Museum

  • (Beginning) His beloved wife passed away and with those memories on his mind, this old and lonely man was sitting at his porch.
  • (Middle) While he was sitting on the porch, he could remember those days when his wife would be coming home, walking under the sun holding an umbrella.
  • (End) When his wife was tragically killed by a sudden bout of hiccups, his life was changed forever.  He painted his whole house blue, her favorite color, and only wore blue to represent his feelings and in memory of her.

I believe that’s enough for you to get the idea.  I’m not going to give up on this activity, they did love it so.  But I wonder if I have to put some parameters around the nature of their story?  I want this to be their thinking, but I find their collective thinking to be morose and gruesome.  I would love some feedback from you, dear reader.  Would you give them more direction, or let their storytelling go where it goes?  Would you query them about this line of thinking?  How would you handle a situation such as this?

Aesthetic Inquiry – Technology or Handmade Art?

Digital wave

Artist of the Day videos have a daily presence in my art classroom; just after the bell rings, I flip the lights off and show my students a video before we start our other work in class.  The videos are short, 3 to 5 minutes, which makes them easy to fit into our busy schedule.  This activity is central to my teaching strategies for showing divergent thinking in art making, as well as seeing contemporary artists’ work.  More and more artists are utilizing technology in the production of their art, and the Artist of the Day videos I find are reflecting that trend.

This week I had an Artist of the Day video lineup that centered around the theme of “Light and Shadow”.  4 of the 5 videos used different forms of technology to create their effects, some of them stunningly so.  I wondered which of the videos the students would prefer, but I also wondered what they thought about the primary use of technology in the artists’ works.  Here is the lineup of my videos:

  • Monday – Night Stroll – 2:03 – an interesting use of strong, geometric lights that appear in a city setting
  • Tuesday – Apparition HD grand finale – Klaus Obermaier & Arts Electronica Futurelab, feat. Rob Tannion – 3:50 – a mesmerizing performance of dance and light
  • Wednesday – Art Created from Shadows – Out of Light & Dark Comes Beauty – 2:39 – silhouettes of dancers creating forms and sculptures of found objects that cast a shadow of a different object
  • Thursday – Mirror City – 4:30 – time lapse photography of cities manipulated into a kaleidoscope abstraction
  • Friday – Paris by Light (legal lights graffiti) MARKO93 – 5:27 – MARKO creates light graffiti through Paris at night

I like to have the students respond in writing to these aesthetic inquiries – I am able to get each student’s opinion this way.  When I try to conduct a class discussion, the majority of the students don’t offer up what they think, so the writing exercise allows me to hear what they think and feel about art.  It also let’s me get a sense of the group’s overall aesthetic preferences.  The world is changing rapidly, and I can see that trend also reflected in contemporary art!  I teach 14-16 year olds, and I am really curious about what they like and find interesting.  Giving them an informal “poll” helps me understand where their interests lie.  The questions and some of their answers for this week were as follows:

1.  Indicate which video was your favorite and tell me why.

I had a technology problem showing the videos – my brand new data projector has been occasionally not working, so the last 3 classes on Friday weren’t able to see the Paris by Light video.  I hate that!  This threw my numbers off, but Mirror City was liked by the majority of students in each class (and, it was my personal favorite of the week!).  It seems to be the most technologically manipulated and the spectacular visuals are just mesmerizing, so I wasn’t surprised that it came out on top.  Some of their responses about why they chose it were:

  • It looked very beautiful and the music really added emphasis to the variations.
  • It was nice to look at and and it made me think
  • I just loved it – it inspired me
  • I liked how it was always changing
  • I liked this because it showed a different perspective on everyday things

The surprising runner up was the Art Created from Shadows video, which did not use computer technology, but people and cast shadows to create new images.  Here is a sampling of their thoughts about this video:

  • It had a more traditional use of light, like shadows on paper
  • The figures created by the dancer’s shadows are very creative and surprising and show more effort and ideas
  • I didn’t hurt my eyes to look at and it was cool
  • The others seemed alike and this one was cool how people were making shadow puppets
  • Because out of simple trash it created cool art

2.  Why do you think artists like to experiment with light in their work?

This second question asked them to put themselves into the artists’ thinking and imagine themselves in the artists’ shoes.  Here’s what they thought about experimenting with light as an art medium:

  • Because light adds a glow to artwork.  Light isn’t something you can touch, but is something you can alter.
  • It’s kind of mysterious.
  • It flows kind of like paint.
  • Grabs the viewer’s attention and makes you look.
  • Artists feel that light makes things come to life.
  • They like to pop the art, illuminate.
  • Because it’s a fun thing to manipulate.
  • There are so many different and cool tricks you can do with it like bend it.
  • Because it’s very modern, non-permanent and experimental.

3.  What qualities does light have that other art materials or media don’t have?

I wanted to push their thinking a little bit farther after they thought about why an artist would use light and articulate what qualities light had as a medium.  They had some interesting ideas about this:

  • It is not a concrete material and can make many more images from one image – it also changes the way you look at things.
  • It’s less permanent.  It is something that is there, then you turn off the light or the computer and it’s gone.
  • Light is controlled by electricity, not by hands.
  • It has a perfect contrast between light and dark.
  • Light is natural and it has a different feel to it.
  • It can create different moods.
  • It is bright, magical and so alive!

4.  How do you feel about the use of technology (using computers and computer applications) in making art?  Do you like art made with a heavy use of technology?  Explain your viewpoint.

I was particularly interested in finding out their thoughts about this line of questions.  There is a general idea that young people, who we call digital natives, are more enamored with the use of technology than with creating things “by hand”.  In fact, the balance I found from their responses was very telling.  Around half of them enthusiastically embraced technology in art making, but the other half might acknowledge the positive use of technology in art, but preferred making art by hand in traditional ways as they felt it was more authentic and real.  They expressed these feelings in these ways:

  • If it’s original, why not?  Art can be created with anything.
  • It’s very creative and impressive – I think it can let you explore more to art than just pencil and paper.
  • Using technology for art is 21st century, so people like it in this century.
  • I like how detailed you can get with technology, I prefer art with technology.
  • Yes, because it’s new and fun.  Technology makes things different.
  • (I LOVE this next response…) Art is like an app – it gets updated when people make it better.
  • I feel like drawing something with your hands is more traditional, or more meaningful for me in making art.
  • It looks good, but doesn’t take as much skill as doing it the old fashioned way.
  • No, I do not like technology used with art because it’s like cheating.  You are taking out the effort of artwork.  (emphasis by author)
  • I don’t like computers besides my phone.  So I’m not good with art on computers.
  • I feel art should be your expression, without help from a computer.  It needs to be natural.
  • It’s OK, but what really amazes me is the classic kind of art and all the skill it takes to make such art.

How do I feel about the use of technology and art?  I suppose I lie somewhere in the middle myself.  I am amazed at the new ways artists are using technology to create innovative forms of art, I love technology and am drawn to it’s power and potential.  But at the end of the day, it’s my own little journal that I turn to when I want to be creative or express a thought or emotion.  Our feelings and thoughts about art always go back to the individual, to their ideas and their experiences that become lenses that they look at art through.  Art embraces all ideas, all viewpoints – there is no right or wrong approach, and I’m very happy to see that my students embrace their own ideas strongly and confidently, no matter what their viewpoint is.  We are all responding to the world around us in our own unique ways.  For me, I am…..


which is somewhere between the old and the new.  What are your views on using technology in art?

Breaking Out of My Curriculum Box

Breaking Out of the Box

Last summer I looked at all of my curriculum and created a new foundation for my instruction.  I am calling the components “cornerstones” because I want them to be solid building blocks for my students’ lessons.  This first week of school I introduced them to the Studio Thinking Habits of Mind: develop craft, engage & persist, envision, express, observe, reflect, stretch & explore, and understand the art world.  I want these habits of mind to be second nature to all of us.  I told my students today that I want them to think of themselves as artists coming into a shared art studio, not just going to “art class”.  Hopefully, by working on incorporating these habits of mind into their work all year, they will be more engaged and excited about their artwork by thinking and feeling like a real artist.

I am also introducing my lessons using Big Ideas and Artistic Problems.  These are enduring ideas that all people share all over the world, and I hope by giving them a springboard of enduring ideas, this will also lead them to making more meaningful art.  One of the books we used in a previous course, Teaching Meaning in Artmaking, gave a great foundation for building Big Ideas into the art lesson.  And finally, something I learned from a colleague in my graduate class last semester, the Question Formulation Technique, is the final cornerstone.  I want to teach my students to generate their own essential questions about their art making before they begin their project.  By giving them more independence in guiding their art making, I hope that the art they create really matters to them!


Hetland, L., Winner, E., Veenema, S., & Sheridan, K. (2013) Studio thinking: the real benefits of visual arts education, second edition.  New York, NY: Teachers College Press; Reston, VA: National Art Education Association.

The Right Question Institute.  Retrieved from:

Walker, S. (2001) Teaching Meaning in Artmaking. Worcester, MA: Davis Publications, Inc.