Arts-based Critical Action

Art is a language in itself, with an infinite capacity to support students’ critical inquiries about issues within their daily life, as well as across cultural or historical contexts. Art-based methods, which often include a written and introspective component (such as an artist’s statement), offer a vehicle for students to communicate abstract or complex ideas, express their identities, and tell their stories in an intellectually and emotionally engaging way.  Contemporary art offers teachers a variety of powerful methods to help give students a voice (ie, in regard to social or environmental issues), support their formation of identity, and build connections to other disciplines such as science, engineering, social studies or language arts.  Teachers can employ arts-based methods without needing an extensive background in the arts, or in art education.  There are many resources and methodologies available to support teachers across the disciplines. For example, a social studies teacher could employ a visual arts lesson, that helps students take a critical perspective on social issues.  Students could be asked to use physical or digital media to express their own culture and community, and to produce an accompanying written artist’s statement, designed to ensure deep and connected thinking and reasoning.  Another example – this one of a more collaborative approach – would be the creation of murals in local community spaces that respond to global issues (equity, inclusion, climate change, poverty, privacy, etc.).  The outcomes of such a lesson help reveal the diversity of voices and experiences within the classroom, helping students and teachers alike to understand and appreciate that diversity.  Arts-based methods also likely support students’ development of 21st-century competencies including creativity, communication, critical thinking and collaboration.

Strategies for Arts-based Critical Action

Teachers would typically adopt this method in order to provide a pluralistic learning environment, perhaps to complement other methods they employ.  An arts-based method will help students develop more richly connected understandings, and appreciate the diversity of viewpoints and values that exist amongst their peers.  Students who respond poorly to traditional methods might do well in arts-based lessons.  By adding a critical inquiry lesson to their courses, teachers can provide students with a vital sense of empowerment and perspective.  Specific strategies include: (1) the visual arts, where students create physical or digital media, murals, and symbolic representations including sculpture and other physical media; (2) performing arts, including drama, dance, music or spoken word; or (3) interdisciplinary arts, such as participatory designs, generative designs, and a wide universe of conceptual art installations and experiences (e.g., designing a virtual world in which participants can interact with one another).  Teachers would build connections between an arts-based lesson and the wider topic of their instruction.  This can help students gain the most from their art activities. At the start of an arts-based lesson, the teacher might choose to engage students in a whole-class discussion about one or more examples of art forms.  Such “art form discussions” can help all students in the class develop a more critical language, and understand how art can serve to express ideas and connect across disciplines. 

How does an Arts-based Approach Engage Critical Action?

The arts are intrinsically critical by nature, because they are such a personal form of expression, and almost always “in relation to” some aspect of the artist’s world.  Thus, simply by doing art, a student can be said to engage in critical action.  For the goals of CALE, this approach will be most effective when the student’s creative and critical expression reaches others, helping some audience of peers or community members gain insight into the values and lived experience of the one who created the art.  By curating a whole classroom’s creative product, the teacher can help create a tapestry or kaleidoscope of expression, allowing the audience to broaden their understanding of the topic. Students can also create products that invite the audience to participate, leaving their own voice or votes or ideas, influencing the creative product, and connecting it to the audience and wider community.  Participating in this kind of learning can also allow students to break through norms, and hold deeper conversations about their world, and their own position within the world.

What is required from teachers in adopting an arts-based approach?

Any teacher that adopts such an arts-based method will need to offer continuing support to ensure that students gain the full benefits of the method (i.e., so they don’t simply perform a superficial project).  To begin, teachers can hold discussions with students, and perhaps engage them in a treasure hunt for ideas and alternative expressions.  Based on the ideas advanced in these early explorations, teachers can challenge students to write a personal statement about their own position, such as their personal experience of an issue, its manifestations within their family or community, or their cultural perspective.  Students must be introduced to the method, with very clear instructions and guidelines.  Students should be given a set of requirements, such as the specific issue they will address, or any particular elements that should be included.  Such constraints can actually be helpful, as students may struggle with an assignment that is too open-ended. Depending on the curriculum, teachers might want to expose students to some examples and engage them in an artform discussion, as described above. Including some written components, such as an artist’s statement, can provide one source of assessment, and also engage students in reflection and communication.

For those CALE teachers who are interested in using this approach for their lesson designs, we will further explore the approaches in our later meetings, including video interviews with experts and classroom enactments, as well as many resources to help teachers design.  Meanwhile, here are a couple of examples that may help you better understand what storytelling looks like in practice.

Some Examples of Arts-Based Critical Action Curriculum 

The CALE Rangoli Project 


In 2020, members of the CALE research team developed an arts-based critical action curriculum for a whole school in Bangalore, India.  With help from a local artist, we developed a preliminary assignment for students to brainstorm all the issues that confronted them, in their lives.  More than 100 students participated in the brainstorm, and ultimately 82 students formed 12 design groups, each of which focused on one issue (e.g., women empowerment, covid, healthy planet).  Students were asked to create a colorful Rangoli – a traditional art form that s usually just simple geometric patterns and colors.  Each group produced an “artist’s statement’ that captured their values and voice, and worked for one day developing their Rangoli design.  Then all 12 teams actually produced their Rangolis on the school auditorium floor, and hosted a “Gallery walk” where the wider school community (students, teachers, leaders) listened to each group present their Rangoli design.

Muralization project at Universidad Del Valle, Cali, Colombia