Although nearly all educators value as an outcome for students skillful critical thinking, defined as well-reasoned reflection informing decisions (Ennis, 1987), many still choose to limit student decision-making and to avoid opportunities for practicing critical thinking. Art classes can be a locus of critical thinking when art teachers encourage a cycle of reasoning, reflection, and evaluation, leading to artistic decision-making. Popular educational resources set high standards for the thinking students do in art class. Research has shown that a rigorous art program can improve critical thinking skills.

Gifted students’ needs include the challenge of practicing critical thinking skills in every class every year. Advancing at an appropriate pace in knowledge and skill is not enough to develop talent. Cognitive abilities also must be developed in various contexts in order to maximize potential as future experts, scholars, and artists.

What would it take for art class to meet gifted students’ needs to develop their critical thinking skills, and what other benefits might art class have for the intellectually gifted?

Obstacles to teaching critical thinking

Thinking critically, students reflect on, evaluate, and solve open-ended problems, questions, or issues. Many schools, however, still keep learning simple. Some educators claim that perfecting basic skills is a prerequisite for open-ended problem solving. Others perceive the majority of their students as not yet mentally, socially, or emotionally ready to be challenged with critical thinking in school. Others expect critical thinking to happen outside of school. Still others avoid open-ended problems that might lead to classroom management issues or indicate a lack of authority on the part of the teacher.

In the elementary or secondary art classroom, additional pressure against critical thinking comes from a teacher’s anticipation of the student art show and its audience. The show is expected to look good, reflecting on the artistic competence of the teacher. But the visible manifestation of art students’ creative problem solving can be messy and unpredictable. Choosing the safer route, many art teachers do the bulk of the decision-making themselves and encourage the students to be imitative, justifying this route as a way of boosting student confidence through attractive display and audience approval.

Critical thinking improves in a rigorous art program

Dr. Nancy Lampert of Virginia Commonwealth University writes and teaches about critical thinking and art education. Her background as a professional artist, graphic designer, and art director informs her research. In 2011 she reported about an after school art program she and her graduate students designed and implemented to help children of low income families gain confidence and skill in art problem solving. Integrated pre- and post-tests showed a significant increase in students’ critical thinking performance. Her narrative of the progress students made described the struggle and discomfort students felt as they approached unfamiliar art problems, moving between creative and critical thought processes. The characteristics of the program that produced these results are commonly found in rigorous art education programs. Three components comprised the program model:

  • Open-ended art-making activities
  • Time to talk about the artwork with the group
  • Friendly, welcoming classroom atmosphere

A rigorous process

Lampert’s description of the art program pedagogy also may be familiar to art teachers interested in developing students’ critical thinking:

  • Students see images of artists’ work relating to a well-defined problem;
  • Students talk about what they see and explain their interpretations of the work;
  • Students generate ideas for their own art in context of the discussion;
  • Students make art based on their ideas; and
  • Students present their artwork and discuss it with classmates.

Lampert suggests that by empowering students to think for themselves, art programming with these components and processes may result in measurable growth in critical thinking skills. She anticipates that more empirical studies like hers are needed in order to demonstrate a generalizable effect. The implication of such research may be that similar art programming can be used as a way to teach critical thinking in school.

What Lampert reports in her article about “inquiry-based” art education looks a lot like what was described as “serious art education” by Lois Hetland of Harvard’s Project Zero in the first edition (2007) of Studio Thinking: The Real Benefits of Art Education. It is also recognizable in the 2015 National Core Art Standards and associated Model Cornerstones Assessments. Both of these resources have had a significant impact on art education in the United States, codifying high expectations for critical thinking in art class.

The intersection of art education and gifted education

For gifted students, this type of art education may be another, much needed opportunity to flex their reflective, evaluative, and creative thinking skills, either in general education or in separate gifted programming. Visual art education also may help gifted students to maintain throughout their growth a connection with the sensory world perceived directly, unmediated by verbal or quantitative symbol systems. More common in art than in gifted programming, metaperception parallels metacognition (Haroutounian, 2017). Gifted students who are comfortable following set paths and discovering a predetermined correct answer may initially feel discomfort, as may those for whom words and numbers have become a comfortable insulator against the ambiguity and relativity of aesthetics and sensory perception. Nonetheless, both ways of stretching will help them grow into flexible, impactful leaders. Signs seem to indicate the paths of art education and gifted education are beginning to intersect.


Ennis, R.H. (1987). A taxonomy of critical thinking dispositions and abilities. In J.B. Baron & R.J. Sternberg (Eds.), Teaching thinking skills: Theory and practice (pp. 9-26). New York: W.H. Freeman.

Haroutounian, J. (2017). Artistic ways of knowing in gifted education: Encouraging every student to think like an artist. Roeper Review, 39(1).

Hetland, L. (2007). Studio thinking : The real benefits of visual arts education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Lampert, N. (2011). A study of an after-school art programme and critical thinking. International Journal of Education through Art, 7(1), 55-67.

National Coalition for Core Arts Standards (2015) National Core Arts Standards. Rights Administered by the State Education Agency Directors of Arts Education. Dover, DE, all rights reserved.


About Steve Heil

Steve supports gifted students of Santa Fe Public Schools and, as a qualified FTAP Evaluator, helps to implement the district's alternate identification protocol. In his previous work as an art teacher in Gallup, NM, Steve earned National Board Certification and received the Golden Apple Excellence in Teaching Award in 2010. As Publicity Chair on the board of NMAG, Steve manages this website and mailing list.