- reforming the school curriculum -

The arts have always been second class citizens in our schools, a situation that has been accepted all too passively by those of us who teach and practice them. Is it not time to do something about it? I address this paper to parents and teachers and especially to arts teachers and all who care for the welfare of children and the future of our planet. I ask you to pause and reflect on a question which has long bothered me: Is there a causal relationship between the social conditions we encounter daily in the media and how we educate children and young people in our culture? The underlying assumption is that schools not only reflect social conditions but, over time, have the power to change them. We believe that a balanced curriculum where ARTS, STEM and PHYSICAL CULTURE share equal time and emphasis is the direction we should be moving.

All signs point to a future of gated communities, private militia, eventual chaos, violence and cruelty: an end to the democratic dream. Only a major change in human consciousness will save the human population and the environment that sustains us from a grim future. Can this change not best be achieved through schooling? In this paper I will concentrate on spontaneous drawing. Other papers will follow on music, dance, drama, creative literacy and the visual arts media. As the old saying goes, better to light a candle than curse the darkness. If you agree, we invite you to join us in building a community of supporters and art makers in the following ways:

1) by using current media technology 'spread the word' to friends, colleagues, officials, and noted reformers elected and otherwise. By writing papers, emails and letters-to-the-editor, talking it up with friends and relatives supporting the general idea of curriculum reform.

2) enrich your life by renewing and reviving former art practices and starting new ones.

3) if you would like future papers from here, get on my circulation list. A simple email request will do it. Remember, this is not a formal organization, rather, an informal community. There are no membership fees, table officers, AGMs,  just a community of ARTS enthusiasts who see a greater role for the arts in school and are committed to 'spreading the word'.


A REFORMED SCHOOLING: HOW DO WE GET THERE? It will need to be a different schooling for an era in which technology will be even more pervasive and potentially disruptive. The best of traditional schooling should be preserved and strengthened but we will need to be open to new curricula, to a new way of nurturing children, new schooling formats, new goals and new concepts to shape these goals. It all must be arrived at through democratic practices - consultation, public discourse, and yet all within an urgent time frame.
A DEFINITION OF LANGUAGE: A major change can be installed simply by  recognizing that the arts are language media, each contributing uniquely to the values of language in general: i.e. psychological development, psychological health, more effective and pleasurable learning in all subjects, improved human relationships.

LANGUAGE: A DEFINITION DERIVED FROM CHILDREN�S DRAWINGS: Language is the mental tool we all have for articulating, expressing and communicating perceptions, thoughts, feelings and memories. Articulating in this context refers to what happens in the brain/mind when art is being made; 'expressing' refers to the influence of technique, tools and materials; 'communicating' is transferring the content of art  to other persons.

I have published more than 70 drawings by children and young people and studied hundreds of others: each satisfies the above definition of language. (Note: if you would like to test this definition, there are drawings available on the Drawing Network website which is If we are serious about language in the curriculum - as the attention we give to literacy suggests - then we need look no further for a rationale for giving equal time and status to the ARTS and STEM.

LANGUAGE MANIFESTS ITSELF EARLY: Two languages arrive early in the second year of life in a demonstration of the child�s need to bring order to the random events of life. The pattern varies but after a short period of babbling, the infant mouths a first  word and emergent literacy follows. Similarly after a period of scribbling, the infant recognizes a shape and gives it a name and emergent drawing follows. Note that from the beginning words and graphic symbols are closely linked. This is a  relationship of mutual aid and the language user benefits. The relationship continues throughout childhood, and, as a potential, into the middle school years, adolescence and adulthood.

TWO LANGUAGES WITH DIFFERENT ORIGINS: Literacy is a product of culture and spontaneous drawing is the personal invention of individuals. The first word and all subsequent words constitute a code which manifests as the basic structure of literacy, words and syntax  and how they are used. As a code it must, of course  be taught  and learned . Spontaneous drawing is not coded which is an advantage for the beginning user, especially for those challenged by literacy. These challenges  leave  many children hateful of school, terminally bored children who become tongue-tied adults and virtually illiterate. This is  a tragedy that  need not happen!

EACH OFFERS UNIQUE VALUES: Spontaneous drawing and the skills associated with literacy are mutually supportive but describe human experience in different ways! Each provides a language of explicit detail or broad generalities, whichever is called for, but one does so in graphic symbols with certain explicit advantages, and the other in a verbal code, with quite different abstract advantages. Does it not seem likely that this combination will result in a more mature, balanced, fulfilled, self-actualized  individual, better prepared for the demands of democratic citizenship in the future?

The combination results is a plurality of languages growing in complexity and usefulness as the child matures: the language of 1) spoken words  2) spontaneous drawings  3) drawings enriched with spoken words (children love to explain their drawings) 4) drawing enriched with cursive or printed words on the same page as captions, word balloons, cartoon strips, explanatory paragraphs, illustrated stories. In the early years, spontaneous drawing surpasses coded literacy in complexity and narrative power. In these early years spontaneous drawing is a pathfinder for literacy.

When examining a drawing, I pose this question: could a child in preschool/kindergarten) articulate, express, communicate this level of language sophistication using words alone? Spontaneous drawing for those challenged by literacy provides the fluency needed for optimal psychological development and makes the demands of literacy more pleasurable. In later years literacy will be the language of choice for most of us and in many learning situations and drawing will remain a useful auxiliary.

AUTHENTIC AND SPURIOUS: Two activities that use art materials and pass for art in many homes and schools: I call them authentic which is based on the artist's life experiences and spurious which has nothing to do with life experience and consists of colouring-in adult outlines, recipes for making subjects look photographically 'correct' (e.g. vanishing point perspective, correct proportions etc.), and step-by-step pseudo-crafts for celebrating holidays and/or seasons. It is not enough to schedule art; the critical question is it authentic art which is creative and transformative or spurious art which is based on stereotypes totally lacking in 'aesthetic energy'. Here's an example Spurious: thanksgiving turkeys are made by spreading the fingers of the left hand on the paper and tracing them with a drawing tool and adding turkey-like details before colouring-in. Authentic: drawers are taken to a turkey farm or study photographs of real turkeys with the motivating adult and make drawings from observation or memory. See remedial techniques further along.

EMPATHY, THE SOURCE OF AUTHENTICITY: When the child artist (or artist of any age) is making authentic art there is intense involvement in subject matter. Our son in his preschool days stretched himself out on the living room floor to draw tank battles. He was completely absorbed in the subject matter which stirred him to make the sounds of warring tanks as he drew. In my early days, I built roads with a friend in the clay embankment in front of our house: we 'played cars' - he had the cars, I had the clay embankment. Together, we provided a sound track. Sound effects are an occasional symptom but are far from being essential. Empathy is in the closed circuit of 1)  authentic subject matter 2) brain functioning 3) the physical performance of drawing tool on paper. It is natural for children until the age of self-consciousness when it fades and is replaced by the 'I can't draw' syndrome. The drawings that truly astonish me with the level of pictorial design they achieve are made by children in the four to six age group. The line quality is pure and 'classical' not hesitant; shapes are bold and 'shapely'; formal elements unite to give the impression of overall unity and integration; content is focussed and charged with meaning and feeling. In other words, the elements and principles of design ('aesthetic energy') which teachers are enjoined to teach in ministry bulletins are already there as natural byproducts of empathy. Occasionally these qualities are so perfectly articulated that we can say that the child has achieved a 'work of art'. I am backed up in this by Picasso, Klee and other 20th C. artists.

Authentic works of art are based on empathy for subject matter and form but learners experience it through involvement in STEM subjects too  as do those playing games  and other PHYSICAL CULTURE activities. We could probably build an entire curriculum on empathy. Closer examination gives a more detailed analysis: in PHYSICAL CULTURE empathy is experienced as a rush of feeling associated with mind/body well being and the rewards of physical accomplishment. Baseball is a perfect example with its moments of planning strategy followed by bursts of empathically inspired action. Empathy in STEM subjects enhances learning in those subjects, encourages participation and improves learning outcomes. Empathy in the ARTS tends to be more broadly based but like the others generates 'local' values for individual art forms. In addition  - and here it parts company with the others and depending on thematic coaching - it reaches out to human audiences, encourages positive solutions to human conflicts, erodes the root causes of racial prejudice, promotes the tolerance of disparate religions. When themes are chosen that focus on Nature  the environmental movement is enhanced. A teacher we know brought her grade five and six students to a salmon spawning stream for careful analysis and study (STEM). The children made field notes and quick sketches (STEM). Back in the classroom they made memory drawings (ART) and assembled the field notes as  finished compositions (ART).

THE NEED FOR MOTIVATION: If children (or adults, for that matter) are given complete freedom to choose drawing themes, they are likely to be at a loss to know what to draw. Without motivation from adult care givers they will drift to their cell phones or television sets or a computer game or just 'hang out' with friends. Moreover, if and when they draw they will typically fall back on cultural stereotypes. Children cannot be expected to appreciate the scope of drawing-as-language or its importance to their mental development. There is, to be sure, a  minority who have a special interest and skill who would welcome complete freedom to choose themes but this select group would tend to cling their immediate interests and former successes. They too need a 'daily draw' with new and varied subject matter to challenge them. With this in mind I will turn now to suggestions for motivating drawing themes. I have children in mind but the approach is easily adaptable to other age-groups.

MENTAL OPERATIONS GUIDE MOTIVATION: Looking closely at a large number of children's drawings over the years shows that five mental operations play significant roles in image formation: 1) perception 2) feelings/emotions 3) intellect 4) memory 5) imagination. Evidence of these can be found in most drawings but typically one or  two give the drawing its major content and dominate.

1) DRAWING AND PERCEPTION: Traditionally, drawing has meant employing conventional rules to achieve 'photographic naturalism'. (One of the few art lessons I remember as a child was based on the 'rules' of vanishing point perspective. More recently, my grandson in grade four suffered through three art periods on 'the correct proportions of the human head'!)  A pedagogy suitable for training commercial illustrators (which might include skills in naturalistic rendering) is likely to be counterproductive for children whose psychological needs require freedom to develop their own graphic language albeit with adult motivation and enthusiastic participation. For this they need daily or frequent practice and thematic motivation in themes related to their life experiences.

Naive and post-naive populations react differently when motivation takes the form of a visible model. Naive drawers use it as a source of information to enrich twith detail. I once observed a mixed-age class drawing a South Asian mother who stood before them dressed in ethnic costume. Visible models in the past have been thought too challenging for young children but the primary-age kids in this group didn�t think so. They used the model as a source of information and enrichment and they managed it with occasional glances, otherwise you could say they drew from memory. Whether children of this age know it or not they are inventing a language of graphic symbols.

Meanwhile, the older kids were using a different approach. Their teacher had taught them to notice the contour edges of the model and to coordinate as best they could the path of the observing eye as it followed these edges with the path of the drawing tool on paper. It helps if the drawer imagines reaching out to actually �touch� the model as this increases the 'empathy quotient'. Empathy is strongest when it involves seeing and touching.
A different approach could have been used: the model could have remained visible but only long enough for a discussion of salient features when it would have  removed (or removed itself) and the drawings would then have continued  from memory.

SUGGESTIONS FOR MOTIVATION: * members of the family pose  * classmates pose in costume on Hallowe'en or in ethnic costume * toys are brought from home  * pets are brought to school for drawing * flowers and plants become subjects.  I suggest avoiding landscapes as a subject offering few contours.

2) THE DRAWER�S FEELINGS AND EMOTIONS: I have claimed, as many others have, that spontaneous drawing is important to the psychological health of those who practice it. This is particularly true for children in their formative years.  Articulating personal experience is what is needed and if the experience is emotional or evokes  intense feeling a drawing is a healthy response as emotional catharsis. Nature seems to have understood that children will be exposed to a great variety of experiences, many of them in the affective domain. Other spontaneous reactions such as sentence fragments, wordless utterances, cries of frustration have a role but don't fulfill the need for articulation.

Empathy is particularly important here, the ability to feel into the emotional landscape of others. Empathy is a mental state which nurtures imagination and creativity. Without it there  can be no imagination and no creativity. It is not a thing or a place but a function of mind, a state of being that children enter into with relative ease when they are 'fired up' to draw. Post-naives, on the other hand, find it a challenge because they are too self-conscious to surrender to the preconscious, the seat of creativity.

Think of a child faced with the tensions of growing-up, the highs and lows, the feelings of joy, ecstasy, the weeping, the loving encounters, the rivalries, the satisfactions of being accepted, the crushing blows of being rejected, the relationships with parents, siblings, friends, and teachers. Feelings and emotions swirl, cry for structure, the structure of language, the structure of 'aesthetic energy', the structure of art. Children receive psychological benefits when their drawings are focussed on personal problems but there is also an important therapy in drawing simple still life subjects  which are closely related, it seems to me, to the spiritual unity of Zen.

SUGGESTIONS FOR MOTIVATION: * draw the drama of family tensions * school tensions * friendship tensions * the feelings of love and affection for friends and loved ones * the excitement of holidays * celebrations at home, school, community.

3) DRAWING AND THE DRAWER'S INTELLECT: The ARTS were always treated as frills when I was teaching art in the schools. The spoken and unspoken rationale was that the primary aim of public schooling was nurturing the intellect and the arts were simply not intellectual. There was plenty of lip service supporting the ARTS and most schools did offer some music, drama and visual arts but if time had to be sacrificed, it was taken from the arts, not from maths and sciences.

The  assumption that the arts are not 'intellectual' is simply false. Indeed, I make the case that the ARTS are as intellectual as STEM subjects but of course in different ways. The problem is authenticity. Diminishing the importance of the ARTS is valid if we are talking about spurious art but we are working on a rationale for the authentic kind.

As I flip  through A PICTURE BOOK OF CHILDREN'S DRAWINGS,  I encounter image after image that illustrates the union (fusion, integration) of intellect and feeling. Again, it is worth pointing out that STEM subjects concentrate on the intellect and have no time for the fusion of intellect with feeling. We remind curriculum builders that children not yet old enough to do the simplest arithmetical computation are capable of making graphic images that show a preconscious grasp of pictorial design that is surely 'intellectual'.

SUGGESTIONS FOR MOTIVATION: * Themes that stimulate comparisons  * themes that attempt to solve problems  * themes that stimulate research.

4) DRAWING AND THE DRAWER'S MEMORY:   It is true that most post-naives feel more comfortable drawing when they have an  object before them to refer to but to be consistent, shouldn't we help them regain a talent they once practised spontaneously, i.e. drawing from memory?  I have found that children who have recently entered the post-naive years (i.e. the intermediate grades) will have no difficulty prolonging the spontaneity of early childhood. Few will need remedial assistance. If older drawers have difficulty, I refer you and them to the remedial practices described further along where the remedy is called the Drawing Game.

There are three kinds of memory drawing activities and each should get a turn in the thematic cycle: 1) recalling events from the past ("draw a party you remember") and 2) setting a problem for the future ("tomorrow the theme will be drawing your bedroom from memory so do a thorough study of it tonight.") and 3) Kim's Game i.e. studying a model, identifying and memorizing the salient features, removing it and drawing the contents  immediately from memory.

SUGGESTIONS FOR MOTIVATION: 1) pose human models and motivate on different occasions all three types of memory drawing 2) use toys and other small objects 3) remember details of important past events before drawing them from memory 4) discuss a visit to a science centre, a home for the elderly, a salmon  spawning river, a zoo knowing you will be asked to draw these experiences from memory later 5) walk through the school or your home in search of  'drawing subjects' for immediate memory drawing.

5) DRAWING AND THE DRAWER'S IMAGINATION: As art educators it is not difficult to spot the influence of perception in a particular drawing, or emotions and feelings, or the intellect or memory but finding the influence of imagination is more challenging. In this context imagination is another way of recognizing the importance of uninhibited access to the creative preconscious. We have in mind themes that are transmundane - space themes, ideal communities but actually every authentic drawing is a work of imagination.

REMEDIAL STRATEGIES: The contrast is huge between the empathic intensity of the young child immersed in drawing who instinctively knows that he can draw and the self-conscious teen-ager who is convinced that he cannot. If young children are blocked - perhaps by excessive absorption of specious cultural attitudes - there are steps to be taken: 1) scrupulously avoid 'showing how',  2) go back to a discussion of salient features 3) practice visualization and 4) practice guided imagery 5) introduce simplified versions of the strategies listed below which are mostly for self-conscious older kids.

1) VISUALIZATION AND GUIDED IMAGERY: visualization is the mysterious ability we all have that allows us to 'see' on the 'inner screen of the imagination'. We can do it with our eyes closed or with our eyes open! Guided imagery involves a teacher or parent using the power of words to shape a narrative in preparation for a drawing. After a theme has been chosen visualization is encouraged before drawing begins. It is important to make clear that the drawing will not look very much like the image in the mind. It is meant only to inform the preconscious in general terms what the contents of the drawing is to be and  how its elements will be organized. The rest is left to the preconscious performance described above.

Guided imagery is a way of motivating a second drawing when a first is judged to be an inadequate response to the motivation; in other words it is used as a remedial strategy. Here is an example: the theme is drawing the final moment of a race. The initial drawing has placed this dramatic moment too far in the distance to be effective. The adult motivator using guided imagery asks the drawer to imagine being in the immediate vicinity of the incident - perhaps observing from a tree. After visualizing this new scenario a second version is drawn.

MORE ON EMPATHIC LINE: There are two sources in every observation: outlines and 'inlines'. An egg has an outline but no 'inline'; a crowded room has many of both which shift when the  point of view change. A brief analysis of the linear structure of the subject (edges/potential lines) serves to 'program' the preconscious for the drawing. The technique calls for 'feeling' the edges on the model with the drawing tool applied to the paper.  (Don't worry about getting exact replication: remember, you are creating language symbols, not taking photographs!)

THE 'DRAWING GAME': LINE QUALITY AND TEMPO: Over the years, I have developed remedial strategies aimed at helping post-naives recover the  confidence they had as preschoolers. I call them 'Drawing Games'. The drawing is in line and does not involve tonal development and colour until later. Tempo is slow and steady, neither too fast nor too slow. The 'game' strategy has advantages: 1) Games are familiar to post-naives, the age group we're after and as game players, older children, youths and adults can relate to being awkward at first and know from past experience that practice brings improvement. 2)  isolating skills for practice is also a familiar part of learning games 3) players are aware that games have rules and coaches have remedial routines and both must be followed if there is to be benefit. 4) In the beginning, the drawing is made with one continuous line. This 'rule' keeps the performance in the preconscious where the formation of holistic images takes place and conscious rationalization is thwarted until later. (A theory of creativity: alternating episodes of preconscious synthesis and conscious analysis.) Metaphors are useful when coaching: 'Draw as though you are on automatic pilot.'   'Draw as though you are flying a jet airliner and  you cannot stop in midair.' 'Draw as though you are a child again, filled with self-confidence.'

USING  MASTER WORKS AS A SOURCE OF CONTENT FOR ONE�S OWN ART: Authentic drawings are based on personal experience and it is perfectly valid to use the experience of the world�s masterpieces as subject matter for ones own art. The history of art is filled with examples. There are many ways to go about it and I will close this paper with a couple of examples my students and I have enjoyed.


1) Choose a master work that tells a story. You, the 'teacher motivator', describe it in some detail without showing it to the target audience. In the context of Game Drawing procedures, drawings are made based on the description. The masterwork is then revealed and discussed.

2) Project an image of the chosen masterwork (painting, drawing or photograph) on a screen and ask students to draw as though the picture were a three dimensional image encountered on the street or posed as a visitor to the classroom. Eyes are focussed mainly or entirely on the model not on the drawing except to relocate the starting point of a new contour line.

3) project the image on the screen for study and then remove it and draw it from memory.

FINAL WORDS: There is a common misunderstanding that you have to be an art teacher to inspire  drawing or alternatively have a set of gimmicks up your sleeve. I have demonstrated that 1)  you don�t have to be a �talented� drawer or have a teaching certificate but 2) you do emphatically have to be engaged in a way that motivates children to draw. I have presented a rationale for drawing as a language medium, one that is critically important for the psychological health of individuals and, by extrapolation, the health of communities. A bonus of inestimable value is the support drawing gives the learner for gaining full literacy and its role as an auxiliary language once the basics of literacy have been more or less achieved.

Don�t be overwhelmed by the many options I have described. Teaching yourself to draw, working with a single child, a group from the neighbourhood, a daycare centre or a class at school, motivating others to draw all tare rare pleasures. Learn through experience what works best for you. Work out your own modus operandi. And help me 'spread the word' by copying this essay to friends and colleagues.

Bob Steele, Associate Professor (Emeritus) UBC   for the Drawing Network                                            



I write, self-publish and distribute at cost books under the Drawing Network logo. The price that covers publishing and postage is $22:00 each with a discount for bulk orders.

1) THE DRAWING PATH FOR CHILDREN - our basic text.


2) A PICTURE BOOK OF CHILDREN�S DRAWINGS - The Stories Children Tell Us With a Drawing Tool ... 211 pp, 72 full page drawings with analysis on the opposite page, plus essays on The Drawing Game, Bullying, Aesthetic Energy, and  Difficult Beauty.


3) THE SMITH RANCH 'AFTER SCHOOL' A fictional account of an ideal school and an ideal curriculum ... includes Seeking and finding the hidden order of art, a group analysis of American Landscape, an etching by Edward Hopper.  It also describes children transforming an old barn into a walk-in percussion instrument, a creative dance program designed by a non-dancer, a method of atonal improvisation as a therapeutic tool, a lively writing club and several science lessons. It is also a fun read!