George Lucas Educational Foundation
Critical Thinking

Framing Social Studies Lessons Around Works of Art

Using paintings and other artworks in lessons can help teachers meet content-area standards connected to promoting student inquiry.

March 9, 2020
Illustration concept for using fine art examples in social studies curriculum
Christian Reister (ImageBROKER/Alamy) / kyoshino (iStock)

In No More Telling as Teaching, Cris Tovani and Elizabeth Birr Moje suggest that students often expect teachers to do most of the thinking for them in class. A comfort level exists for both parties when a single narrative removes the messiness of understanding topics beyond the surface level. Yet new content-area standards, such as those informed by the College, Career, and Civic Life Framework, require that students be the ones asking questions, grappling with texts, and drawing their own conclusions about course concepts.

Repurposing instruction to elicit or incorporate students’ ideas can seem daunting, especially when teachers must address specific content in their courses. Inquiry and structure do not need to be mutually exclusive, though. In my classes, I frequently ask students to examine common sources using a specific lesson progression, with the understanding that no two individuals will emerge with the same conclusions from that work.

Using Art to Foster Critical Thinking

To that end, I sometimes use works of art as launching points for my lessons. Viewing art can be powerful because each piece reflects the artist’s interpretation of his or her world. Likewise, students’ interpretations of the art will vary depending on their prior knowledge, observational skills, and interests.

Museum educators use three guiding questions from Visual Thinking Strategies to elicit discussions, and they can help students focus when they view an artwork in the classroom for the first time as well:

  1. What’s going on in this picture?
  2. What do you see that makes you say that?
  3. What more can you find?

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When I design a lesson around an art piece, I don’t simply jump into a discussion using these questions, though—I ask students to spend the first several minutes of the class observing the image independently and writing down their reflections to answer the questions. I write out my reflections with them every time, too, even though I’m familiar with the image, to model that my understanding evolves over time.

In their book 180 Days, Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle share that such extended periods of freewriting help students generate new ideas and communicate first-draft thinking. To further that kind of thinking, I later ask students to revisit and confirm or revise their responses as they encounter additional texts that, in some way, connect to the initial image.

For example, I focus a ninth-grade Modern World History lesson related to the French Wars of Religion around a painting of the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre by François Dubois. So much is happening in the painting, and students almost always ask questions about why people are being thrown from windows, who the different groups represent, and what caused the conflict in the first place. Students write down their initial thoughts using the freewriting technique described above, and volunteers then share their comments through whole-class discussion.

The “investigation” part of the lesson comes when I ask students to work in pairs to read a short textbook segment related to the subject of the painting. I typically use an interactive reading guide inspired by Doug Buehl’s Classroom Strategies for Interactive Learning that prompts students to read chunks of text, summarize the main ideas, and make connections to their written responses to the painting. Students first discuss this content with their partners and later have the opportunity to share any new insights with other classmates before moving to the next short segment. With this approach, students are not reading the textbook simply to learn content—they’re reading to construct meaning around the questions that they found important as they initially attempted to understand the painting.

In another lesson from the same unit, I use a variety of sources in addition to the textbook to help students draw conclusions about the reign of Elizabeth I of England. The lesson is framed around her Armada Portrait, which generates many interesting questions from students: Why are there two different views out the windows? Why is her hand on the globe? Does the crown that’s set on the table in the background symbolize anything?

For this lesson, students travel around the classroom to three centers, each of which includes a source that provides some context for the painting: a brief biography of Elizabeth I, the text of her speech to her troops concerning the Spanish Armada, and a short video that highlights her accomplishments as queen. Students discuss each source in small groups and then individually write out short reflections that help them process ideas related to their earlier questions.

At the conclusion of both of these lessons, I ask students to revise their freewrites with specific evidence from their learning. Ideally, they’ll be able to answer their initial questions, support their inferences, and fill in any knowledge gaps that they identified at the beginning of class. Posing new questions is fine, too, since the inquiry process is cyclical.

The artist Frida Kahlo once said, “I paint flowers so they will not die.” Building on that idea, art allows students to visually access historical content that might otherwise seem foreign or irrelevant. Think about one of your upcoming lessons and how a work of art might serve as an entry point. You will be amazed by the questions your students develop and the deep learning that happens as a result.

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Filed Under

  • Critical Thinking
  • Arts Integration
  • Teaching Strategies
  • Social Studies
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School