Project-Based Learning and the Arts

You can get students actively involved in their learning with lessons that encourage group interaction and problem-solving.

By Alison Panik

Working in a Group

Project-based learning offers students the opportunity to work cooperatively on authentic tasks with real-world relevance.  While projects are curriculum-based, students lead their own inquiry into topics. Because performance is assessed, project-based learning accommodates a variety of learning styles. The interdisciplinary nature of project-based learning is a win for teachers, as curriculum in several subject areas can be explored within one long-range project. Students win as they apply higher-order thinking skills while building bridges between disciplines.

A classic project-based learning activity typically results in the creation of an artifact or other performance to demonstrate learning. Classroom teachers find art specialists to be integral in providing support for students engaged in project-based learning. Tasks within the project can be supported with instruction in art techniques, lessons connecting art with the project focus, and support for different learning styles.  For example, spatial/visual learners may learn best through art and demonstrate learning best through drawing. Support from the art specialist can enable these students to present their learning using new techniques and media, while motivating their participation in the project.

Recently, I worked with a first grade class who is studying owls that live in our local forests. They read about owls, wrote about owls, and explored local owl habitats with their classroom teacher. I shared a book about owls and we explored the shape of an owl. Children practiced drawing owl silhouettes in preparation for creating artwork featuring an owl. I also provided instruction in a variety of paper folding, layering, and collage techniques students could use in creating the varying feathered textures they had seen in photographs of owls. The classroom teacher worked with students to continue their study of owls and in completing their owl projects. 

The lesson plans below demonstrate the importance of integrating art instruction with project-based learning lessons. As you peruse each lesson, consider how the art specialist might coordinate instruction with the classroom teacher.

Project Based Lesson Plans: 

Exploring Our Community

Integrate social studies, art, and language arts while promoting group work skills in a study of the local community. Add a school neighborhood walk or other off-school site experience in the local community to make this lesson more authentic. Art specialists can provide instruction in how to build a mural.

What should a House Do?

This inquire-based unit focuses on a comparison of Native American shelters and the first permanent English dwellings in the American settlement. Classroom teachers and art specialists can work in tandem to present background information, source and display relevant artwork, and explore ways for students to show what they have learned by constructing models of different kinds of homes.

Transportation and Mapping

Build on the previous lesson with a mural-focused experience. This lesson provides mural artwork to inspire students to think about transportation today and in the past. Integrating social studies, mathematics, literacy, and art, this web page provides ideas for a four- week project-based unit.

Energy from Wind and Moving Water

This long-term project-based unit presents authentic explorations that include concrete, hands-on, and first-hand experiences.  Art specialists can support student learning in many ways, such as by providing instruction in how to draw diagrams of various wind machines or assisting with materials and techniques as teams construct, test, and improve hovercrafts.

Faith-Ringgold Story Pillows

Integrate reading, writing, and art with this project-based lesson that appeals to a variety of learning styles. Spatial/visual learners will be motivated by the colorful artwork of Faith Ringgold, while language-oriented learners will by inspired by the words and concepts presented in the picture book selections.  Kinesthetic learners will be motivated by the tactile nature of the project while the patterns present in the artwork will capture the interest of logical /conceptual learners. Invite the classroom teacher to join in with book investigations and an author study.


Elementary Art Guide

Alison Panik