Part 2. Introducing the role of the teacher
Part 3. Exploring the role of the teacher
Part 4. The visual arts in an inquiry approach
Part 5. Developing inquiry through the visual arts
Part 6. Environments and materials for the visual arts
Part 7. Using materials intentionally in the visual arts
Part 8. Integrating visual arts into everyday teaching and learning

Working theories and dispositions

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Working theories and dispositions

Key outcomes for children in the early childhood years relate to the development of working theories as a form of cognitive development and for building subject content knowledge, and the development of dispositions that support children in positive learning habits. The visual arts promote both these outcomes.

Dispositional learning through the arts

The visual arts give children opportunities to develop important learning skills, such as observing carefully, engaging in problems that interest them, and persisting when they find something difficult. They learn ways to communicate ideas and feelings, to collaborate with others and to interpret ideas communicated visually. They show initiative and intention, and are able to set goals for their artwork. They learn to reflect on their artwork and on their working processes, and to plan more complex and effective strategies and activities. The dispositions children may develop include engagement, persistence, envisioning and creating, humour, expression, and reflection. These dispositions can be relevant and desirable in other areas of learning. It is important that visual art experiences are integrated into wider topics or projects related to children’s interests and that incorporate a range of disciplines. 

Using the arts to construct and modify working theories

As children create and explore using different media to represent things and ideas, they draw upon and modify their existing working theories. Working theories can be modified and developed when teachers encourage children to represent and reflect upon their theories using the visual arts. It is also possible to use artworks to introduce children to the working theories of their peers, and encourage them to compare, clarify and even modify their ideas. For example, a working theory that mummies and daddies are bigger than their children, or that friends always hold hands, might guide their depiction of the important people in their life. Children can adapt their drawing and develop their working theories about how to draw people when they try to draw a person from a side profile, for example, and work out that this might mean only drawing one eye, one arm and one leg. 

Click here to read the full version of this research review.

As you are no doubt coming to realise, the possibilities for supporting a range of learning areas and outcomes make the visual arts a powerful curriculum tool. When teachers initiate, provoke and observe visual arts experiences in relation to children’s interests, they have opportunities to support children to communicate ideas, explore points of view, and extend their thinking, which can promote creativity and imagination as well as cultural awareness and an understanding of self.

As we go through the course, you will see different ways in which our three case study early childhood centres link the visual arts with children’s various inquiries and interests across the entire curriculum, with a specific focus on extending children’s thinking and skills while listening to children’s voices and co-constructing curriculum with them. In this course we are not going to be looking principally at how to teach the visual arts (although there will be a little bit of this) but at how the visual arts can be integrated into curricular plans to boost learning by making it more complex, creative and connected.


Dr Sarah Probine is a senior lecturer at Manukau Institute of Technology, teaching in the areas of the arts, creativity, and inquiry-based learning. Her PhD focused on researching how children come to value and use the visual arts in their early childhood centres and at home, and her current research explores the impact on pedagogy when teachers develop new knowledge and confidence to personally engage in the arts.

Here she talks about how teachers’ values and beliefs about teaching art impact on their practice, and the steps that teachers might take in order to be more responsive and engaged in children’s visual arts experiences. 


Building teachers confidence engaging with the visual arts 

What are the values and dispositions that teachers need to develop in themselves to support visual art experience for children? 

I think that we need to begin by thinking about our images of childhood and our images of ourselves as teachers. Often, we talk about the confident and capable child, but when we actually look at our visual arts’ experiences, some of what we offer can be very teacher directed. And then at other times we might feel really uncomfortable to engage with children’s art making, and so take on a position of being an admirer and provider of materials. Both positions, I think, don’t really reflect this image that we talk about so often. The teacher-directed approach that positions the teacher in the position of power – in a position where teachers stand back and observe children’s art making because they’re worried about overly influencing their work – also positions the child as someone who’s overly influenced and too susceptible to all of the other things happening around them. That’s the first thing I think is really important to think about is, who is the child? How do they learn? What is that image of education? 

The other thing I think we need to think really carefully about, is what is our role as a teacher. And if we think about other curriculum areas – how we work with children in the sand pit, or when we’re considering science concepts – we think about how we engage with children, how we have conversations, provide materials, extend on that thinking, challenge children, help them to evaluate their learning. And then if we think back to what we’re doing in the visual arts, often those things make us feel really uncomfortable, so those would be the first two things I think about. I think dispositions-wise, we just need to be curious and open to new experiences and possibilities in the visual arts. 

Do teachers need specific visual arts knowledge? 

Felicity McArdle gives this really fantastic example of maths, and she says, you know, you would never hear a teacher say I know nothing about maths, and yet we know in order to be able to teach maths’ concepts, we need to know how to count and we need to know some ideas and some strategies for working with numbers and number concepts. And the same thing happens for the visual arts, we need to have some kind of idea of the purpose of the visual arts, but also some of the challenges and techniques and skills for working with them so that we can have authentic conversations with children. When we don’t have that knowledge, teachers can find it really hard to have those conversations apart from saying “that’s really lovely” or “I really appreciate your artwork”. But when you’ve made art and created it, and making art can be really challenging, you can begin to say, “Gosh, that’s a really interesting technique you’re using there! I find when I use this kind of brush that this happens”. You begin to have these conversations that are really authentic and also based on co-constructing knowledge with children rather than the teacher having to take on this position of just admiring and watching. 

How can teachers develop confidence to engage in arts experiences with children? 

I think there are two really important things that teachers need to do. The first thing is to really think about why they lack that confidence. So, for many of my student teachers, and also teachers I’ve talked with over the years, their fear or their lack of confidence has actually arisen from their own educational experiences. So, they might have encountered a teacher where they were overly directed or overly controlled so they felt like they had no autonomy in their art making, so they withdrew from that. Or they might have been criticised by a peer or a teacher, or they might just not have had opportunities to engage in the visual arts throughout their education. 

So, what can happen from that point is that once you lack that confidence, or you begin to think about your ability to engage in the visual arts in a negative way, you can avoid further learning in that domain, and that’s a real concern. So, I think spending time actually thinking about those memories and thinking about what happened, and how it felt and also reframing those stories, I think that’s really important to think, “OK, this happened to me, this is how I felt. What does this mean for my teaching? What does this mean for how I want to teach the arts in my practice?” And I think that’s a really powerful way of turning around those memories and stories from our pasts. So, that’s the first thing that teachers need to spend time doing. 

The second thing is just to make art. To actually engage with materials and play with them and try not to put yourself under too much pressure to make something that looks amazing. I make art in my spare time. I paint and I draw, and I make a lot of bad art before I can make good art, so I think it teaches me to understand that art making is a skill. Learning to draw is like learning to write or learning to count. It’s something we can all learn and it’s not a special thing that just a few people in the world can do. We can all make art, and we can all use art making in our learning, in our practice. It’s a really powerful tool to discover things about ourselves, but also about the world. 

So, I think taking the pressure off and just playing with art materials and enjoying them is really important. For teachers wanting to do this, and they might not have a class they can go to, and they might not have an expert in their centre, I would suggest starting with something like ephemeral art. Every teacher, every person I know is actually an experienced ephemeral artist because we’ve all made sandcastles. We’ve all played with leaves at the park, and so engaging in ephemeral art with natural resources and just beginning to play around with materials can be one way of actually beginning to make something and enjoy the creative process. 

The other thing I really love about ephemeral art is it doesn’t lend itself to being representational, so you don’t have to feel that you’ve got to make something that looks like something. You can just enjoy pattern-making or creating balance or contrast or symmetry. And those are really important elements of art making. So, that’s one place you could begin. 

Another thing I think is thinking about materials really carefully, so have a play with the materials in your center. Some of the materials we offer to children are truly dreadful – wax crayons don’t make satisfying lines or beautiful colours, but, other materials, like willow charcoal or watercolor paint, create beautiful lines and incredibly rich colors, so playing around with those materials is a really wonderful beginning for both children and for teachers who are wanting to build their confidence in this area. 

How can building teachers’ visual arts knowledge inform pedagogy? 

I think the most important thing about learning about the visual arts and understanding its possibilities for exploring ideas and supporting both teachers’ learning and children’s learning, is that once you understand that and you’ve got knowledge of a range of mediums and how to use those mediums, teachers can really thoughtfully plan how to integrate the visual arts into curriculum. So, you might have a group of children who are really interested in monarch butterflies, and they might have noticed the beautiful patterning on the wings. And so, in that case, a teacher who’s got that knowledge might be able to thoughtfully suggest materials to children to explore and observe and represent these, so they might offer children graphite pencils and paper. In contrast, the teacher who might not have that knowledge and skill of the visual arts might turn to Pinterest or such websites to look for an activity on butterflies, and that kind of activity has actually got no correlation with the curiosities and the questions of the working theories that groups of children have around butterflies’ wings. 

The other really important thing about the teacher who’s got that experience of the visual arts, is that they can have what I talked about before, those authentic conversations with children about their art making. So, they can suggest materials, they might create alongside a child. And when they’re doing that, they can talk about that child’s strategies and problem-solving strategies for art making. But they can also talk about their own strategies, and I think it’s really important that children see that adults actually make art – that they engage in that process, but they also have problems. 

So, when you’re creating a piece of art alongside a child, you might say “I’m finding this really hard to blend these colors. You know, when I get frustrated when I’m making a piece of art, sometimes I walk away from it for a while and then I come back. Or I might ask a friend for help”. So, you’re beginning to create this culture of learning where children and teachers are co-constructing knowledge through the visual arts, and I think that’s really powerful. 


Sarah encourages teachers to reflect on their memories of learning or doing art, especially if they involve negative experiences. Even if your early experiences were positive, leading you to become an enthusiastic artist in your spare time, it can be important to think about your memories of being introduced to and involved in art experiences, and the feelings that accompany those memories. Spend some time to write these down. What can you learn from your memories of art experiences that will impact on your teaching? How does this reflection support you to determine how you want to teach the arts in your own practice?