I'm a big advocate for student choice in the art room and I've noticed a trend when it's discussed. Skills. People who aren't experienced with Choice Based instruction wonder how skills are taught, or if they are. My answer is that yes, skill are taught - and applied and remembered at high levels.
Let me explain by describing two lessons which represent to different approaches to teaching. The first from my pre-TAB elementary room, the second covering the same concepts but in a TAB format. The goal of both lessons is to teach early elementary students to mix secondary colors.
In the first lesson I start by reading the class the book "Mouse Paint", making sure to point to the colors and have the students say them. "Now we are going to make our own paintings" I say as I set out paint trays that I've prepared with the correct ratio of colors to make orange, green and purple. "Imagine your Q-tips are little mouse feet" I say, directing students through mixing each color and getting it to the paper. Now paintings are stored on the drying rack and hands and tables are cleaned. Next week the class returns and we spend a second class cutting and gluing construction paper rectangles that I've prepared to make little mice to add.
In the second lesson I start by telling the class that I have a new center for them to try - the painting center. I show them where to access supplies, how to clean their brushes and how to mix colors. "Who wants to try this center?" I ask. This introduction has taken ten minutes. As I pass out paper to the children in the painting center I remind them where the color mixing chart is. The other students, familiar with the other centers, are able to start working without direction from me.
As I walk around the room, conferencing with students who are at work, I hear squeals of "I made pink and turquoise!" and student-to-student advice like "add blue if you want purple". Clean up is quick because so few students are painting, giving the class lots of time to work. Next week I'll ask a few student who chose painting today to review what they learned with the class.
These two lessons teach similar skills - color theory - but they have some major differences. In the first lesson little time was spent with the actual painting. Students mixed paint but they did it when and how I directed with no independent application of the concepts. Furthermore, the second class spent on this assignment did nothing to teach or reinforce color mixing skills.
The second lesson was, in contrast, made up almost entirely of independent work with the support of the color mixing chart at the center. I showed a skill and students spent almost all of class time applying it. During application I didn't control what colors they mixed - instead the student selected the colors that they needed for their work, which is a very "real world" use of the skills.
In my traditional classroom opportunities to paint were highly controlled and, due to the time consuming set up and clean up, mostly infrequent. This meant that large amounts of time go by before kids can build on painting knowledge.
A choice based approach allows students who are interested explore paint week after week, developing a high level of color mixing expertise.
The argument that skills are better built by a traditional lesson format is, to me, a moot point. The first lesson isn't based around teaching a skill at all, it's built around the product - which is essentially spending two week re-creating a book cover.
This takes us to the argument of process versus product. To me it's neither - it's concept.
A quality lesson needs to start with a learning goal, the concept, and provide opportunities for guided practice, application and extension. Lessons based on product often sacrifice differentiated learning experiences for the aesthetic appeal of the end point, like I did in the first lesson described - which really was teaching following the steps more than anything.
Teaching skills in a Choice Based structure allows for more hands on time making art and lots of individualized remediation or extension. It also asks kids to make personalized connections and apply what they learn independently. It's great structure for teaching skills and has the benefit of supporting the creation of authentic art.
I'm an high school art teacher who's really interested in student choice and creating opportunities for self expression. I'm also a writer for The Art of Education and co-author of The Open Art Room.