Copying: Creativity Killer #10

Marvin Bartel, Ed.D. - Author BIO
2008 - October
Art teachers may print one copy for their own use. Update: June - 2009

When I visit an art room where students are busy copying, I wonder what other kinds of learning are being bypassed. I wonder h
ow many teachable moments have been lost and how many neurons never grow because students learn to use ready-made solutions instead of developing creative problem solving skills. Instead of encouraging the copying the solutions, we could use the time to inspire the joy of seeking the secrets of learning and building knowledge, skill, and creative thinking.

When we provide good methods of self-learning in a young mind, I feel we are giving the mind flying lesson to help them succeed and improve the world. Copying gives driving lessons to run errands for experts who tell us what to think and what to do.


This flying clay chicken is by a kindergarten child who was fascinated and inspired when a chicken flew out of its cage in the classroom while she was practicing blind contour drawings of the chicken. As I write, she is starting first grade. How much of this joy of experimentation and expression will she retain as she progresses through the school system? What happened to our own creativity as we matured?  Why was most of our own divergent thinking lost by second grade? (click and return using your browser back arrow or button)

Why is copywork commonly used?  BACK to Art Education HOME

Copywork feels good because the product can look quite polished and professional. Copying is quite easy. Pictures and other art, when copied, often looks much more professional than the more childish renderings that children make when they work honestly from memory, imagination, and observation. Imitation is an extremely strong instinct, so it is very easy to encourage copywork. In may ways, imitation is a good way to learn stuff. Imitating parents, teachers, slightly older and more experienced friends and other experts is still very common and is still successful for much of what we learn in life. Even in the life stories of many artists, they tell about doing a lot of copywork as a child.

What is learned when doing copywork. An education based on copywork and imitation produces a much different kind of mind than an education dedicated to learning the thinking strategies that produce creative minds. Copywork builds replication skills and it creates some familiarity with standard traditional options for how to produce images and compositions. My purpose here is not to prove that copywork will ruin a child's mind. My argument is that in today's world, copywork produces a seriously handicapped mind (as compared to the minds of their peers who end up with creative thinking habits). 

There have been millions of years in art history when change was happening very slowly. Imitation became best way to learn most things. No teachers were needed. Direct imitation was all that was needed. If kids that did not carefully imitate slightly older kids, they failed to keep themselves safe from the common hazards of survival. Member of a tribal society in prehistoric times would not have survived long enough to draw those wonderful animals on the walls of caves, and certainly not long enough to have kids of their own. Hence, our genetics gives us the instinct to copy.

Fortunately, somehow human genetics also leaves young kids with very flexible minds that have other learning instincts. As kids we have amazing imaginations and divergent thinking abilities. The typical terrible two-year-old is a great scientist that is very curious and constantly experimenting to see what is allowed. We still have safety hazards, so parents have to rein in the two-year-old's curiosity for the sake of survival. By the time kids starts school, most kids are still quite able to think divergently and still have a rich imagination (except for those with parents that have been excessively authoritarian and negative).  Unfortunately, by the time we reach grade two, most of us have lost most of our ability to think divergently and imaginatively as we become "domesticated" and acculturated to being "schooled" and forced to select our instinct to imitate over our instinct to imagine. A large percentage of school learning is based on repetition, copying letter forms, memorizing words, coloring five birds red, and so on. Those who fail to rein in their imaginative minds soon find themselves in trouble with most teachers.

As art teachers, we are in a unique and highly privileged position. We are so lucky. We teach art. Artists actually get credit for imaginative, impulsive, and creative thinking. In fact the most renowned modern artists tend to be the most innovative, creative, imaginative people. The greatest part about being an art teacher is that our time has arrived. The world has changed so much that imitation is no longer an adequate success strategy. In today's world, the ability to synthesize vast amounts of information and experiences in innovative ways has become essential for success in nearly endeavor---not just in art. As art teachers who understand creative thinking strategies have come into our own. We have a responsibility to model what every teacher needs to be doing. If we agree that synthesis, creativity, innovation, invention, and imagination have become the essential qualities of mind needed in today's world, we need to focus better. We need to eliminate imitation (copying) as a learning method that can earn credit in art classes to make more time available for the more essential mind building types of learning. Even with no art class copying, kids will still learn how to imitate and copy in many of their other classes, but at least they will have a chance to learn the strategies that creative people use when they solve problems in new situations in a changing world.

Copying becomes a crutch and shortcut that makes it harder to make the effort to learn and practice the more demanding disciplines. My purpose is not to condemn those who learned their art by copying. My purpose is the share my beliefs that most professional art teachers already know many other much more creative ways for art learning to take place.

I find that one the most creative ways to teach drawing processes is for me to speculate about the thinking steps and practice steps that must have been used by great artists.  Rather than have students copy great artists' work, I have them copy the thinking and practice steps that I have imagined by studying great artists.

The Question

What are the differences in kinds of minds produced by imitation and copywork at the expense of other more experiential forms of skill and knowledge building experiences?

I do believe that as teachers, the learning methods we employ change the kinds of neurons that thrive and grow in the brains of children. Hart and Risely found that highly verbal parents who nurture infants, toddlers, and preschoolers with a preponderance of affirmative responses and questions rather than commands, produce more intelligent and curious children who love new experiences, experimentation and the learning of new things. One the other hand, parents who use less words, more commands and prohibitions while using fewer questions tend to have children that come to school less capable of learning to read.
From: Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children. 1995. by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley.

To me, copywork is like responding to the command of an expert authority rather than responding to a question.  To me, copywork seems like a passive prohibition against learning to develop our own ideas. Copywork does not seem like an affirmation of what we ourselves can produce.  To me, the neuron numbing aspects of copywork may not be as serious as outright prohibitions, but copywork does not teach with questions and it does not foster independent thinking and judgment. Populations educated to follow experts rather than having learned to think independently are simply not as ready to participate in government and are more apt to be manipulated and even brainwashed by self-proclaimed experts (deciders), even when they make very bad choices or very deceptive choices.

Today's world has many problems. Is it still acceptable for educators in public schools to develop minds that are conditioned to habitually learn by following "experts" and "authorities"? Might wars in the past have been prevented had more ordinary citizens been willing and mentally equipped read their own cultures and to think for themselves rather than believe what they were told.

My Story

When I was young, I had no teacher who knew the processes of how to properly practice to produce creative learning and how to motivate me learn to see; to understand and express what I saw; what I remembered and what I imagined. I had no teacher that knew how to teach me to feel and express what I felt and saw. I was more or less free come up with my own devices. Knowing nothing else about how to learn to draw, paint, or sculpt, I copied.

I did like to draw horses. I thought they were hard to draw well. Since we had horses I remember looking at our horses in order to draw them better. When I saw other drawings of horses, I did go back and look again at our horses.  My ability developed through a combination of seeing and practicing.

In visiting with a Chinese scholar who audited my college photography class, he showed me how elementary teachers in China teach drawing by drawing a picture in the front of the classroom and asking the students all to learn by copying the teacher's picture.

"Ms. Suderman, my first grade teacher was not a specialist in art, but she had drawing skills. She drew an impressive (to me at the time), but trite (from my current perspective) landscape on the board using colored mural chalk. We each copied her picture with our crayons on paper. I thought it was art.

Our school had wonderful north windows. Had Ms. Suderman gone to the window and asked us questions about what we saw in the nearby landscape, I think that I would have also enjoyed making a crayon drawing of my actual observations.

Had she asked me to look carefully at certain lines, shapes, colors, textures, tones and so on; I think that would have certainly enjoyed learning to see new things to draw that I had never really noticed before.

As it turned out, when we got to second grade, none of us could read the beginning of the second grade reading book. Ms. Hett, our second grade teacher, asked us if we had studied reading. We assured her that we had. She then tested us by giving us the first grade book and we recited it word for word. As it turned out, we had not learned to read; we had memorized the book. Ms. Suderman, our first grade teacher, had been a first-year teacher. Apparently, she had known how to teach copywork and rote learning (two very similar modes of thinking), but did not realize that this was not what our brains needed in order to make progress in this world and construct new knowledge by being able to figure out words and read new sentences.

I now understand that she also did not know that learning to read our visual world requires abilities beyond what we learn when memorizing a picture by copying it. Since she was a new teacher, I do not blame Ms. Suderman. However, I would blame myself, if I did not share this insight.

We had not learned to observe from actual life and experiences in our drawing. We had not learned to use our imaginations in our drawing. We had learned how to imitate, copy, and memorize other peoples words and pictures.

Today, we live in a world of constant change and mobility where our instincts for reading each new situation and for imagination as well as for divergent thinking have increasing importance for success and survival. Fortunately, we come to school with pliant brains that can develop either way and both ways.  Education needs to help the many ways to learn how to learn. We can imitate instinctively, but with proper practices the neuron buds enabling us to innovate instinctively can also be retained and nurtured.

I am happy to add that I never had an actual art teacher that used copying as method of teaching. I believe that the teachers who challenged us to use our own creativity are the ones that influenced me to become an artist and an art educator.

Another Story

I was visiting with an elementary art teacher at a recent conference in Indianapolis, Indiana, USA. I asked him how he taught drawing.

He said that he drew things in front of the class in a step-by-step fashion so they could follow along and learn how to draw various items such as trees, faces, animals, human bodies, and so on. Along the way he is careful to point out the specific proportions and formulas to use in drawing various things.

These students are also copying. They are not learning to build knowledge because he gives them his knowledge. These kind of drawing demonstrations and instructions are the dominant tradition in many drawing instruction books and on television programs as well. It is a very common and popular to employ this kind of copywork in teaching.

These students are not learning to express their own experiences because they are learning to draw by copying his drawing.  They are not learning the skills of experimentation because he is replacing this experience with the results of expert experiments and observations. They are not learning how to make discoveries. They are not learning to read subject matter in their surroundings because he is telling them how things need to look in their drawings. He is not showing them how to look at a subject in order to learn to draw it. They do not need to learn to read it since they are copying and memorizing the "correct" predetermined look as formulated by others. Teaching for him, is passing on expert answers rather than providing questions and practice methods to solve difficulties on their own.

If they are faced with the need to draw a new item, they are forced to revert to childish symbols because they have not learned how to visually read from their environments. Anything outside what they memorized defeats the efforts of most students. If they have not learned the techniques and skills of learning to visually read new material, their frustrations and self-esteem defeats their will to try. This crisis of confidence is well documented in art education studies.

Art teachers are quite aware of the crisis of confidence in drawing that often begins in second or third grade. I get parent notes telling of their child's desperate requests for a competent drawing teacher.  College students confide in me about how much they wanted to learn to draw, but nobody knew how teach them. Even though they loved art when they started school, they soon avoided it and many came to fear and avoid drawing. Many elementary classroom teachers, when asked by a child for help with learning to draw something, responds with a very anti-educational comment.  They say, "O that's okay. I can't draw either." Not only is this teacher bad mouthing learning, all the ways that drawing could help this teacher explain things to students are not being used. All the ways that this teacher could use drawing to solve problems are not really being used. This person is a diminished and handicapped teacher and individual.

Another Art Class Story

One of the most popular art class projects that I see has the students each take a small square or rectangle from a larger picture that has been cut by the teacher into enough parts so that each student in the class gets one piece. Each student gets a piece that is about an inch square. Each student is provided a large piece of drawing or painting paper that is the same shape as the small segment of the picture that they got. The lesson is generally based on reproduction of a painting from art history. I know one teacher who cut up a $20 bill and gave each student a segment to copy.

As the students complete the enlarged copies of their small bits of the work, they put the large post them on the wall to make a giant copy of the original. Some teaching also use this project to have students learn how to enlarge something using a grid. Of course everybody tries to copy the original as accurately as possible with regard to color, tone, proportions, etc. However, the final combination of all the parts shows considerable individual variation. Some teachers point out how this shows how we are all creative, even when we try to be conformists. This is not creativity. These are actually copying mistakes.

To me, the sad part of this project is not that mistakes are made.  The sad part is that it teaches conformity.  It uses scarce time to learn how to replicate when much more creative thinking tasks could be practiced during this time. When I wish students to learn how a grid can be helpful, I have them make a grid in a viewfinder (using some black string and tape). They select, observe, and create something from their own environments. They could draw a self portrait with a marker on a mirror while looking at themselves. A grid method could be used to transfer this drawing to paper where it is finished while using the mirror to study their own face for additional visual information. 

What damage is done?

To my knowledge there is no definitive study to show that copywork or coloring books damage a child's creativity. Negatives are difficult to prove empirically. However, I continue to be convinced that copywork fosters the kinds of thinking habits that stunt a child's potential. Learning time is being wasted. I see enough cases where children have lost self-confidence in learning because they have not be given sound ways to practice. Tests do show that divergent thinking quickly diminishes as children enter school. School is filled with copywork in math, in learning to print and write, in learning to spell, and so on. Art is the one place we can seek to counteract some of the dulling and dumbing effects of other course work.

Our Family Story

Because of my graduate study and reading in art education theory and creativity development theory at the time when our own preschool children started to work with art materials, we decided to keep them away from coloring books and we never had them copy anything other than learning to print their names and some numbers.  They drew their own pictures and sometimes colored them as well. We never showed them how a drawing should look, or how they should draw, but I often asked them to tell me about their drawings.

They were encouraged to use my clay studio and make whatever they chose to make. They made dogs and birds and other things they enjoyed from their life experiences. They were encouraged to try whatever they wanted to. They would see how it changed when it dried, when it fired in the kiln, and so on. Within the limits of safety, they were allowed to invent and to trust in their own experiments. These experiments were allowed to tell them the truth about their worlds.

In the garden, they gathered seeds and then planted them to see what would happen. They were encouraged to construct their own knowledge. They saw me using the same kind of learning habits. Of course they also enjoyed books, reading, and learning from others.

They attended public schools through grade 12 and enjoyed their teachers as well, even though some teachers were more traditional than we were at home. At home we tried to compensate for things that happened in school. We used questions more than answers and commands.

We used explanatory affirmations whenever possible and prohibitions were used sparingly as needed to keep them safe. When they quarreled, their mother had the wisdom to ask them to make a choice between several positive or creative alternative activities rather than commanding them to stop quarreling.

In the end, two earned Ph.D. degrees in science from MIT and Harvard. They are now enjoying success as scientists at major universities. They have a number of patents and copious research results that may help cure disease and increase food supplies. The third is a successful technical writer. A sample of only three kids is not a proof of concept, but it is evidence that we do not need to teach our kids to copy in order to be successful.

Our scientist daughter and son tell me that many of their graduate students and post docs, when doing scientific experiments are very puzzled by unexpected results. Some expect their teacher, an expert, to tell them what has happened, and others assume they have made an error and they do it over. They lack the dispositions and neurons to think divergently enough to see, recognize, and identify their own discoveries. They are quick imitation learners, but neither their science teachers nor their art teachers have helped them learn and become competent and expectant discovery learners.  They lack ability in divergent thinking.

As Einstein said, the imagination is more important than intelligence.

Copying is learning the answer from the answer. True learning in studio art comes through the experiences of creating from questions, from observations, from dreams, from troubles, from joys, and from within our hearts. Replication (copying) may look like art and even win awards, but in spirit, it is the opposite of art.

In education, copying molds a much different brain than the brain formed while practicing creative and formative ways to be expressive of our feelings, observations, imaginations, and experiences.

Good schools teach thinking methods beyond the memorization of expert conclusions. They teach knowledge building skills. They teach experimentation methods used to discover truth. They encourage practice to refine abilities. Good schools even teach the value of spontaneous and impulsive positive boundary breaking when inspiration hits a student's creative impulses.

Scholars and artists may quote experts, but they may not copy them. When quoting, we do it to substantiate, refute, and so on; but we do not quote and present it as own own work.

As art teachers we do not need to rely on copywork. Professional art teachers know how to coach the kinds of practice that builds ability in observation skills, expression of the imagination, and they know ways to coach representation of memory and experiences.



Fortunately, in my own experience, I eventually had some good art teachers. At the time, I did not understand what they were doing. After beginning my career as a public school art teacher, I attended graduate school in the summers. We searched the research on creative thinking and the traits of highly creative individuals. I eventually formed a new understanding of alternative ways to learn art. I now believe copying is done to produce a product. It is generally not done to learn how to draw. It is superficial, not teaching us many of the basics of how to see the truth of the world itself.

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What do I do if a student can't remember what a landscape or a particular animal looks like? Could I permit kids to use photos as prompts from which to interpret? How do I deal with them wanting to draw what they can't recall or visualize? Do you always have them draw only what they see in front of them?

We can name a number of famous artists whose work is highly derivative and in some cases even copies artists that came before them.  Doesn't that mean that copywork is a legitimate way to be artistic?

Doesn't the apprentice system employ a lot of copywork as the way to learn to be an artist? ^^^

BACK to Art Education HOME Page

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These are some related links for those who are looking for learning methods that do not depend on copying.

Art Education HOME Page |  Original Idea Generation  |  Creativity Killers  |  Teaching Creativity
A blind contour drawing lesson - grades 3 to 6  - How to teach drawing to children |
A lesson with no copywork, with no prior examples, using blinders, live animal, & including art history
Inside-out gesture drawing and other drawing ideas  | 
Skills sets needed to draw anything

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