Acceptance vs. Assimilation: A Mindset Shift for Arts Education

By Emily Chase

In my current work as an administrator and instructor for arts programming for people with disabilities, I am constantly researching similar programs across the continent, trying to determine what best practices exist in my field. (Once I even took my research on the road, driving all over Ohio, where there seem to be an abundance of art studios for people with disabilities. I visited five in two days!). A few years ago, I came across a project called Disparate Minds, which pulls together and shares information about progressive studio practice, a specific approach that creates opportunities for people with developmental disabilities to work as paid artists. Much of the information I have learned through Disparate Minds has been helpful to me, but one idea has been most influential—the concept of acceptance over assimilation in the art studio. I am sharing it here because I regret not knowing these concepts or words when I was still in the classroom, where I think it would have improved my teaching, enhanced my student’s experiences, and saved me a lot of stress.

Let’s start with assimilation. I interpret assimilation as not just an expectation that students follow directions, but that they absolutely do not deviate from the directions. An assimilation mindset creates a “right vs. wrong” mentality. On one hand, assimilation is needed in classrooms, where we can’t all just be spelling things differently every day or adding 6+3 to equal “apple.” Can you imagine the chaos of a classroom with 23 students not “assimilating” to the instructions of how to properly set up drop cloths for large-scale partner paintings? From experience, I am telling you, I am definitely not endorsing that. But in disciplines of creative expression, an educator with an assimilation mindset can limit a student’s experience of their authentic creativity. It can prevent a student from following creative hunches that lead to experimentation and discovery or stop them from finding their artistic voice. I don’t know about you, but as an artist, the last thing I want to do is assimilate! Assimilation is an enemy to creativity.

What are some signs that you might experiencing an assimilation mindset? Maybe you have the expectation that it is more important for a student to follow directions than it is for the student to uniquely express themselves. Maybe you have a student who just wants to draw manga characters, and it is driving you mad—so much wasted potential. Maybe you find yourself looking for conformity instead of authenticity among student artwork as you choose samples to exhibit. If these describe you, please don’t feel attacked.  These actually describe me. These are all real examples of things I have thought or felt recently. The important part is that I now have the language to understand why I am having these thoughts, so I recognize what they are: Me applying my standards to the student’s artwork, instead of being responsive to the art they are creating.

The arts possess a great capacity to affirm individuality, support exploration, and celebrate diverse perspectives. This makes an assimilation mindset in the arts particularly harmful.  Thus, as art educators we are uniquely positioned to reject this mindset, and instead turn towards acceptance. Disparate Minds talks about acceptance as “using the working practices that are intuitive” to a student already. An acceptance mindset in arts education can communicate to our students that we trust their creative intuition; that their unique interpretation of the world is respected and valuable. An acceptance mindset says to the student who draws manga, “I see you’ve been drawing that character often.  What would it look like if you drew that character life-size?” Or “Tell me more about that character, and what challenges they are up against?” Or “You are really into manga. I’m wondering if you could introduce the style to the class with a presentation?” These questions might lead to storytelling, the creation of landscapes or realms, the invention of villains or sidekicks, or even a new unit of study about different styles of popular art and portraiture. In the context of learning goals and outcomes, the acceptance mindset challenges us as educators to think creatively about what qualifies as acceptable evidence of learning. Maybe the manga artist won’t draw a self-portrait, but maybe they will agree to try their favorite character in a hybrid style that contains a few elements from the lesson. For a student that refuses to try anything else, this could be an effective way to build a connection that communicates trust and acceptance of their unique creative drive.

I think the acceptance mindset could also be described as leaning in. When I was an art teacher for students with significant emotional impairments, I learned to take ANY SIGN of engagement as a possible way to connect. I had one class of 12 year-old boys who preferred to climb the walls (literally), destroy art supplies using remarkably creative methods, and throw wads of paper at each other (and me) instead of doing any type of constructive art project. On one particularly rough day, Anthony’s paper wad fell a few feet short of hitting me. I realized I had few options, as every single thing I was “supposed” to do in response to these behaviors had already failed, and I had the majority of a double period left with these spirited gentlemen. So, I leaned in. “You know, Anthony, if you fold that into an airplane, it will go a lot farther.  Let me see if I can make one….” Now, I have never been able to make paper airplanes. In fact, when I was their age, I was rejected from my school’s Science Olympiad team for this deficit, but that day I was desperate.

Slowly, and with the help of some very capable and supportive paraprofessionals, we got everyone’s interest piqued in paper airplanes. As we folded, we talked about style. “What colors should they be? Which art supplies work best for this? Does your airline have a name? Oh sorry, it is a destruction fighter jet, not an airliner. Anyone want to try a really big piece of paper?  Now, let’s see how far they fly. Jason, can you make a table on the chalkboard so we can record the distances? How should we measure the flights? Who’s in charge of measuring?” And so on.  It wasn’t perfect, there was still a lot of swearing and supply destruction. But I saw excitement! They were making connections and talking about their creations to each other. They were engaged enough to make multiple attempts at problem solving, something that rarely happened for these for students, who struggled with low self-confidence and little to no frustration tolerance.

To me, it was an opportunity to have authentic, positive interactions with students who rarely ever experienced that with adults. Instead of telling them they were behaving terribly and doing everything wrong (which, to be honest, I had tried for the first 15 minutes of class), I accepted that their intuitive and instinctual ways to create were in the tactile and kinesthetic realms, and I did my best to make space for that. You could call it leaning in, acceptance, strengths-focused teaching, asset-minded education; these are all practices that create inclusive, safe spaces for students of all abilities, at all levels, that can help kids truly connect to their artistic intuition.

I realize that during a period when teachers are experiencing prolonged and at times unbearable stress, that an assimilation mindset may be one of the few things that seems to maintain order in an otherwise chaotic time. Assimilation represents a comfort zone for many of us, something that we ourselves experienced as students, and that we have learned can produce effective learning opportunities. Assimilation, however, creates extra work for teachers of the creative disciplines who find themselves encountering a student’s most authentic and most unique methods of self-expression. Assimilation swims up stream; acceptance harnesses the power of the current.

NOTE: For the story of an art teacher with an assimilation mindset, check out the picture book Willow, by Michigan authors Denise Brennan-Nelson and Rosemarie Brennan.


Emily Chase is the Manager of Creative Experiences at Peckham, Inc. In this role she makes strong use of her training in psychology, visual art, and special education as well as her experience with community and school based arts programming. Peckham, Inc. is a vocational rehabilitation non-profit organization and a MAEIA partner. At Peckham, Inc. Emily oversees the Art from the Heart program, intended to increase access to the creative arts for people with disabilities and to eliminate barriers for their participation in the larger arts community.

Click here for a Printer friendly version of this article.

Leave a Reply