Visual Arts Competencies in Embedding Belonging, Diversity, and Identity, Part 2: Diversity | Jude Ross | 9 Min Read

February 1, 2023

The first part of this series spoke about the traditional Visual Arts Canon as a bastion of the “old white guy club.” It tackled how to embed Identity within the visual arts curriculum by using competencies to deepen the learning process for our students. By connecting 21st-century skills to the art process, we are not only giving our students a fantastic art education but also the ability to succeed in any future venture. Embedding Identity gives students a chance to broaden their perspective on how people look at and experience the world around them. 

During the second part of this three-part series, I outline how we can embed Diversity into the visual arts curriculum and use competencies to broaden student experiences. 

Diversity has many different definitions, but I particularly like Cooperative Extension’s definition: “Diversity is the presence of differences that may include race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, nationality, socioeconomic status, language, (dis)ability, age, religious commitment, or political perspective.”

The range of human differences (race, ethnicity, age, etc.) means there are people who have been and remain underrepresented in many institutions and broader society. Diversity typically references those who have been traditionally marginalized. A great example of this is the traditional Visual Arts Canon. Although there has been increased interest in incorporating diversity over the last 20-50 years, any diversity added to the Canon has been predominantly artists that have been active during this same time period and not necessarily from earlier periods. The traditional historical narrative of the Canon, the time period before the mid-twentieth century, has not changed that much. 

So, as a visual arts teacher, what is the best way to bring diversity into the classroom, and how do we embed competencies into the lessons to deepen the learning process?

Artists from left to right: DaVinci, Pollock, Picasso, Monet, Van Gogh, Warhol

Can you recognize the images above? Each demonstrates how little diversity there is in the traditional Visual Arts Canon. Yet, as a visual arts teacher, there is often pressure to teach such traditional artists to students because these famous pieces of artwork hang in all of the big museums. These are the artists that parents learned about. These are the big-name artists that we constantly read about or watch movies about. How can you balance society’s strong connections to the work of traditional white male artists and artwork while making sure you, at the same time, bring diversity and representation into the classroom? This is the key challenge. We cannot ignore the past but instead need to acknowledge, recognize, and address it, while at the same time moving the indicators forward in regard to diversity. 

One way in which I have achieved this balance is to focus on larger concepts rather than specific artists. When talking to students about larger concepts, like how to ‘Stretch and Explore’ new ideas, I introduce different artists’ artwork as examples of how they stretched themselves and explored new ideas. ‘Stretch and Explore’ simply means to “play, use mistakes, and discover.” It was conceptualized as a Transdisciplinary Studio Art practice by Harvard’s Project Zero in 2003 in their Studio Habits of Mind book. Studio Habits of Mind are research-based best practices observed by the Project Zero team in various studio art classrooms. 

Rouen Cathedral Series 1892-1894 by Claude Monet – (30 versions) 

Claude Monet’s style is an example of ‘Stretch and Explore.’ Monet was a founder of the impressionist movement, and his artwork rejected the painting style of his day—very realistic painting. He wanted to demonstrate the effects of light on the colors of objects and how things looked through mist, rain, smoke, and steam. His artwork is meant to give you the impression of how objects look, not to show how they actually look. When he first began to show his artwork, people thought his paintings looked unskilled or sloppy. By introducing students to Monet’s artwork and the reasons behind his style of painting, I show students how a famous artist, whom we consider traditional now, stretched and explored traditional artistic ideas. Not only is Monet a great example of how artists explore new ideas and concepts, but he is also a nod to the traditional Arts Canon. 

I typically follow up with photos from a more modern artist and someone whose background is very different to show how artists can ‘Stretch and Explore’ new ideas. This shift in perspective gives students a windows-and-mirrors view of various artists. For example, Diana Al-Hadid is a Syrian-born artist who ‘Stretches and Explores’ new ways of using materials, such as fiberglass, foam, wax, plaster, and steel, to expand her knowledge of these materials, which in turn takes her artwork in new directions. Her art is meant to challenge the laws of gravity. As she works, Al-Hadid evaluates her plans at every stage of the project and revises her plans as her sculptures evolve. In this way, I talk less about specific artists and more about artistic concepts. In doing so, I insert diverse artists into the conversation as I acknowledge the art cannon that many parents and, let’s face it, administrators, would like to see taught in the visual arts curriculum. Both of the above artists are exploring the concept of ‘Stretch and Explore’ through their artmaking, but they come from different backgrounds and perspectives. 

Although ‘Stretch and Explore’ is a type of competency, it is more localized and practiced within a visual arts classroom. For instance, I have developed “I Can” statements to help students ‘Stretch and Explore’:

  • I CAN take risks and try things I have never done before. 
  • I CAN play with materials and techniques to discover new ways of working. 
  • I CAN explore concepts to find new ways to express my ideas. 
  • I CAN use mistakes to find new ideas and to try to figure out where I could change how I work. 

‘Stretch and Explore’ is considered transdisciplinary, but most schools will not define their competency as ‘Stretch and Explore.’ More often than not, they will use terms, such as ‘Creative and Critical Thinker’ or ‘Intrinsic Learner.’

At The Alexander Dawson School at Rainbow Mountain, we have been developing all-school competencies, such as Creative and Critical Thinking and Intrinsic Learner. While our indicators or measurements are developed to align with these competencies, it only means that ‘Stretch and Explore’ needs to be expressly taught within the overarching umbrella of the school-wide competencies.

EC-K Indicators5-6th Grade Indicators
Creative and Critical ThinkingBegins to understand how to use the skills and media learned and adapt these to create artwork of their own design
Able to use learned skills and criteria and apply these to personal artwork
Reaches beyond preconceived limitations to explore playfully and, at times, without a plan
Intrinsic LearnerWilling to engage with new artistic skills, activities, and strategies
Excited to use new artistic skills, media, and strategies on independent choice artwork
Creates work that is reflective of best effort and originality: “Nothing without labor”

After developing these competencies, we can look at measuring student mastery of them. Yet, we are not measuring student mastery in Diversity, which is what we were supposed to have been discussing. Even though we introduced diverse artists, we are not teaching a competency that specifically addresses Diversity. Instead, as Sanje Ratnavale explains in Why the 50-year NAIS Governance Experiment is Over, competencies can not only help define a school’s mission, but also create a way to implicitly teach, assess, and measure the success of a school living its mission.

As a result, Dawson defines the school-wide competency Cultural Competency to measure students’ abilities to respect and honor different cultures, which directly relates to the school’s diversity statement. You can read the definition, as well as the indicators for visual arts, defined below. 

Cultural Competency
Thinks and acts globally and locally and draws connections from lessons and skills to real-world problems. Shows empathy and compassion while considering self, others, the community, and the world’s ideas, experiences, cultures, customs, and traditions thoughtfully.
1-4th Indicators5-8th Grade Indicators
Experiences artwork from different cultures and backgrounds by viewing them and speaking about them.Finds strength in our diversity, respects opinions and beliefs of others, and commits to learning from one another

Interacts with other artists and the broader art community to learn about the history and practice diverse art forms

Uses art as a communicative tool when addressing and attempting to improve social justice issues.

With students in first through fourth grades, how are we mentoring them to experience, view, and speak about work from different cultures? Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) is a research-based system that facilitates discussions of Visual Arts. This method can significantly increase student engagement, performance, and enjoyment of learning. VTS is used by many museums around the world to facilitate discussions of artwork within their collections. The organization’s belief is that “thoughtfully facilitated discussions of art make education more engaging, inclusive, and equitable.” This system allows students to experience, view, and speak about a wide range of artwork in a deeper, more reflective manner. 

Through the use of competencies and transdisciplinary concepts, including those that truly focus on cultural awareness, students are exposed to curriculum and outcomes that align with a school’s diversity goals. Using discussion protocols like Visual Thinking Strategies means that students can have meaningful conversations, which expose them to different perspectives in the arts and gives them mirrors and windows into various cultures. In these ways, visual arts teachers can further deepen the learning experience for their students and actualize the school’s mission, vision, and values.                   


Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. eXtension Foundation Impact Collaborative. 2022. Retrieved from:

DaVinci, Leonardo. Mona Lisa. The Louvre, Paris, France. Retrieved from:

Pollock, Jackson. Convergence. 1952. Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York. Retrieved from:

Picasso, Pablo. Weeping Woman. 1937. Tate Modern, London, England. Retrieved from:

Van Gough, Vincent. The Starry Night. 1889. Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA. Retrieved from:

Monet, Claude. Bridge over a Pond of Water Lilies. 1899. The Met, New York, USA. Retrieved from:

Warhol, Andy. Marilyn Moroe. 1967. MoMA New York, USA. Retrieved from:

Monet, Claude. Rouen Cathedral Series. 1892-1894. Retrieved from:

Al-Hadid, Diana. Nolli’s Orders. 2012.  Retrieved from:

Al-Hadid, Diana. Sinking and Scaffolding. 2015. Retrieved from:

Jude Ross

Jude Ross teaches at The Alexander Dawson School at Rainbow Mountain (NV). He has lived on four continents and has been educating students in the U.S. and in international schools for over 17 years. He received two Masters degrees, an MFA in Painting and Drawing, and an MS in Curriculum and Instruction.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *