Dinosaurs, Art and Critical Thinking

Aug 21, 2023
Drawings and paintings of dinosaurs. T-Rex, Stegosaurus, Triceratops, Tyrannosaurus Rex.

How can dinosaurs and art lessons help develop critical thinking skills!?

Creating artworks of pre-history

How can we illustrate what we have learnt about our world before there were written records, before we humans even existed? Depicting dinosaurs is one example. Artists create impressions of life-like dinosaurs even though they virtually became extinct about 66 million years ago. How do they know what to draw? Early palaeoart (pre-history art) was based on limited scientific evidence available in the 19th century. These palaeoartists needed to identify sources for this geological and fossil evidence, determine what might be relevant to their artwork, plan and design an appropriate approach and materials, reflect and evaluate their work, and share this with others. A complex process.

Critical and creative thinking

This complex process has the palaeoartist engaged in critical thinking skills. Each of the stages stimulates curiosity and creativity, enhances research and problem-solving skills, and helps improve decision-making: important life skills. We see these as higher-order thinking skills and metacognitive - thinking about our thinking. So, questioning, researching, clarifying, synthesising and sharing new understandings has us engaging in critical thinking.

Art lessons for kids 

Today, children wanting to draw dinosaurs need to rely on previous artworks as inspiration, having no photos or living examples to observe! Their curiosity about these non-existent creatures can be a stepping stone to building new skills and understandings, including examining artworks then creating their own. (Would you like to give ARTVENTURE as a GIFT?)

For teachers

So in applying my own critical thinking skills - How, as educators (teachers in the classroom or homeschoolers), can art lessons provide an engaging and enriching learning environment for the development of such skills in our students? - I’ve drawn on several lines of thinking within the Australian Curriculum and combined them with some ‘dirt on dinosaurs’, to help create a clearer picture! (Want to try ARTVENTURE for FREE?)

Making connections:

  • Critical and creative thinking is a General Capability
  • In the Science curriculum, application of inquiry skills, the development of biological understandings, and increased awareness of human endeavours can relate to the portrayal of dinosaurs.
  • Exploration and reflection of others’ artworks; selection and experimentation with forms, styles and materials for making artworks - as outlined in the Visual Arts curriculum: these are skills of a palaeoartist.

1. General Capabilities

General capabilities cross all educational disciplines with the development of critical and creative thinking being a key element. As students engage in inquiry, they pose questions, clarify ideas, organise information, then evaluate and communicate their thinking.

2. Science

When students apply scientific skills while developing understandings, you can see a mirroring of general critical and creative thinking, with expectations that they are:

  • Questioning and predicting 
  • Planning and conducting 
  • Processing and analysing data and information 
  • Evaluating 
  • Communicating

3. Visual Arts

In art lessons, students make and respond to artworks. To be able to do this, they use the same techniques as the palaeoartists. Below are examples based on content descriptors and elaborations in the curriculum.

Foundation - Year 2

Students trial different options for designing representation by looking at artworks about a subject matter, such as ‘dinosaurs’. What are the main features of a dinosaur?

Year 3-4 

Students explore ideas and artworks as inspiration for their own representations of dinosaurs. What can paintings and drawings tell us about the past?

Year 5-6 

What visual arts conventions have been used to convey meaning? How can we infer things like size, behaviours and habitat?

How did the artist represent their subject matter? What techniques and materials indicate specific features of dinosaurs, like scaly, wrinkled or feathered body coverings?

Let the inquiry begin

If we take a moment to hone in on aspects of Biological Science Understandings referred to in the Australian Curriculum, there are possibilities for developing inquiries, at various levels of study, that encourage curiosity - in relation to dinosaurs, and inspiration for artworks. 

Inquiries start with questions - both from the teacher and the student. At the younger levels, questions tend to be more ‘closed’, to identify simple factual information about the nature and function of things. There’s usually just one answer or set of answers. Questions starting with What and When are typical. Often the answer is just ‘yes’ or ‘no’. 

In the early stages of the learning continuum for critical and creative thinking, students draw on personal experience, comparing new concepts with familiar and similar things in their own world. Consequently, familiarity with dinosaurs comes through the media where artists have created these extinct creatures for us to visualise.

As learners develop their critical thinking skills, questions tend to reflect a desire to find out answers to more ‘open’ questions. These might start with How or Why, or perhaps What if… These prompt higher-order thinking: looking for connections, causes, effects. There may be several answers or possibilities and even different opinions. Sometimes a good gauge of the level of questioning is its ability to be answered by Google! The more difficult this is, the greater the need for critical thinking.

So much critical thinking goes into our ever-changing knowledge and understanding of dinosaurs as palaeontologists, scientists, researchers and journalists grapple with new discoveries and how they fit with information already pieced together.

What 'pictures' are appearing? How do we 'see' dinosaurs?

This piecing-together of the jigsaw puzzle is enhanced by visual representations. But the evidence gathered cannot finitely determine all aspects of these images of dinosaurs. Shapes and some physical features can be surmised, but colours and textures are more difficult to picture. Behaviours and the environment are also built on conjecture. It’s hard now to sometimes ascertain the accuracy, or likely accuracy, of the artwork delivered to us. Definitions and classifications of dinosaurs, as well as theories on the evolution of birds, for example, are still being debated. Are we closer to finite answers? Can the dirt on dinosaurs ever be cleared away?

Communicating these possibilities has become more engaging with the evolution of digital art, 2D and 3D animation (and mixtures), special effects, motion graphics, morphing and VR - Virtual Reality (imagine feeling like you are actually in the world of dinosaurs!). The realm of possibilities for creating artworks seems endless.

From rough sketches to cinematic productions, engaging in art, just putting pencil or brush to paper, helps crystallise our thinking. The wonderful world of dinosaurs offers great opportunities for viewing art, making art and responding to art. As educators, providing art lessons to guide children through the creative process can enrich their ability to think critically. 

Questioning is the answer

The more open-ended our questions are, the greater the likelihood of higher-order thinking. This is the key to stimulating critical thinking. So how might art lessons become places of discovery and wonder, like a dinosaur dig site, for your children?

I’ve been working on some notes for teachers, to help create units of inquiry incorporating art, and linked to the Biological Science curriculum. These will include simple pieces of information to help build further understandings (keeping in mind that as palaeontologists make new discoveries, our knowledge evolves). Connections, while engaged in these investigations, can be made to the Visual Arts curriculum

These notes, along with some more Artventure Dinosaur art lessons, are in the pipeline.

However, for the moment, thinking about how we can develop our kids' critical and creative thinking skills through dinosaurs and art is the starting point. Keeping this in mind, you may just like links to some lessons on how to draw a dinosaur.

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Even if you’re just having fun drawing, dinosaurs provide a great opportunity to encourage questioning while creating artworks. Happy digging and enjoy being a palaeoartist!

Teacher and Artventure Blogger
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