Studio thinking: How visual arts teaching can promote disciplined habits of mind

Winner, E., Hetland, L., Veenema, S., Sheridan, K., Palmer, P., Locher, I., et al. (2006). Studio thinking: How visual arts teaching can promote disciplined habits of mind. New directions in aesthetics, creativity, and the arts, 189-205.

Abstract:

This study first provides an overview of prior meta-analytical research about the notion of transfer between arts learning and non-arts domains, concluding that with only few exceptions, transfer could not be proved because existing studies yield insufficient evidence. The researchers conclude that before transfer between arts and non-arts can be proven, the learning that occurs from arts learning must first be understood. This study examined visual arts learning at two Boston schools, identifying eight skills or “studio habits of mind” that were present. Hypotheses are offered for how these skills may be important in a wide range of disciplines aside from the visual arts. The researchers then posit that additional research needs to be done to determine if the studio habits of mind identified in this study are transferrable to other non-art learning domains, setting the groundwork for future research on arts and academic transfer.

Key Findings:

Data analysis resulted in the identification of eight studio habits of mind:

  • Develop Craft: As a result of participating in art class, students acquire the skills or techniques needed to work with various media.
  • Engage and Persist: Students are taught to engage in a project, focus on a task for a sustained period of time and persist with their work.
  • Envision: Students are taught to generate mental images that will help guide their work and use their imagination to think of new ideas and forms.
  • Express: Students are meant to learn to go beyond craft to convey a personal vision and meaning in their work. This habit of mind includes making works exemplify a property that is not visible such as mood or atmosphere.
  • Observe: Students are taught to look closely at their own works (the color, line, texture, forms, structure, expression, and style), at others works (whether by their peers or by professional artist), and the world (when they are working from observation) and to notice things they might have otherwise missed.
  • Reflect: Students are asked to think about and explain their process, intentions, and decisions. They are also asked to judge their own work and that of others.
  • Stretch and Explore: Students are expected to try new things, to explore, take risks, and capitalize on their mistakes.
  • Understand Art World: Students in visual arts classes learn about art history and the practicing art world today and their own relationship to today’s art world.

Significance of the Findings:

The findings of this present study – the habits of mind cultivated from serious art study – will be instrumental in achieving several goals. This research should help advocates explain arts education to policymakers, help art teachers develop and refine their teaching practices, and help educators in other disciplines learn from the existing practices in art teaching. Most of all, this study sets the stage for future research to test out hypotheses on arts and transfer.

Methodology:

Two Boston arts high schools served as the site for this study: The Walnut Hill School for the Arts, an independent, residential, suburban school whose student body includes many students who are foreign nationals and non-native speakers of English (particularly from Korea); and The Boston Arts Academy, a public, urban school whose students’ ethnic, racial, and socio-economic backgrounds represent the demographics of the city of Boston. Both schools admit students through audition in an art form (visual arts, dance, drama, or music).

The researchers conducted field observations during the 2001-2002 school year and videotaped 38 visual arts classes (two to three hours in length). The five participating teachers were interviewed. Class observations and interviews were transcribed and analyzed for interaction units between a teacher and a student. Each unit was coded for the kinds of thinking dispositions being taught. These dispositions developed into eight categories of “studio habits of mind” from which the data sources were coded by independent raters.

Limitations of the Research:

The goal of the present article is to provide the groundwork for better transfer studies by identifying particular kinds of thinking skills actually learned in the arts that might be useful in other disciplines. It does not set out to prove a hypothesis but instead provides a better understanding of what students are taught and how they learn in studio art classes.

Questions to Guide New Research:

The present article is a report of the first phase—documenting the habits of mind taught in the visual arts. The researchers planned to follow with two additional phases: one, developing a teacher-friendly instrument to assess how well students learn studio habits of mind; and another testing the hypotheses that particular habits learned in the arts transfer to particular domains outside the arts.