Artistic Thinking and the Studio Thinking Framework

What is artistic thinking and how can it be implemented into non-artistic courses? I became intrigued by this possibility for a couple of reasons. As an art history teacher, we are often placed in a box that treats the discipline only within the confines of a fine art. People on the outside tend to view art history as a “soft discipline” of sorts; not quite as rigorous as perhaps the “hard sciences” or even more traditional history courses. Actually, art history is much more expansive and interdisciplinary as it requires knowledge and familiarity with multiple disciplines in order to construct meaning. In fact, as a world history teacher, I often hear other teachers lament on the need to introduce more art into their courses as this tends to be something the AP exam assesses.

The difficulty in doing so is based on the fact that most are not trained to look at art and use it as a source of information, let alone having access to the complexities of thinking like an artist. In art history, we often try to gauge artists’ intentions which requires students to do precisely that – think like an artist. This is a culture of thinking that can apply to any field and reinforces this concept of developing creative thinking in our classroom contexts. Shirley Veenema, at Project Zero Classroom at Harvard, walked us through artistic thinking, the habits of mind that accompany studio work, and how the studio is structured so that we can better understand how to relate this framework to any other given field.

Shirley Veenema has been an art teacher in both elementary and high school, and served as a researcher at Project Zero from 1987-2007. Her research has targeted thinking in the arts, using portfolios for assessment, multiple intelligences theory, and technology in education. Her mini-course, the ideas I attempt to summarize and present here, are based on findings from her Studio Thinking Project, which focused on artistic thinking for both the arts and non-arts courses.

Artistic Thinking

So, what is artistic thinking? Developing a fresh perspective to solve problems with a preference towards the unorthodox. How does this occur? Through creative thinking, which can be stimulated by both an unstructured process (i.e. brainstorming) or by a structured process (i.e. lateral thinking or making lists). See also Cindy Meyers Foley’s mini-course to get more familiar with creative thinking.

A framework can serve as a good reference for the types of learning that could be incorporated into a teacher’s practice. Veenema made some suggestions that work for her, which is a mix of Multiple Intelligences (for diverse learners), Teaching for Understanding (for content), and Thinking Routines (which develops creative thinking as a culture in the classroom).

How do I make a studio classroom?

This is based on four studio structures normally found in an art context but as can be seen these are readily available for any subject.

Step 1: Demonstration/Lecture

Information is delivered about processes and products and helps set up assignments. The information should be immediately useful and conveyed quickly to help reserve time for work and reflection. Visual examples are often used.

  • It is important to note that demos and lectures can happen at any point in order to introduce new material or call attention to something specific like a particular artist’s work, connections to other disciplines, a further investigation, a connection to habit(s) of mind, connections to other cultures through art

Step 2: Students-at-Work

Needs to be safe to allow students to work and experiment. Students generate products (artwork) based on teacher’s specifications. Assignments must specify tools, materials, goals, challenges. Teachers observe and consult but sometimes may pause work to address whole class.

Step 3: Critique

This is carried out in-process, usually a way to break and regain focus. The pause to focus on observation, reflection, and conversation. Display is temporary and informal.

Step 4: Exhibition

Selects, organizes, and publicly displays works. An exhibition can take many forms: physical or virtual, installed or performed, ephemeral or permanent, sanctioned or guerrilla, informal or formal, or a curated gallery. Often occurs outside of class space and time. Develops in phases – planning, installation, exhibition, and debriefing/aftermath.

8 Studio Habits of Mind

These are presented in a circle and non-hierarchical because there isn’t any one of these that is superior to the other. They are all interrelated and can be taught in a natural progression. I have adapted the language to be more general but it should be noted they take their root from studio art itself.

  1. Develop Craft – learning to use tools, materials, and conventions
  2. Engage and Persist – learning to embrace problems of relevance to develop focus conducive to working and persevering
  3. Envision – learning to picture mentally what cannot be directly observed, imagine possible next steps in making product
  4. Express – learning to create works that convey meaning
  5. Observe – learning to see more than what is at first glance, to gain deeper understanding, to see what otherwise might not be seen (see Slow Looking)
  6. Reflect – learning to question and explain and to think and talk with others about an aspect of one’s work; learning to evaluate and  judge one’s work and process and the work of others in relation to the standards of the field
  7. Stretch and Explore – learning to reach beyond one’s own abilities, to explore playfully and embrace ambiguity and mistake-making in order to learn
  8. Understand Art Worlds – learning about art history and current practices (these can be changed to whatever specific field is the course of study for your class), learning to interact with others as a professional and within that community as well as within broader society

Activities that Incorporate Habits of Mind, Follow Studio Structures

Example: Figure Ground Activity (individual and collaborative)

This activity allows for the playful exploration of creative thought. Using a black sheet of paper and a white sheet of paper, have students create an image in any way they like by tearing the paper and placing it on the other. Allow for the figure and the ground images to shift back and forth in your mind. Make it a “safe” project in that this isn’t going to be “great” art as an expectation, which will loosen things up and let students play. Coach students along the way by offering suggestions either individually or to the entire class. After a fixed amount of time, have the students pass their work to someone next to them and have them adapt/alter it. This activity touches on a few of those studio habits of mind and gets students used to the idea of editing and the process of thinking creatively.

Example: Found Object Art Sculpture (group)

Create a prompt that the groups must create a sculpture as an answer to. Give the students a time limit, let them shop for items and construct their work.

Example: Found Stories (individual and/or collaborative)

Provide a folder filled with images – these images should be both concrete and offer potential for abstract thinking (patterns, etc.). They could be clipped from magazines, etc. There should be images of people in them (at least 3) in order to help generate a story. Provide a topic or question that students must answer by telling their story – they should pick a fixed number of images to create their story (say 3 images). This could be part of a larger project that enables discussion. Could be used to jump start a writing project or other topic that may be important to your class (i.e. environmental focus on what a society throws away, etc.).

Activities can be adapted in order to meet the needs of your class. Shirley Veenema made a few suggestions:

  • Emphasize a particular habit (of mind) or constellation of habits
  • Can be done in several formats (collaboratively, individually, switch and then “finish” work, work individually and then do an in-process critique)
  • Aspects of an activity can be adapted to other goals
  • Activities can lead up to or be expanded upon for other types of projects, be they visual art of ones with an interdisciplinary focus