Benefits Of Visual Arts Education
Studio Thinking: The Real Benefits Of Visual Arts Education
by Lois Hetland, Ellen Winner, Shirley Veenema and Kinberly M. Sheridan
Published by Teachers College Press: New York, 2007 (120pp)
In a world dominated by what seems to be a never-ending stream of assessments and accountability, with the expectations from No Child Left Behind looming large and casting a very long shadow on educators’ independence and creativity, arts education is often side-lined as a frill or luxury.
Some advocates, disheartened by the stepchild status too often conferred on arts education, have tried to argue that the arts mattered because they could help students perform better on standardized math and reading tests.
Which, according to the authors of this book, kind of misses the point. The arts need to be valued, and taught, because of what students learn from these disciplines, not because the arts are going to boost SAT scores. Here the focus is on visual arts, where the authors-as-researchers find that—at least when taught by gifted teachers—students acquire such important skills as flexibility and being able to shift direction, imagination and expression, among others.
In their model, proficiency in what they term “studio thinking” develops students’ capabilities in areas like craft, observation, expression, reflection, exploration and understanding the art world, to cite some examples.
As the authors write, “We present the case here that the visual arts teach students not only dispositions that are specific to the visual arts…but also at least six dispositions that appear to us to be very general kinds of habits of mind, with the potential to transfer to other areas of learning.”
The authors studied five high school teachers in the Boston area—three at the Boston Arts Academy and two at Walnut Hill—and spent time throughout the school year observing and videotaping what went on in their classrooms.
Through art, students learn how to work on a project that interests them over a long period of time, or grapple with a challenging problem and resolve it.
This isn’t a how-to manual, offering studio art teachers ideas and inspiration for specific projects or lessons. While there are examples of art projects, they are provided as a way to illuminate a concept, such as how to draw for meaning or feeling, or comparing works of art.
As the authors explain in their preface, “Our goal was to understand the kinds of thinking that teachers help students develop in visual arts classes and the supports they use to do that.”
The techniques and best practices these five teachers use—from the design of their studios, the assignments they provide, the critiques they offer—are certainly good models that could be adapted by other studio arts teachers. More importantly, though, are the universal lessons students acquire that go beyond facility at throwing a clay pot or drawing a credible self-portrait.
As one teacher said, (p.56) “It is about connecting the art to your life and to the world, and your place in the world.” Ideally, couldn’t—and shouldn’t—that be the goal of any teacher?#