This is an abridged edition of the full analysis of Studio Thinking for the Createquity Arts Policy Library.
First published in 2007, Studio Thinking: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education by Lois Hetland, Ellen Winner, Shirley Veenema, and Kimberly M. Sheridan offers a new approach and perspective on the “real benefits” of visual arts studio education. The authors believed that by studying the intrinsic value of teaching art rather than its instrumental effect on other subjects, like math and reading, they would be able to make a stronger case for the importance of studying art.
Studio Thinking presents the researchers’ careful observations and analysis of 28 visual art projects taught in five high school level studio art classrooms at two Boston area high schools with “exemplary” arts programs. Using an admittedly subjective approach, Hetland, Winner et al. worked to incorporate evidence-based methods in the study as much as possible and developed a code system to calculate how often specific habits and skills observed being taught. Through this rigorous process, they were able to identify four “Studio Structures of Learning” and eight “Studio Habits of Mind.” A second edition published in 2013, Studio Thinking 2, features a new addition to the core Studio Structures of Learning, further explanation and examples of habits of mind, and new information on the application of the authors’ research since the book’s first publication.
According to the authors, the Studio Structures for Learning are four modes of instruction germane to the studio classroom: Demonstration-Lecture; Students-at-Work; Critique; and Exhibition (with Transitions functioning as a sub-structure between the other four). These Studio Structures create a supportive atmosphere for learning eight so-called Studio Habits of Mind (SHoM): Develop Craft, Engage and Persist, Understand Art Worlds, Stretch and Explore, Envision, Express, Reflect, and Observe.
These habits are taught in a non-hierarchical manner, each no more important than the rest, and a class may consist of several habits taught in “clusters” and/or interwoven into the Studio Structures. The combination of Studio Structures and SHoM is what Hetland, Winner et al. call the “Studio Thinking Framework.”
Studio Thinking notes that the Studio Thinking Framework can be useful as a method of self-assessment for both teachers and students, as well as in non-classroom settings. The authors are now using the framework as a guide to conduct a study that examines the transference of studio thinking – i.e. the degree to which students’ engagement with the SHoM leads to their using similar dispositions when engaging with subjects such as math and reading.
The Studio Thinking Framework has been widely embraced since it was first introduced, with the original Studio Thinking making the New York Times bestseller list and the authors consulting on a number of national, state and local arts education initiatives. While well executed on the whole, Studio Thinking suffers from several limitations in its methodology and design that narrow the extent to which it truly “makes a case” for different forms of arts education.
The Studio Thinking study focused solely on the visual arts and more research is needed to determine how applicable the framework is across all arts disciplines. Furthermore, the visual art classes studied mimic a pre-professional studio teaching style commonly found in college-level and adult arts courses, which implies that the research may have little to say about the art classes more common to secondary and primary settings. By the authors’ own admission, Studio Thinking’s descriptive and theoretical approach makes no attempt to “prove” anything about the benefits of arts education. Given these methodological limitations, the use of the framework in transfer studies, the promotion of it as a tool of advocacy, and arts advocates’ quick adoption of it, all seem a bit premature. It would be more prudent and helpful to conduct research that compares the differences between teaching arts and non-arts subjects from the perspective of studio habits of the mind to more accurately pinpoint the benefits of arts education relative to other subjects and students.
Studio Thinking‘s reception to date, and in particular the alignment of the Studio Thinking Framework with federal and state arts education initiatives, suggest that the authors’ findings will have some long-term influence on the way educators, advocates, and policymakers think about studio arts and education as a whole. Does Studio Thinking promote a space in society where teaching the arts is valued for its own sake and not a means to an end? In one sense it does isolate how studio learning encourages the development of important critical skills necessary to produce creative, engaged individuals. However, the decision to focus on the results of the method of teaching and use the study to once more look for arts transference to other subjects should concern arts advocates. It suggests an easy leap for policymakers to say, “Thanks for showing us how to better structure curriculum and classes for the other still ‘more important’ subjects. So now we really don’t need the arts.”
As the emergent Studio Thinking movement focuses more on expanding and generalizing what is learned in studio classes beyond the studio, a clear distinction between the effects of the art and the effects of the teaching will become increasingly important.