I’ve spent big parts of the past three days reading through the ENGAGE site(s), trying to understand what you’ve been doing in the project and what you’ve been learning. I realize that you’re at the end of your projects, so I’ve been pondering what it makes sense to tell you about the Studio Thinking Framework at this juncture. Here are a few thoughts that focus on how the framework works, from my perspective. Now that you’ve used Studio Thinking in action yourselves, this should make more sense than it would as lifeless theory.
Studio Thinking is two parts, as you know: Studio Habits (or the dispositions that teachers want students to learn so that they develop artistic mind) and Studio Structures (or how art teachers put together arts learning experiences). Both parts of the framework are analytic lenses that teachers and students can turn on their practice to make it more visible and meaningful. They’re accessible, “ordinary language” terms for concepts that can help educators, advocates, and students share with the unconvinced what it is that artistic minds do to create and judge the quality of artworks and how art teachers set up learning experiences that nurture that kind of growth. I’ll talk about each part of the framework separately.
Studio Habits bind together artistic practices – that is, the ways serious artists work — and arts education, so that what we teach and what students learn more closely resemble genuine artistic efforts.
Lately, I’ve been most interested in levels of Studio Habit use as shown in what students make, do, and say, because I want to find ways to guide students toward higher quality uses of their developing artistic minds. I think about what it looks and sounds like when students work with Studio Habits at lower and middle and higher levels. The low level is a kind of “rote and ritual” level, where teachers and kids use the habits as labels and/or recipes. It’s not a bad place to start, but it’s not a good enough place to end! We want more than just naming from using these categories. But we also can’t expect of students what we see and hear at the level of the expert artist, where the habits interact so seamlessly that they can seem not even to exist. While that’s a wonderful level to aim toward, it’s not generally a possibility for our students — not on a sustained level, anyway. And if expert artist-teachers stay at that level, it makes artistic practice seem too mysterious to be attainable – a magic act performed by a talented few. So it’s the middle level that interests me most.
I refer to the middle level as “thinking with support.” It interests me, because it is the equity level. All students, regardless of ability, can work at this level. And by working at this level, learning happens. That’s why it’s so helpful to use the Studio Habits if you’re interested in teaching equitably. Too many students don’t ever get to work at the “thinking with support” level in their educations. Many schools never ask them to, and so they just stay at the “rote and ritual” level of memorizing, repeating, and performing on cue, becoming pawns in a game that keeps them below the status and responsibilities of being active, responsible decision-makers. As it happens, many urban youth refuse to play as pawns in that game — and that leads them out of school and into the streets. We need to engage these students not in games with low odds for success, but in genuine thinking that holds their interest and keeps them in learning environments in schools and other organizations.
When teachers show student-artists what youth can do with the eight kinds of artistic thinking represented by the Studio Habits, the fun begins. That’s because, no matter which studio habits an artist uses at the start of a project, reflecting on them helps students find more possibilities within each habit while the artistic process itself pulls the budding artists to use more studio habits responsively. Let me illustrate what I mean.
For example, a youth plays around with paint (stretch & explore) to make marks and colors. By doing so, he develops some skilled technique (develop craft). He sees (observe) the results of those efforts and reflects on (envisions) possibilities for meaning (express) – certain marks feel like anger or movement; certain colors feel like openness or fear. As he engages in using his hands to slow his thinking down and create expressive effects, he finds motivation to build more skill in more techniques – nuances of color lead to an appreciation of nuances of idea – this red says anger, this one says love, this one says joy, this one, power (deeper into develop craft, deeper into express). He struggles to make just the right red (deeper into develop craft, envision, and express), and because he cares about the work he’s trying to make (engage & persist), about what he’s trying to do and say through his work (express), he learns to persist (engage & persist).
He observes what he does and makes (observe, develop craft: technique), compares it (reflect: evaluate) to his intention (express, engage & persist) and, with support, compares that (reflect: evaluate) to how other artists have used similar techniques and approaches (understand art world). When allowed and encouraged, he talks about these efforts with other interested artist peers and teachers (reflect: question and explain, understand art world: communities). And around and around and around the habits wheel we go, developing more skill, more inclination, and more alertness within each habit while using habits in clusters that support one another.
The process of art-making wends through pathways of learning that take the youth from a vague idea in his head and, through his hands on the materials, out into the world. As he turns back into his head, he finds that he appreciates the idea more clearly, and so he turns back to his hands to represent that more explicitly. Perhaps, mid-process, he moves into the community of fellow artists and others interested in expression of ideas, then, perhaps, back into his own head, and then his own hands — iteratively. In the end, the process of art making has woven in and out of the various studio habits, and the artist has a clearer idea about what the work is and is about and a more carefully made work that expresses that intention better than his or her initial attempts. It’s both the idea that develops and the product that represents that idea. Not process OR product, but process FOR product FOR process! (Note: I was first introduced to these ideas by Kay Stables and Richard Kimbell from Goldsmith College, London. For further information, here is their project report.)
Teachers are critically important in this process; without them, students don’t often see as many possibilities for developing their idea or their work – they need kind, helping hands held out to them consistently, inviting them to take a chance, take a stance, take another step. The approach offers individuals the help they need as they cross the obstacle they’re facing at any given time along the path they’ve chosen to take for their own reasons. Explicitly using the Studio Habits with students invites them into understanding themselves and processes of critical and creative thinking during the arts-making experience itself.
But there are so many students and so many paths! How does a teacher address all this need and possibility? It’s the Studio Structures that answer that question. Studio Structures guide ways of working that promote community learning atmospheres and support students’ development of studio habits during their arts learning experiences. By carefully sequencing the three Studio Structures – Students-at-Work, Demonstration-Lecture, and Critique – teachers optimize students’ time in the kinds of rich experiences that nurture their growth.
The Students-at-Work structure promotes more engagement and fewer off-task disruptions, more productivity, and more personalized products from students than didactic instruction. How? Because students are pursuing their own creations, teachers have time to monitor their process and intervene when they need to, with the kind of assistance most needed by each student, and at the moments when a given student really needs it. Mostly, students move forward under their own steam, engaged with thinking and doing as they make artworks, turning to their peers for help and support in the informal atmosphere of the art studio. That frees the teacher to watch and act on any student’s behalf when he or she needs it – and to leave students to their own pursuits when they don’t. Sometimes students need to struggle, and the wise teacher builds that into her decision-making during Students-at-Work sessions. But the teacher is aware, alert to the pulse of the class and the students within it, noticing the subtle clues that suggest it’s time to move in closer and offer another perspective, a possible tool, or another way of thinking through a dilemma.
The Critique structure reminds teachers to build in reflective, meta-cognitive conversations to complement the learning developed by making works during studio experiences. Students usually are up close to their work, but that only offers one perspective on what they make. Skilled artists know to back off from their work periodically, taking a step back literally and metaphorically, to view the work from a distance, to talk about raw ideas and sketches before they commit to an idea, to seek out suggestions about which other artists, works, objects, or phenomena might be good to consider as resources for their own ideas, and to show work in progress to trusted peers and mentors as they discuss frustrations, problems, successes, possible solutions. Building critiques into the process of studio work means building in reflection; thinking is already slowed down by the making, and critiques help to bring to the surface and unfold the richness, complexity, subtleties, and nuances inherent in the process of creating artworks.
The Demonstration-Lecture structure reminds teachers to offer “just enough” information to get students launched into making – they need only the information that helps them make what they are trying to make right now. The Demonstration-Lecture structure also reminds us that talking at students is usually not enough to engage them in developing genuine understanding; they need to see what’s being said, and, more importantly, actively pursue their own solutions if they’re going to develop the skills and attitudes needed to understand – that is, to grow the genuine understanding that means using what they know flexibly in novel situations.
By mixing and matching the studio structures so that they privilege students-at-work time, limit time in high-quality demonstration-lectures, and build in frequent, low-stakes critiques, teachers have the formats needed to help students develop rich networks of understanding within each Studio Habit and around clusters of Studio Habits that push and pull on each other in creative tensions. And that’s why we need the Studio Thinking Framework – because it helps artist-educators and artist-students see the complexity of the artistic process in the moments of the constantly evolving process of making work. When we name the elements of the process as they arise, students can begin to see what this kind of working is made of and to internalize its methods to use for their own purposes.
It’s been thrilling to see the efforts you’ve undertaken to support college and high-school students in mentoring one another in your ENGAGE projects, and the ways you’ve used the Studio Thinking Framework to support those endeavors. I hope these thoughts help you see even more ways to take work of this sort further in your next collaborative effort. The more you can understand what you’re doing and asking the students to do, the more you can refine and focus your intentions, your alignment of the projects and challenges you create with those intentions, and the way you check your students’ developing understanding so that you can adjust your own teaching to meet your students’ unique individual pursuits and needs.