Recently a woman I know posted a photo of her child’s artwork on Facebook. The photo depicted a small box neatly painted green with various designs and embellishments on it. The caption said, “My son brought this home from school today. I asked him what it was. When he said he didn’t know I told him to throw it in the trash.”
We might ask ourselves, how could the parent in this story be so critical of her child’s artwork. It might surprise you to know that she has a PhD in Education. We’ve all thrown away children’s artwork when the time seemed appropriate, as it would be next to impossible to save everything. Likewise, we’ve all witnessed examples of what we might consider not being the child’s best work. But it was the manner in which the parent was so immediately dismissive of the piece which I would like for us to consider.
Aside from likely hurting the feelings of her son, the parent missed a golden opportunity to better understand the thinking dispositions behind the artwork. You might be saying to yourself that you didn’t know there were such things as thinking dispositions in art. You are not alone and that’s why people sometimes don’t know how to respond to original, age-appropriate children’s artwork.
What are thinking dispositions in the visual arts and why are they important?
In the book Studio Thinking 2 – The real benefits of visual arts education (Hetland 2013), the authors, along with researchers from Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero and others, present eight Studio Habits of Mind. These habits of mind are thinking dispositions that are nurtured in the visual arts.
Studio Habits of Mind (Hetland 2013)
Observe – Learning to attend to visual contexts more closely than ordinary looking requires
Envision – Learning to picture visually and imagine next steps
Express – Learning to create works that convey an idea, feeling or personal meaning
Develop Craft – Learning to use tools and take care of the art studio
Engage and Persist – Learning to embrace problems, develop focus and persevere
Stretch and Explore – Reaching beyond capabilities, playfully exploring without a plan, embracing the opportunity to learn from mistakes
Reflect – Learning to think and talk with others about artwork, making judgements
Understand Art Worlds – Learning art history and current practice, learning to interact with other artists
“Explore” pieces and “care” pieces are both important to develop Studio Habits of Mind
In our visual arts class, we give equal importance to artwork that results from exploring with materials and artwork that is carefully crafted as a special take-home or show piece. Studio Habits of Mind develop through both types of art making. As members of the school community, I encourage everyone to thoughtfully and joyfully approach the children’s artwork, asking questions such as: “What’s your favorite part of the work and why?” “What was most challenging?” “Tell me how you did this.” Not everything about art can be easily expressed in words, but these questions will help the students to learn to talk about some aspects of their work and reflect on the process.
Ironically, soon after the woman I know posted and ridiculed the photo of her son’s green box on Facebook, I came across a remarkably similar green box by Jean Pougny in the Pompidou Centre in Paris. I imagine it’s worth a small fortune. Like many modern art pieces, the significance of the piece is in the original thinking behind it, rather than any special technical skill of the artist. By seeking to understand the process and thinking behind it, we learn to recognize it’s value.
Hetland, L., Winner, E., Veenema, S., & Sheridan, K.M. (2013). Studio thinking 2: The real benefits of visual arts education. New York: Teachers College Press