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Studio Thinking 2: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education

reviewed by Carol Korn-Bursztyn - August 28, 2014

coverTitle: Studio Thinking 2: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education
Author(s): Lois Hetland, Ellen Winner, Shirley Veenema, & Kimberly M. Sheridan
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807754358, Pages: 176, Year: 2013
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The second edition of Studio Thinking by Hetland, Winner, Veenema, and Sheridan is a timely reissue of a work that has the potential to refocus conversation on the role of visual arts education to learning. This second edition recovers studio as metaphor and praxis for arts education, with a focus on the visual arts, and for teaching and learning in general. It takes an applied approach to working in the visual arts with children and adolescents, presenting a philosophy of arts as studio practice—and of learning as applied studio practice. This second edition adds an important focus on studio habits of mind to their discussion of studio structures for learning.

These studio structures for learning provide the framework for both classroom pedagogy and student activity. These structures include: demonstration-lecture; students-at-work; critique; exhibition; and studio transitions. The authors identify:

“…a ‘hidden curriculum’ in visual arts classes and (we) argue that this is their real curriculum. We came to the conclusion that, in addition to two basic arenas of learning-teaching the craft of the visual arts, and teaching about the art worlds beyond the classroom—at least six other important kinds of general cognitive and attitudinal dispositions are developed in serious visual arts classes. These dispositions are central to learning in many subjects, and they may well transfer to academic subjects.” (pp. 5–7)

Hetland, Winner, Veenema and Sheridan refer to six dispositions as studio habits of mind. These are: observing, envisioning, reflecting, expressing, exploring, engaging and persisting, and understanding art worlds. Studio structures for learning and associated habits of mind clearly incorporate constructivist approaches to education that typically feature student-led exploration and discovery and classrooms organized to promote student initiative and exploration. While the studio approach described here is closely aligned with constructivist practice, it also incorporates principles of direct instruction through demonstration by teacher-as-working-artist. As in constructivist practice, art teachers are responsible for creating environments that encourage exploration and learning. Working in a studio framework, art teachers scaffold student experience by modeling artistic practice and techniques. The role of the art teacher in the studio method recalls a Vygotskian approach to teaching and learning (Vygotsky, 1962) that positions the role of teacher and the relationship between teacher and student as central to the teaching and learning dynamic.

While the authors underline the dual roles of art teacher as facilitator and instructor, their tilt is clearly creative, with a focus on invention. They consider how measured risk taking in the creative process emerges from an emphasis on the process of learning, creating and inventing, rather than on the production of an end product. Unintentional outcomes, the results of error or playful exploration, they observe, can lead to new ways of thinking and to new inventions. As a pedagogic approach to teaching and learning in the content areas other than the arts, the studio approach has a long affiliation with education and specifically with the arts in education movement.

Inspired by the work of the late Maxine Greene (1978) and Madeleine Grumet (1988) in the late 1980’s, a major curriculum revision of the teacher education programs at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York adopted the metaphor of studio practice as a model for teacher practice and student learning. The arts were linked to subject content in literacy and social studies through a collaborative partnership between City University of New York and Lincoln Center Institute (Korn, 2005). Linking the arts with other subject content underlined the integral relationship between learning in the arts and learning in other content areas. It also served a growing mandate to demonstrate the relevancy of the arts in a rapidly developing zeitgeist of standards and accountability. Supporters of the arts in education increasingly adopted a defensive posture as the mandate for testing, test preparation and test-based accountability grew.

In an attempt to maintain the relevance of the arts to education—and to preserve their place in publicly funded schools—proponents of the arts often advocated the arts as pathways to learning in the subject areas. Partnerships between schools and cultural arts organizations introduced classroom teachers, especially in the early childhood and childhood years, to the arts as an integral part of everyday classroom experience. Arts specialists and teaching artists often remarked on what they experienced as the tension between the integrity of the arts as disciplinary knowledge and practice, and in contrast, arts as tools to teach curriculum content. This discourse, however, was all but invisible to classroom teachers who typically welcomed the arts in any form as enlivening to the children and to their own pedagogic practice (Korn-Bursztyn, 2003).

The national move to restructure public schools in the US together with an emphasis on test-driven instruction and accountability resulted in an erosion of the arts in public schools. Schools that had enjoyed partnerships with cultural arts organizations reduced or discontinued partnerships in favor of test preparation activities. A recent announcement by the NYC Mayor Bill DeBlasio and Chancellor Carmen Farina (July 1, 2014) seeks to reverse this trend by pledging a hefty $23 million in additional arts funding to support classes and activities in music, dance, visual arts and theater. In academic year 2014–2015, NYC plans to hire 120 new arts teachers at underserved middle and high schools, improve arts facilities, and foster partnerships with cultural institutions.

The authors of Studio Thinking are justifiably cautious about linking the arts to student outcomes, and offer a brief, impassioned, and cogent defense of their position. They differentiate between the use of the arts to further academic skill development—which they warn is likely to backfire—and the role of the arts in developing habits of mind that are associated with successful schooling.

“Justifying the arts only on instrumental grounds will in the end fail, because instrumental claims for the arts are a double-edged sword. If the arts are given a role in our schools because people believe that arts cause academic improvement, then the arts will quickly lose ground if academic improvement does not result, or if the arts prove less effective in improving literacy and numeracy than high-quality, direct instruction in these subjects.” (p. 3)

The authors observe, however, that the habits of mind that studio art develops, including engaging and persisting, reflection and expression are valuable contributors to academic achievement. They implicitly make a case for linking art-making and the development of executive functioning—a set of cognitive skills associated with learning. Weak executive functioning skills are widely believed to be implicated in learning disabilities, especially where language and literacy skills are involved. Skills associated with executive functioning, including the ability to: (a) plan, (b) keep track of time, (c) draw on prior knowledge, (d) evaluate and reflect on one’s own work, (e) make changes in the course of work, (f) seek more information or help as needed, (g) engage with others, and (e) curb impulsivity. These are all habits of mind that studio art-making, under the instruction and guidance of a skilled teacher, can promote.

A corollary to the potential role of studio learning on the development of habits of mind applicable to learning across a wide variety of subjects is that studio teaching must be deliberately structured in accordance with the developmental needs of the students in order for them to reap the potential benefits. The role of the studio art teacher is complex, requiring a high degree of artistic and pedagogical skill, including deep understanding of developmental processes and how these impact on student learning.

Studio learning can also potentially contribute to the broader field of education through its emphasis on the roles of personal expression and meaning-making in studio work. The authors devote a section on expression and meaning-making in developing habits of mind. Learning is most meaningful and productive when it integrates cognitive tasks, such as problem solving, with emotional engagement. In contrast, the discourse on executive functioning typically references emotional expression only marginally when it takes up impulse control; however, the inner lives of children—their emotional states, experiential worlds, aspirations, hopes and struggles—constitute the content of their artistic expression and meaning-making activities. Expressiveness and meaning making are allied with educating for emotional literacy, the ability to understand and express one’s own emotional states as a pathway to developing sensitivity to and understanding of the emotional states of others. It’s fitting that the arts should recover the place of emotions in learning, and represent the studio as a metaphor for learning at any age.

A comprehensive approach to the arts in education, and to the development of studio habits of mind, is best introduced in the early childhood years.  When cultural arts organizations partner with schools, though, they typically work with children no younger than four year olds. Where available, arts programs for babies and young toddlers are provided by local, private providers. Few guidelines, however, exist for how the arts can be introduced to the very young, or how studio arts experiences can be structured in such a way as to further expression, meaning-making, and habits of mind among young children.

It is especially useful to consider here arts programs and curricula, such the New York City Department of Education’s well-crafted Blueprints for the Arts in dance, music, visual arts, and theater, constructed for use in the NYC public schools with children from pre-K through grade twelve. The early years between birth and age three, identified as particularly significant to neurological development, early learning, and social emotional development, are under-emphasized in the professional literature on the arts in education. Expansion of pre-K programs across the nation has resulted in expansion of curricular guidelines for four year olds. There is high need for development of resources in the arts specifically designed to introduce babies and toddlers to participatory experiences in the visual arts, dance, music, and storytelling/theater. New York City’s Department of Education plans an extensive expansion of pre-kindergarten programs this fall (2014) that will incorporate funding for the arts.

The arts draw on and further the creative impulse celebrated in the early childhood years, grounding this within an approach to the development of creative, critical thinking and executive functioning that places curiosity, experimentation and experiential learning, imagination, and expression at its core. The capacity to ask questions emerges from recognition of the gap between what one knows and what one needs to know. Imagination in the early childhood years fills these gaps, and plays an important role in the development of young children’s critical thinking processes. Imagining provides opportunity to play with alternate responses to questions about the world, and presents children with multiple ways of expressing how they think the world works. For young children imagination enables them to step back from their experiences in the world, and through creative acts, reflect on their meanings.

Imagination, and the creative acts that lend shape and form to its expression, provide the ground upon which the capacity to reflect upon personal experience first emerges. Vygotsky (1934/1987) observed that “imagination is a necessary, integral aspect of realistic thinking” (p. 349); complex forms of understanding call for more complex forms of imagining. Despite its recognition as central to the development of thinking in children by such diverse writers as Sigmund Freud (1901/1980), Jean Piaget (1929/1973), Lev Vygotsky (1934/1987; 2004), and Donald Winnicott (1971) imagination is the stepchild of academic skill acquisition. It is too often dismissed as idle daydreaming, at odds with the real purpose of school, and somehow inimical to the demands of reality.

The arts provoke and engage the imagination. They foster a multi-modal and multi-perspectival approach to reflection and to the creation of personal knowledge about the world. The arts provide multi-sensory points of entry into reflection on personal experience, a key component in the early development of critical thinking. Opportunities to work with art materials, to hear and to make music, to be in the company of dancers and to dance, to witness storytellers and to create one’s own story dramas are all means by which young children reflect-in-action on their own experience. Reflecting-in-action helps children build personal ways of learning about and knowing the world.

Reflection undergirds critical thinking; it provides the mechanism by which experience is revisited symbolically in the arts and in language. Children’s self talk and dramatic play exemplify how children reflect in action. When children perform multiple roles and scenarios, they provide a window into how they reflect on their experiences—real and imagined. When children reflect in action in their artwork and performance, they engage in the process of decentering. Decentering, the ability to step back from one’s experience and consider it from a different vantage point, is foundational to both the cognitive achievement of critical thinking and to the emotional achievement of empathy. Through the visual arts, music, dance, and drama, young children explore their own experiences, and encounter the experiences, creative productions, and perspectives of others. When children engage in dialogue with their peers and teachers about their artwork, they interact with different points of view. Dialogue in a safe and supportive environment provides decentering experiences for children in which they are faced with and learn to accommodate to the reality of other people’s perspectives.

For the adults in the lives of the children, engaging in the arts provides opportunity for children and adults to engage in meaning making. The arts provide opportunity to reflect, and to draw on imagination and creativity to physically represent experience. Imagination in teaching and learning is germane to what Maxine Greene (1978) referred to as “wide awakeness,” an orientation towards the world that leaves one open to the possibilities that observation, experience and critical reflection bring.

In the next edition of their work, the authors of Studio Thinking might consider exploring the role of imagination in studio thinking, perhaps as a critical component of the habits of mind that studio art develops. A future edition might also look at out-of-school venues for the development of studio thinking. The local maker movement is currently bringing studio practice and the joy of invention to children and youth in a variety of storefront initiatives. The maker movement, with a renewed promise of developing the arts in schools, offers the possibility of reintroducing the studio approach to teaching and learning to classrooms where exploration and invention have been usurped in recent years by routines of test prep, drill, and practice.


Freud, S. (1901/1980). On dreams. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Greene, M. (1978). Landscapes of learning. New York: Teachers College Press.

Grumet, M. (1988). Bitter milk: Women and teaching. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press

Korn, C. (2005). Crossing institutional cultures: Brooklyn College and the Lincoln Center Institute. In M. Holzer & S. Noppe-Brandon, Eds. Community in the making: Lincoln Center Institute, the arts, and teacher education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Korn-Bursztyn, C. (2003) The arts and school reform: Case study of a school in change. R. Teaching Artist Journal, 1(4), 220–227.

Korn-Bursztyn, C. (Ed.). (2012) Young children and the arts: Nurturing imagination and creativity. Atlanta: Information Age Publishing.

NYC Department of Education: Blueprint for the arts: Music grades pre-K–112, 2004/2008; Blueprint for the arts: visual arts grades pre-K–12, 2007; Blueprint for the arts: Theater grades Pre-K–12, 2005; Blueprint for the arts: Dance grades pre-K–12.

Piaget, J. (1929/1973). The child’s conception of the world. St. Albans, NF: Granada Publishing.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1962) Thought and language. Studies in communication. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Vygotsky, L. (1932/1987). The Imagination and its development. In: R. Rieber & A. Carton (Eds.), Problems of general psychology & thinking and speech. New York: Plenum Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. (2004) Imagination and creativity in childhood, Journal of Russian & East European psychology, 42(1), 7–97.

Winnicott, D.W. (1971). Playing and reality. New York: Basic Books, Inc.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 28, 2014
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17663, Date Accessed: 10/20/2021 11:05:49 PM

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About the Author
  • Carol Korn-Bursztyn
    Brooklyn College
    E-mail Author
    CAROL KORN-BURSZTYN, PhD, holds the rank of Professor in the Department of School Psychology, Counseling and Leadership at Brooklyn College and in the Ph.D. Program in Urban Education at the Graduate Center, CUNY. She holds dual specializations in the areas of child psychology and pedagogy. She is a NYS Licensed Psychologist and NYS Certified School Psychologist, and holds Postdoctoral Certification in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis. Dr. Korn-Bursztyn developed and led the School of Educationís lab school, The Early Childhood Center Programs from 1991-2007. She recently developed the new Play Therapy Project at Brooklyn College, which includes a new graduate Advanced Certificate Program in Play Therapy, and an APT-approved Center for Play Therapy Education. Areas of research and practice include culturally informed play therapy, the role of imagination and creativity in child development and mental health, and work with linguistically and culturally diverse families, mental health practitioners and educators. She is the author of Young Children and the Arts: Nurturing Imagination and Creativity (2012), and co-author of Rethinking Multicultural Education: Case Studies in Cultural Transition (2002), as well as numerous articles on childrenís narrative, the arts in education, and qualitative research. She is series editor of Making Sense of Psychology (Greenwood Press), and the forthcoming volumes Psychological Challenges for Immigrant Children and Youth, and Re-imagining Pedagogy for a Diverse Society.
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