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Studio Thinking: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education

The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education

These authors will settle for nothing less than “changing the conversation.”

First Review: September 12, 2007 by John Broomall
Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Alliance for Arts Education
JSBroomall at gmail dot com

Studio Thinking: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education

Lois Hetland, Ellen Winner, Shirley Veneema, Kimberly M. Sheridan
Includes bibliographical references and index
Foreword by David N. Perkins
September 2007, Teachers College Press, paper, 120pp, $24.95
ISBN 978-0-8077-4818-3

Studio Thinking: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education (Studio Thinking) is the work of researchers Lois Hetland, Ellen Winner, Shirley Veenema, and Kimberly M. Sheridan. The authors set out to tell us why arts education is important and to give art teachers a research based language they can use to describe what they teach, and what is learned. They reached their conclusions after studying a number of well-taught studio classes in two schools. Over the course of a year, they observed what they call a “hidden curriculum” that defines what art education is and what it does. Studio Thinking presents their findings in a cohesive model along with lesson examples and commentary. The authors say they want to “change the conversation about the arts in this country” and that could happen if they can resurrect, or reinvigorate, some of their earlier work. Studio Thinking presents what the authors say is the right “reason” for arts education as opposed to some other rationales, which they say, are just plain wrong.

The intended audience includes students, artists, teacher trainees and experienced teachers, administrators, researchers, and advocates, just about everyone involved in arts education. This writer could fit into several of these categories, but my particular view of this book is as an advocate; my current work involves finding ways to maintain art and music teaching positions in an urban school district that is facing a $175,000,000 deficit.

This is an instance in which the messengers may overshadow the message. The Studio Thinking authors are important voices; reports of their findings appear in the mainstream media, which means that real people might actually be informed and influenced. Two of them are known in some arts education circles as, for lack of a better term, anti-advocates.

It is likely that some elements of the arts education community were unhappy on August 4, 2007 when The New York Times printed an article headlined Book Tackles Old Debate: Role of Art in Schools [1] announcing that Lois Hetland and Ellen Winner, along with two colleagues, were about to release a new book calledStudio Thinking: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education. Hetland and Winner, two distinguished researchers at Harvard University's Project Zero arts education program are well known for a study that was greeted more like the arrival of plague than work that might advance knowledge in the field. The study, published in the Journal of Aesthetic Education in 2000 is entitled The Arts and Academic Achievement: What the Evidence Shows [2] In it, the authors looked for causal relationships between the arts and academic achievement. They examined 188 reports from a selection of 11,467 that investigated causality and found it in three areas, namely: music listening and spatial-temporal reasoning, playing music and spatial reasoning, and classroom drama and verbal skills. So far so good, but the rest of their results managed to skewer many of the arguments used to support arts education. Specifically, they found no causal relationship between the arts and “verbal and math scores or grades, creative thinking, music and math, learning to play music and reading, visual arts and reading, dance and reading, and dance and nonverbal reasoning.” [source] Arguments that endorse the use of the arts to enhance performance in other curricular areas are called instrumental arguments. They say justifying the arts based on instrumental arguments will backfire when research fails to confirm their validity.[3]

Being academic/research types, Hetland and Winner probably expected the kind of criticism that comes from other academic/research types who deal with statistical meta-analysis and effect sizings. Some of that happened. Their study was criticized based on claims that some findings were ignored and that meta-analysis was an unreliable technique. But the authors had departed the world where people worry about sample sizes and into one, a foreign one for many educational researchers, where millions of dollars are at stake in government and foundation grants, fees for service, and merchandising. If their findings were correct, then the rationale being used to support arts education, along with literally hundreds of brochures, pamphlets, slideshows, PowerPoint presentations, books, theses, conference themes and sessions, roundtable discussions, white papers, policy briefs, and talking points, distributed by hundreds of groups, were wrong.

There is an entire universe of grant proposals based on the instrumental arguments. You can visit the U.S. Department of Education to see examples. Go to any large book or toy store, or even to see the merchandise that is guaranteed to make you, me, and baby smarter through the arts—all of it supported by research that Hetland and Winner's work said was wrong. Yet, there was more to come.

In November 2002, Hetland and Winner published an article in the Arts Policy Review that questioned a book that Hetland had worked on called Critical Links : Learning in the Arts and Student Academic and Social Development. Critical Links, published by the Arts Education Partnership (AEP) [5], is generally considered the best compendium on arts education research available. Their article, called Beyond the Evidence Given: A Critical Commentary on Critical Links, states that the essays and commentary that accompany the studies in Critical Links make claims beyond what is warranted by the actual findings. They said the commentaries exaggerated some results and that, in many cases, causation was implied where only correlation exists.

What has the reception to Hetland and Winner's research been like? In some quarters, Galileo and the Pope come to mind, but there was an entirely new universe to be incensed. This universe includes artists, agencies, and cultural organizations of all types and the problem revolves around funding provisions and rationales for new instructional formats.

There is some debate, peculiar to arts education, about who should actually teach the arts, or some might say, how the arts should be taught. To the non-initiated, this seems obvious; a music teacher should teach music, an art teacher art, a dance teacher for dance, and a theatre teacher for theatre. But, if the instrumental arguments are correct, and thus provide our primary rationale for schools having the arts, then shouldn't someone who is guiding the child's academic development teach the arts? That would be the classroom teacher. What about the part that needs real artistic skill? A visiting, teaching, or resident artist would take care of that. Sometimes this is called an “integrated” or “infused” approach because the arts are used in other curricular areas to help the child's academic and/or social development. The U.S. Department of Education Arts in Education grants have the elements of an integrated or infused approach in which classroom teachers and artists receive training so they can work together towards a common goal. In this model, both the trainers and the artists usually come from community arts organizations, and thus flows the funding. Some people think this is the future of arts education and the “way it ought to be” and some people think it is a lot less than that. But Hetland and Winner are correct: this approach can only be valid if the arts enhance academic achievement; without supporting research for the instrumental arguments—this model fails.

After all this, you might expect our researchers to retire to calmer waters, but they have not. Studio Thinking: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education is intended to provide a rationale for visual art education that transcends the instrumental arguments. There are two new authors, Shirley Veenema, a researcher at Project Zero, and Kimberly M. Sheridan, a former researcher at Project Zero who is now Assistant Professor of Educational Psychology and Art Education at George Mason University. In addition to their work at Project Zero, Hetland is also Associate Professor of Art Education at the Massachusetts College of Art and research; Winner is Professor of Psychology at Boston College; and Veneema is Art Instructor at Philips Academy ( Andover).

The term “arts education” and “visual arts education” are used almost interchangeably in the text. I like “visual arts education” since that is the art form studied but “studio-based visual arts education” would be precise.

Studio Thinking grows from the earlier studies, but it is not a litany of statistics. There are no pre-tests, post-tests, control groups, or any of the other devices we might expect. The conclusions in this study are drawn from observation and the procedure resembles that used by ethnographers. Statistical methods were used to interpret the observations, establish various patterns, and test reliability, but the results are reported in highly readable text.

The authors selected two schools, the Boston Arts Academy, an urban pilot high school, and the Walnut Hill School, a private boarding/day school which bills itself as “ America's Premier School for Arts and Academics”. Five teachers, three from Boston Arts and two from Walnut Hill, were designated by their respective principals and agreed to participate in the study which involved the video taping of selected classes in grades 9, 10, 11, and 12 on a monthly basis. Each taping session was followed by extensive interviews between the teacher and the researchers. Needless to say, these are not your typical schools. Students are admitted only after an extensive process that includes a portfolio review. Class size at Boston Arts is about twenty-five and at Walnut Hill about fifteen. All students receive more than 10 hours of instruction in the arts per week and class length is around 2.5 hours twice weekly or 3 hours once each week. In total, they filmed thirty-eight classes with five different teachers for a total of 103.5 hours. Classes used in the study include photography, design, ceramics, ceramic sculpture, drawing, and painting. There seemed to be no shortage of supplies, space, or classroom equipment. The authors say that they wanted to see what happened in an art classroom under the best of circumstances and they have succeeded in finding the students, teachers, and environment to meet those criteria. In the end, they keep their promise of telling us, in a very clear manner, the results of their research concerning the why, what, and how of visual arts education.

The why of visual arts education is that students learn specific “dispositions of mind”. The authors define “dispositions of mind” as “…. a trio of qualities—skills, alertness to opportunities to use these skills, and the inclination to use them—that comprise high-quality thinking.” [5] In what some might note as a bit of irony, the authors believe these “dispositions” may indeed transfer to other academic areas, and other art forms, although they are quick to add that no such evidence yet exists to support transfer. They state that before we can even approach the subject of transfer we must be able to define precisely what the arts teach, exactly what they want to accomplish in Studio Thinking.

The what of visual arts teaching, the dispositions themselves, are called the Studio Habits of Mind. They identify eight Studio Habits of Mind: develop craft, engage and persist, envision, express, observe, reflect, stretch and explore, and understand the art world. The eight Habits of Mind were drawn from their observations of typical studio art education activities such as drawing imaginary creatures, creating sculptures, drawing self-portraits, and many others that would be familiar to visual art teachers. The bulk of the text is dedicated to listing each of the eight Habits of Mind along with examples of the lessons used to support their conclusions. Teaching methods are discussed along with teacher and student reflections on their work.

The how of visual arts teaching is defined by three Studio Structures: the demonstration/ lecture, students working, and the critique. The role of each Studio Structure is defined along with examples of observed implementations. Studio Structure variations, as well as, sections on establishing a studio culture and using works of art as teaching objects are also covered.

There is extensive discussion of how the eight Studio Habits of Mind function within each of the three Studio Structures. The model that results from using the three Studio Structures to teach the eight Habits of Mind is called the Studio Thinking Framework. Taken as a whole, the Studio Thinking Framework is logically presented with excellent examples. It meets its goal of being worthwhile for all of its intended audiences, especially art teachers and art teachers in training.

Studio Thinking: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education gives us a lot that is worthwhile, a lot to think about, and a lot to discuss. Some will note the idea of “dispositions of mind” is as much a philosophical concept as a pedagogical one, although it is gaining momentum in the educational world. Scientists, historians, mathematicians, and noted researchers are applying the Habits of Mind approach to their work and teaching. The Coalition of Essential Schools and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development both have extensive resources available on the subject . Many writers on “critical” or “higher order” learning also use the dispositions or Habits of Mind framework. If Studio Thinkingaccomplished nothing more than to provide art teachers entry into the ongoing discussions concerning this approach, it would still be worthwhile. Nonetheless, the concept is one that many of us in arts education will have to study.

Would different observers see the same Studio Habits of Mind? Interestingly, in 2000, the faculty of the Boston Arts Academy, the public pilot school used for this study, undertook discussions along these lines. They came up with four habits of mind that they wanted to instill in their graduates: invention, connection, refinement, and ownership. [source] In fact, there are endless lists available concerning what the arts do, what they did do, what they might do, what we think they do, what they should do, and what they could do, if only we had more of them.

Mixing advocacy and science often creates bad advocacy—and awful science. Researchers need time to investigate, replicate results, form hypotheses and test the hypotheses to form theories. Advocacy often needs things on short notice that can be quickly explained and easily understood. Studio Thinking does not offer this to us, but should that be expected? Perhaps the Studio Thinking Framework will become routine practice someday, but it will take years to find out. We need to give it time.

In reality, standing on research in the arts can put the advocate on thin ice. For example, in Critical Links the researchers examined over 4000 studies that looked at the effects of visual arts instruction on reading and found that nine met their “strict standards of acceptable research.” [page 139] Nine? .0025%? If this becomes a topic of debate at the local school district, you have to hope that folks on the other side of the issue have not read that section of Critical Links.

More problems arise when terms such as arts education, arts learning, integrated arts and art-infused appear. Does providing arts learning experiences make an arts education? Studio Thinking is firmly rooted in arts education [6], but most studies involving instrumental outcomes use the arts in isolated ways that will support the desired outcome. Do the students in these studies receive a sequential, cumulative arts education, or a disjointed series of arts learning experiences? Do people understand the difference? Who tells them?

Regardless of the arguments in Studio Thinking, I can tell you that when school principals receives a brochure from the art teacher, and another from a local arts organization, which both use the same instrumental arguments, and claim the same results, confusion can ensue. At some point, usually when an arts teacher transfers or retires, or when the budget tightens, or when test scores are not rising quickly enough, they weigh the options. On the one hand, there is the $60,000 cost of the arts teacher, plus the commitment of a room and a budget for supplies. On the other is the opportunity to work with a community group who will help to develop a grant proposal, a reduction of in-service expenses, and the addition of discipline specific artists to provide instruction. Taking the latter course releases the greater part of the salary allocation, makes time available for some other task and frees a room to meet expanding enrollment. If both approaches are perceived as equally effective, what will principals do? I have seen what they might do, and that is; jettison the art teacher, sign up the alternative program, and pray for higher test scores.

The semantics of this study are slippery enough that someone is bound to ask if it is not just substituting one set of instrumental arguments for another. Even these authors cannot resist the temptation of suggesting transfer of skills to other areas, but once again, they are quick to add that proof of this does not yet exist, although studies into the area are already underway. Transfer itself is one of those phenomena that has many sightings but no definitive photograph. You have to wonder if it is real, or if it fits into Teller's definition of magic, “ The theatrical linking of a cause with an effect that has no basis in physical reality, but that — in our hearts — ought to.” [7]

It has been seven years since Hetland and Winner published The Arts and Academic Achievement and five years since Critical Links appeared and that is enough time for things to change. But have they? Studio Thinking cites two studies, one in 2003 [8] and one in 2004 [9] that support the Hetland and Winner findings.Critical Evidence, a 2005 brochure distributed by the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies relies heavily on Critical Links by using that document to support eighteen of twenty-seven citations; there are no new studies presented.

So, what does this mean for advocacy? If Studio Thinking convinces funders to move away from projects using instrumental arguments, the field would change drastically. Perhaps we will see funding streams committed to investigating the Studio Thinking Frameworks, but no matter what, it seems unlikely that someone will stand up in a school board meeting to make a case for dispositions of mind anytime soon.

In The New York Timesarticle that announced Studio Thinking [10], the authors say that: “Students who study the arts seriously are taught to see better, to envision, to persist, to be playful and learn from mistakes, to make critical judgments and justify such judgments.” Since advocates seem to spend a lot of time preaching to the choir, I have no doubt that statement will find its way on to a PowerPoint slide but it is problematic in front of a critical audience. How would we ever measure these things - let alone show that the arts would foster these qualities faster, better, or more economically, than available alternatives? The advocate will have to worry about someone standing to say; “I understand that going to law school teaches someone to think like a lawyer, so it makes sense to me that taking a lot of art classes would teach someone to think like an artist. Do we want our children to think like artists? Not that it is bad, but at this point in time I think it is more important for our children to think like a ___________ (insert academic subject here).”

If Studio Thinkinghad been published in 1997 it would have offered a viable alternative to the instrumental arguments and probably would have gained many adherents, especially among art teachers and those interested in the “higher” or “critical” thinking skills; but that is not how things have happened.

In the end, Studio Thinking will probably become an important work for many individuals rather than an impetus for mass change. The hotly-contested debate over transfer, causality, and the instrumental arguments continues. No matter how those issues resolve, the instrumental arguments are completely entrenched and supported by an expanded arts education infrastructure that has become entangled with lobbying efforts for increased government arts funding at every level. No matter where the truth is eventually found, Hetland, Winner, Veneema, and Sheridan have provided us with a portrait of the studio art class that will probably become a staple in teacher training programs, a reference for teachers, and a stimulus for continuing an essential conversation in the evolution of arts education.

John Broomall is Executive director of the Pennsylvania Alliance for Arts Education.
This work may be cited and reproduced with the author's permission.
He can be reached at JSBroomall at gmail dot com

1. Robin Pogrebin, “Book Tackles Old Debate: Role of Art in School,”The New York Times, August 4, 2007.

2. This link takes you to the Executive Summary, which is available at no charge. The complete article is available for $14.00 at:
The citation for this article is:
Ellen Winner and Monica Cooper, “ Mute Those Claims: No Evidence (Yet) for a Causal Link between Arts Study and Academic Achievement,” Journal of Aesthetic Education , Vol. 34, No. 3/4, (Autumn - Winter, 2000), pp. 11-75.

3. Robin Pogrebin, “Book Tackles Old Debate: Role of Art in School,”The New York Times, August 4, 2007.

4. “ The Arts Education Partnership (AEP) is a national coalition of arts, education, business, philanthropic and government organizations that demonstrate and promote the essential role of the arts in the learning and development of every child and in the improvement of America's schools. AEP was founded and is supported by the National Endowment for the Arts and U. S. Department of Education in cooperation with the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies. Together they are the Governance Committee of AEP.” From “Welcome” at

5. Lois Hetland, et al., Studio Thinking: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education, Teachers College Press, 2007, p 1.

6. The observed programs meet all of the criteria under the fourth and fifth points from: The Value and Quality of Arts Education: A Statement of Principles.

  • Fourth, qualified arts teachers and sequential curriculum must be recognized as the basis and core for substantive arts education for all students.
  • Fifth, arts education programs should be grounded in rigorous instruction, provide meaningful assessment of academic progress and performance, and take their place within a structure of direct accountability to school officials, parents, and the community.

7. George Johnson, “Sleight of Hand,The New York Times, August 21, 2007.

8. A. Ellis, “Valuing Culture,” Paper presented at conference entitled Valuing Culture, National Theatre Studio, London. June 2003.

9. K. Mc Carthy, E. H. Ondaatje, L. Zakaras, & A. Brooks, Gifts of the Muse: Reframing the debate about the benefits of the arts. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2004.

10. Robin Pogrebin, “Book Tackles Old Debate: Role of Art in School,”The New York Times, August 4, 2007.


Howard Gartner is married to Ellen Winner


1) Kennedy Center Education Department Newsletter