Why teach the arts? This is the fifth of several articles that look at the intrinsic reasons art is a critical part of how and what a student learns at school. In the first article, I noted that typical reasons for taking arts – that it is a benefit to other subjects and improves test scores – and suggested that was pretty weak, if not insulting. If you are an arts teacher, you shouldn’t have to justify your discipline on the basis of what it will do for test scores in LA and Math! No, the Arts are much more important than that! Studio Thinking: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education (Teacher’s College Press, 2007)—takes a different approach. It articulates 8 Habits of Mind that it contends the arts do teach, and teach extraordinarily well: develop craft, engage and persist, stretch and explore, envision, reflect, express, and observe.

So the first four articles dealt with Taking a Leap, Engage and Persist, Develop Craft, and Envision.

In this article, we will look at Observe: Really Seeing, Not Just Looking i.e. noticing what otherwise is “invisible and therefore unavailable as content for thinking”. (p. 73). This seems to describe what happens in the gap between observing and giving “form to what she sees”. This gap includes skills such as making the imagination visible, improvising from what is to what could be, innovating a variety of options from one, and moving from the inner eye to the visible product.

The first example given in Studio Thinking is about viewing the world through a viewfinder so that the world is reduced to lines, seeing “one thing stops where another line starts” (p.74). This reduction is not to lessen the impact of ‘seeing’ but to turn the student’s ability to see into the student’s ability to draw, “to demystify the act of drawing……to draw what they never thought they could draw”.

Even though we are geniuses in creativity at kindergarten, as we grow older, it is apparent that we become less and less sure of our creative abilities and often become crippled by our self-doubt. Martin Seligman in Learned Optimism (2006) calls this learned helplessness, a phenomenon where when we believe we have no ability to influence the outcome in a given situation, we give up and don’t try anymore. This is a learned behavior and consequently it can be unlearned. Really Seeing, Not Just Looking is one of those ways to learn that I can have agency, understand by being taught to ‘see’, and explore actions that will result in success.

Of course, it is as likely that art students are not learned helpless in thinking they cannot ‘draw’. They may just be overwhelmed by their own technical limitations. Really Seeing allows the student to “see it in simple terms first” (p.76). Moving from the simple, it is possible to gradually understand the complex. Jim, the teacher in the chapter, says: “Brancusi, the great sculptor, had this great quote that I might even have said to the kids: ‘Simplicity is complexity solved’…grasping the architecture underlying form”. Through this skill, the students “learn to use the skills for their own purposes” (p.78).

In The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon by David Elkind (2001), he writes: “our embrace of the notion of child competence reflects our tendency to accept the increasing and unrelenting stresses on today’s young people as “normal” and our willingness to rationalize them as actually beneficial for children” (p. xix). The art class is often seen by children themselves in face-to-face interviews that we carry out on a regular basis as a break in the day, a time to relax, and a time to enjoy learning in a completely different way than in most other classes. This experiential finding by children/adolescents is buttressed by the skill of Seeing and finding the complex by making it simple. It is clearly both an action moving forward and a reflection requiring stillness and metacognition. It is intrinsic to success in almost every discipline and, indeed, in the practices of life.